Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Crapometer Crucible

Examples are worth a thousand words.

I'm short of superlative synonyms this morning but the single most valuable exercise for serious scribblers is on-going at Miss Snark's Third Crapometer.

A priceless illustration of, and instruction in, show, don't tell.

So far, the most prominent defect revealed in the submissions is the tendency to waste those precious first pages in back story, info-dumps, exposition, irrelevant dialogue, or inconsequential activity.
Distinct lack of habeas corpus.
Many ( if not most) of the entries display competent prose, yet in spite of repeated advice to engage the reader with action of some kind, many (if not most) first pages still display a kind of polite introduction mode - as in "How are you today, my name is..." to the stranger-reader.
Their primary problem is structure, not style.

I can understand that.
After all, when I entered the First Evah Crapometer, my opening (someone reading an e-mail) made Miss Snark want to stand on her chair and scream.
I subsequently dumped the first 13 pages to good effect and positive results.

It's the Once Upon a Time effect - which may be hard-wired to our psyches. Really, really hard to break away from that imprinted pattern and logical story-teller framework.
Which goes like this:
Once upon a time, a beautiful princess ( description) lived in a far-away castle ( description) in the land of (description) with her father ( description) and/or step-mother ( description) who were (description). One fine day (description) she was (description) when a young/old ( description) decided/said (description) and she thought (description) while she (description)....

Today, we gotta get to the dragon/curse/treasure first thing, or at least close enough so the reader can smell the smoke and see the glint of the gold.

Miss Snark received almost 500 entries in the designated time-period.
I wonder if she viewed her in-box as the picture above.


MissWrite said...

Gotta love Ms Snark's cut-the crap no-nonsense snarkisms when dealing with those submissions, but I tell ya, it's mind-numbing how many submissions do just what you said.

I can't even count how often I sit here and shake my head over why the start the singularly most important part of the book on such drivel.

It's not just agents and publishers, it's readers too, you only have those first few paragraphs, and then pages, to impress the heck out of them. If not it's hit the pail, (or wall, or open window).

What really gets me is the times I've forced myself through that first part, and the writer settles into the 'real story' and it's quite well written... I want to pull my hair out by the roots.

Gabriele C. said...

Usually I start right with some action/conflict. But I have one NiP that starts more slowly, and now I'm not sure if that's a good thing. Since my query didn't make the lottery, here's a - slightly revised - version of the fist 500 words from Storm over Hadrian's Wall. Have at it. :)

Cailthearn stood amidst the carnage. His grip on the sword relaxed and the point sank towards the ground; a few drops of blood splashing on the muddy earth. He blinked the sweat out of his eyes and looked around. The battle was over.

The last rays of a setting sun highlighted the scarlet of the dead Romans' cloaks, reflected on their polished iron armour with a dull gleam and shimmered on bloodied spears and swords. Dark bundles on the blackened, trampeled grass betrayed slain tribal warriors. A raven croaked, its call was answered in the distance.

Where was Talorcan? Cailthearn watched his fellow warriors gather in groups; shoulders sagging, limbs bloody, they supported each other to walk away from the slaughter, but he could not see the tall figure of their leader. Goddess of Death, not him!

The coppery smell of blood was heavy in the air, mingling with the fragrance of wet earth and the fetid stench of the intestines that like purple snakes crept out of the dead Roman at Cailthearn's feet.

A raven fluttered past him, settled down on a body with a spear protruding from the chest, and hacked at the eyes. Cailthearn followed it with his gaze, but the dead was a Roman. He sheathed his sword though he knew he should clean it first. But he had no time to do it properly, not now. He went to the dead Roman, yanked the spear out of the body and wiped the chunks of flesh off on the grass. The raven batted its wings and croaked, then settled back to tear at a bit of skin that had come loose.

Cailthearn tore his gaze away and looked up. The sun touched the horizon, tinting the clouds with a fiery red like freshly spilled blood.

In the Time of the Lambs the nights were still long. He had to find Talorcan. Leaning on the spear, Cailthearn resumed his walk among the dead, afraid to find the traits of his friend on every body he turned around. At the outskirts of the battefiled, a stand of budding birches on a hillock caught his attention. In front of it, under the skeleton of a leafless birch, a man sat leaning against the trunk and stared out at the battlefield.

Could it be? Talorcan often seeked solitude nowadays. He quickened his steps, ignored a moan from a lump on which he stepped, shook off a Roman cloak that stuck to his boot and reached the foot of the knoll out of breath. Yes, it was his friend and leader. "Talorcan!"

Talorcan woke from his reverie. "Cailthearn?"

"It's I." Cailthearn rushed up the hill and knelt beside Talorcan who gave him a tired smile. Blood seeped down his arm, drenching the leather sleeve.

"You are wounded?"

"A swordcut. Not deep."

Talorcan often made light of his wounds. "It bleeds a lot for a small cut." Cailtheran reached under his wolf pelt vest for his smock. With his teeth, he ripped a piece of cloth off and tied it around the gash in Talorcan's arm. "There, that should stop the bleeding until the healer can see to it."

"Thank you." Supporting himself against the trunk with his sound arm, Talorcan rose before Cailthearn guessed the move and could offer his assistance. "The men are gathering?"

Bernita said...

Thought you might be nodding your head in both sympathy and frustration, Tami - as a writer and as an editor.

Dry hooks catch no fish.
Think Miss Snark is one of the most valuable tools available to writers.
And these examples really show how otherwise very nice writing and interesting stories never make it out of the slush.

Bernita said...

Can't say that lacks a viseral and visual appeal, Gabriele!

S. W. Vaughn said...

*sniffle* I didn't win the Snark-ery. Two numbers off. But I've been reading the entries with interest...

And a bit of upset, over one in particular. Writing freakin' trumps all, right? So what's the deal with "Indian lit is hot, I'd look at more of this"? That piece SUCKS so bad.

He "rued"?? Come on! Rued is not a freakin' verb! I mean, I know he isn't a native English speaker, but still.

Enough moaning outta me. Miss Snark is doing us a service by showing the way the literary world really works. At least her show-don't-tell advice is good!

S. W. Vaughn said...

Dialogue tag. Rued is not a dialogue tag. Course it's a verb.

Silly me. :-)

Bernita said...

Had me worried there for a moment, Sonya.
Yes, I found it dull and in need of pruning.
I thought he said he WAS a native English speaker?
But what she was pointing out is that the genre is hot, so she would be interested in reading more.
Commercial prospects.

Dennie McDonald said...

show don't tell is the hardest I think - and I tend to tell when I am being lazy; it's so much easier, but it is a hard habit to break!

Gabriele C. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gabriele C. said...

Gah, screwed the italics.

I found that one boring, too. But it think that's the point where personal likes /dislikes of an agent come in. The old adage of 'a rejection is only one agent's rejection.' Though some of the pieces in the Crapometer aren't ready for submitting at all.

Gabriele C. said...

Thanks Bernita.
But is it hooky enough so people want to read on?

MissWrite said...

Gabriele, boy I wish your point could be heard by writers everywhere. Sadly, the crapometer is a very good example of exactly was DOES get submitted on a very regular basis. Is it any wonder rejection rates hover at around 90% (and that's being kind).

S. W. Vaughn said...

You're right, Gabriele. Quite a few of those pieces need work. Heh -- mine need work too. :-)

The subjectivity gets to me sometimes.

BTW, forgot to mention that I really enjoyed your piece, and I'd read on. Even though my fantasy reading is usually limited to David Gemmel and Margaret Weis (and Bernita)! Very intriguing!

MissWrite said...

By the way, Gabriele: not going into critique here, but yes, I'd read further. You have immediate detail, and it's not passive. Sure it's nice to start with heavy interaction between characters, but that's not necessary, or even possible in every story.

Your example is not some lazy reverie into the past, or passive writing in any form. It's quite interesting.

Ric said...

Everyone's going to be spending the day at Miss SNark's.

Instructive in that we get to see what the agents/editors receive over the transom. That can't help but be a good thing.

If 90%, like Misswrite pointed out, is like the bad ones, then the rest of us have a chance.

Gabriele C. said...

It's somewhat encouraging to see that some of the competition isn't much of a competition. :)

Gabriele C. said...

Thanks Sonya and Misswrite. I liked my beginning but after all those slow ones on the Crapometer, I was afraid it could be too slow as well.

It's historical fiction, btw. No magic, sorry. But there will be battles. *grin*

Bernita said...

Think that's a revision exercise, Dennie - to find those bridging passages and then blow up the bridge!

I think so, Gabriele. I can see the scene. I can smell it. There are no extraneous descriptions of multiple bodies to bog it down.
There are clear characters, and some tension questions raised.
However, I am prejudiced.
Some might feel it's "aftermath" and want a page or two of the battle that comes before.
I would leave out "the traits of his friend" and just say "his friend."
I would not direct his gaze but simply state that "On a hillock another weary man leaned against a leafless birch."
Don't think you need "Yes, it was his friend and leader." Just go with the announcement of his name.
There are odd things I would prune, but as an overall scene I think it's a good opening.

Gabriele C. said...

I also wonder if there are so many submitted books really don't have a plot, or if it's one of the tough things to get a hint towards a plot and character development in the query.

It might be easier to show a plot in the synopsis.

Not mine, though, they're too complicated. But they are there. lol. I know because my first attempt at novel writing didn't have one. ;)

Gabriele C. said...

Thank you, Bernita, excellent points.

I considered starting with the battle, but the problem is that readers wouldn't know for whom too root before they have learned anything about the characters, and waving swords doesn't show you much about the guys. Maybe I could show Cailthearn fighting a Roman, the last to still be on the field. Have to think about that.

Bernita said...

A very good point, Ric.
Seeing how one's own stuff compares with the slush.

That was another thing that emerged yesterday, Gabriele, a seeming lack of simple plot in some of the entries. Don't think anyone would doubt that yours does, and your sample also provided character hints - if I didn't say that already.

Bernita said...

I think it's effective beginning here, but then I'm prejudiced, as I said.

MissWrite said...

While it's true that many that come in do not have well conceived plots, a great many do have what appears to be very solid plot lines (as told in the synopsis) only to fail miserably in the application. The writer simply doesn't carry out the promise. That's sad.

Funny though when you think of how we, as writers, suffer so over the concept, and the plot when the fact is, that is not the most difficult part. I don't know about you guys (but I'd assume it to be true) idea bunnies hop into my head on a constant basis--so concept isn't all that difficult. Filling out those bunnies into full-fledge plot lines that will carry a story can be more difficult, but even that happens at a fairly regular rate.

So that which vexes so many really isn't such a huge endeavor.

Now... the ability to turn those ideas and plots into living, breathing characters, and powerful surroundings...

that is the trick that alludes so many.

Gabriele C. said...

Maybe some of those plotless stories are the result of the mindset in some Creative Writing classes that you have to write Literature, and that a man spending his time in pubs and angting a lot makes for a good story. And heaven forbid you have anything as mundane as a wizard or starship in your book. :)

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, those lovely little plotbunnies. I was attacked by a bunch of them when I visited some historical sites at the beginning of August. And now they breed.

Bernita said...

I agree, Gabriele, much emoting and wasted emotion.

That's my main worry, Tami, not characters, not general plot/concept, but the structure of that plot.

MissWrite said...

Bernita, knowing what I do about you from here, I believe you are letting that fear worry you too much.

I would NOT say that lightly to anyone, as obvious from my posts bemoaning the subject. LOL

Bernita said...

That's very kind and encouraging, Tami, thank you. I appreciate it muchly, coming from you... but it is a legitimate worry.

Ric said...

Is anyone picking up a pattern from Miss Snark?

Memoir(number of those), Urban Fantasy, Girl books, couple of Mysteries, one time travel to Scotland, and a couple 'literary fiction novels'.

Flipped over to check the Bestseller list at PW, are these books going to go anywhere?

Gabriele C. said...

Lol Ric, that could be due to the lottery element. I know for sure she missed some histocial fiction that way. *grin*

But Urban Fantasy is quite hot right now, and I think Mystery sells always. I'd rather look at midlist authors than bestsellers because those are more representative for the mass of books.

Bernita said...

Think Gabriele's right, Ric. One cannot view it as representative because of the random element.

Don't get me started on that time travel...
~hack, gag, throwing up hair balls~

Rick said...

The Crapometer shows up singularly well-timed, since I'm contemplating a possible agent switch.

And yeah, it's amazing how many submissions are not ready for prime time. All the more amazing when you consider that we now have Miss Snark, Kristin Nelson, et al., giving us advice from the front lines. Even two years ago we'd have had far less guidance on putting together an effective query.

Gabriele - a glitch or two ("seeked" for "sought"), but I don't see any real problem with this. A battle - even a just-concluded one - is an inherently dramatic situation. There's been a fight, and it probably isn't over, because the Romans aren't likely to say "Oops, never mind."

(I suppose they did, in a way, after the Teutobergerwald, but in general Roman's weren't known for passively accepting defeat.)

I'll also toss in 500-odd words of my opener, to gather what slings and arrows it may ...

Catherine slipped away from the pavilion where her mother sat amid her attendant ladies, listening to musicians. Not even her Ladyship, Catherine's governess, sharp-eyed as her hawks, saw the King's seven-year-old granddaughter climb over the railing-cloths and drop silently onto the soft black earth. She stole among fragrant rosebushes, freezing anxiously when a bee took interest in her, then reached the wall between the gardens of Kelliwick Castle and the stable-yard. She climbed into the lower branches of a young oak tree. Here, Catherine had discovered, she could look over the wall into the stable-yard, yet still hear the musicians – and have ample warning if her absence were noted.

Catherine loved the stable-yard: watching fine horses tended by leather-clad ostlers; hearing the clink of horse-tack; smelling ripe straw and horseflesh; above all the constant activity. At times the bustle reached a sudden pitch of excitement. She brushed back her red hair and leaned eagerly forward as riders in red and green livery rode in at the gallop, or leapt into the saddle and spurred out through the stable gate, carrying her grandfather's commands to every corner of his island realm of Lyonesse.

All at once a party of horsemen burst through the gate, grim-faced, snapping out orders in voices harsh and bitter. Among the horses was her father's splendid hunter, its trappings bearing the Royal Arms and marks of the heir apparent. Yet her father was not riding tall in his saddle; his hunter was led by another, and stretched over the saddle was a limp form, booted feet visible below the cloth that covered it.

Catherine stared at the covered body, at first not comprehending, then refusing to believe. "Father?" she called out, as though any could hear her above the uproar. Commands rang out with unbearable clarity: to send word at once to his Majesty and the Privy Council – to Princess Mary – to the chaplains. "Father!" cried Catherine again, tears filling her eyes as she clung sobbing to the tree-trunk.


"Kate! We must be off, child!" said her Ladyship.

"Y – Yes, your Ladyship," stammered Catherine. She sat on the truckle-bed they had shared that night, arms wrapped around herself in her thin linen shift. The candle was guttering low, but through the cottage's horn window shone the harsh flicker of torches. Through the window, too, came low, urgent voices.

"I must tend to Nan," cried her Ladyship. "Here – dress yourself! Quickly! We've no time to waste!" Her governess tossed her a bundle of clothes and turned to deal with Catherine's little sister Anne, who started squalling. Catherine struggled into her kirtle and riding-gown, lacing them up herself. She could almost have thought the last three days an adventure, and wished they were. They were not. Never again would she see her father; now her mother was taking her across the sea, and none would tell her why. From outside came hoofbeats, a sharp challenge and reply, then a rider leapt down from the saddle. "What word from Kelliwick?" demanded a voice just outside the window.

"The Duke of Norrey has demanded that all ports be closed," answered the newcomer, "and my lady Princess Mary and the children fetched back to Court. By God's grace the Privy Council yet balks, but Norrey has sent out his own riders –"

"Lud's blood!" cried the other. "Haste, then, or we are lost!"

Rick said...

Bernita - I busted up at that time travel to "18th century medieval Scotland."

If that's your competition in the Scottish time-travel subgenre, I think you're pretty safe!

Gabriele C. said...

Lol Ric, no, the Romans are so not saying 'never mind'. Even after the battle of the Teutoburg Wood they didn't give up at once. It was a few years after the clades Variana that the Romans realised what Germany had to offer them was just not worth the effort. Same with the lands north of the Hadrian's Wall that were given up after several futile attempts to Romanise those tribes the way they managed with the tribes in southern Britain.

'seeked' instead of 'sought' - oh dear. *head hits wall*

Bernita said...

Holy historicals, Batman!
Makes you worry that once an agent sees the words "time travel," they toss.
WHY does everyone set the bloody thing in Scotland?
Is it the Galbadon effect?

If I were going to be picky, Rick, I'd first pick on the general, generic adjectives like "fragrant, fine horses, horseflesh, splendid."
Then I would pick at "constant activity" and "bustle" - seems you're telling the same thing twice, and in editorial fashion.Do you really need to tell, to summarize? You do "show" immediately following.

"Quickly. No time to waste" also repeats.
And I would rearrange the order of a few sentences, such as "She sat on the truckle bed in her thin linen shift, hugging herself." rather than "she sat on the truckle bed they had shared that night, arms wrapped around herself." Is the fact they shared it important? and describe her sister as a "squalling little sister" ( we already noticed her name is Anne ) and would say "the candle guttered" not "was guttering."
This is good stirring stuff, but sometimes you interject a remoteness into it.

Rick said...

Gabriele - I'm the Rick with a K. :)

With the Romans, the default assumption is that they'll be back - lots of them, meaning business.

Bernita - the Scottish obsession, if not the time travel element, predates Gabaldon. (Even the time travel, of a sort, if you include Brigadoon.) Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond books are just one case in point. In fact, I've resisted them - even though they should be right down my alley - precisely from a vague feeling of getting beaten over my head with Scotland.

Thanks for the comments! Beyond the specifics, I'll keep a wary eye out on the "remoteness." This is actually a Dreaded Prologue, though I label it Chpt 1, since I jump seven years to the main body of the story. Perhaps I was unconciously thinking of it at one remove, as Catherine would years later.

Gabriele C. said...

Lol Rick, they did come back to Germany with twice the troops (Varus had got three legions stuck in the mud, and Germanicus came back with six legions, only to keep running against those proverbial trees) but since they had other unruly provinces to deal with as well, they decided it was no good idea to have the better part of their army stuck in a land that didn't yield enough ore and grain to be worth such an effort. I guess they didn't like the rain, either. :)

Gabriele C. said...

But Dunnett researched her Scotland. :)

And don't forget Sir Walter.

Good to hear the first chapter of your NiP is only a sort of prologue. Because I admit I don't care a fig about child MCs and growing up stories (could never get into Harry Potter). I'd have browsed your book because the writing is good and the setting interesting, so if I'll find the heroine will be a lot older in the second chapter, it's ok - and I count 14 close enough to adult in the background of past times.

Rick said...

One more good reason to have her picture on the cover, making it clear it's about a young woman (by standards of the time), not a kid.

Six legions are six more than I'd want to deal with!

Gabriele C. said...

Hehe, but you ain't a big, bad, blond German. :)

M.E Ellis said...

I was sadly too late to join in. I got everything ready and then got immersed in my blog templates and time slipped by. I went to send, checked the blog, and time was up.



EA Monroe said...

Love your picture, Bernita! I think that's what Miss Snark looks like about now.

Bernita said...

Bit of a lotto even if you'd made the time frame, Michelle.

You trying to get me in trouble, EA?

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I've been too busy helping fight the effects of Ernesto to even see the blogs let alone the Crapometer.

I'll stop by later to se the carnage. No I didn't submit. My manuscript is with an agent, hoping for representation. So I didn't want to take any chances!

Bernita, i must tell you when your page loaded that picture made me catch my breath! Awesome!

Bernita said...

Thank you, Bonnie.
As always you are into the breach.
I didn't either.
Struck me that's what Miss Snark must have thought she had unleashed.