Thursday, July 24, 2008

Help! The Italics Thieves are here!

Sigh. Sigh. It's not that I don't think you can figure out on your own which words to emphasize while you're reading, it's just that I like italics. (Yes, Amber, just like Emily Byrd Starr!) I overuse them. I confess. I just like them. (Okay, that one was just to make a point.) So, in my latest Silksinger editorial letter, my editor points out that I have italicized over 400 word. 400 out of 95,000ish, that's like 1/237th of the book! (I like to picture him with a scotch on the rocks in one of those fat crystal glasses, going through my manuscript page by page, tallying italics. I hope it was some sneaky computer function that did it, and not him!) He recommended I de-italicize the entire (ha!) manuscript, then only put them in where I really need them. I didn't do that, because I am chicken, but I am (you see! It's a sickness!) de-italicizing like wildfire. Really I am. I am.

Okay, enough of that. It's nice to be at the stage of worrying about such menial things as italics, rather than, you know, considering cutting half the book and rewriting it. Not that I don't still have some big issues to tackle and some scenes to rewrite, but overall, third draft = less insane than 2nd draft, and much more pleasant. Yay!

It's at times like this that we discover our irritating habits as writers. I have gotten some great feedback from my first readers, and I have a few manuscripts piled beside me, all marked up with comments, words circled and underlined and slashed out. And it has become clear to me that the word "suddenly" needs to be stripped from my vocabulary. (Thanks, Steph, for being the "suddenly" police!) Also offenders: "extremely" and "immediately." There are very few times in good writing that modifiers like "extremely" are necessary. Also, I am finding in my manuscript that often times things "seem to be" when they should just "be." It is wishy-washy to seem. "Very" gets a little out of hand too, especially when used like this: "he could feel the very air peel aside at the touch of his blade."

And how about habitual characterizations? This is tricky. You know, writers, how we fall back on describing certain details about our characters, especially when they are reacting to something? If I had that nifty function on my computer, I would count how many times my characters' eyes narrow with suspicion or go wide with surprise. Eek! And the blushing. And the anxious chewing of the lip. You know of what I speak, writers?

Then there are the fall-back verbs, especially speech modifiers. My crows, they croak their lines, and they squawk. The Djinn have a tendency to hiss. Lots of things hiss, come to think of it, it's an awesome word, but I do overuse it. "Said," is a champion of a word, folks, it's an invisible word. Have you noticed this? You can use "said" 8,000 times in your book. It can be 1/11th of your book, and you'll scarcely notice (okay, so I exaggerate, but you know). In Silksinger I had a fun problem: my main character is named Whisper, because she, um, whispers. But how many times can I use the word "whisper"? And of course, never ever can I say "Whisper whispered." So I had to get creative, as her voice is a crucial plot element (you know, Silksinger).

Anyway, it's fun and eye-opening, getting this sort of feedback at this stage. Thank you to my editor, and huge, huge thanks to Steph for being not only the best-ever smiley-face and heart drawer, but for mercilessly slashing useless words.

I will never slash enough words to satisfy my editor. He has asked me to cut an additional 7000 words from this manuscript (while simultaneously adding many many things -- don't ask how I hope to accomplish this; I don't). My trusty calculator tells me that I only have to cut 28 words per page. That's all. No sweat! I think I'll just cut the first 28 words from each page. That'll be easiest. Haw haw! (Oh, and can you see how I am learning my lesson about italics? Ah, but this is an italics-friendly zone. I promise that by the time Silksinger reaches you, there will be nowhere near 400 words in italics!)

Any of you writers have any particular quirks you want to share? What are your word weaknesses?

Lastly, a few fun notes about having sent out Silksinger to "first readers." I have never done this before, by the way. I have never even been in a critique group -- only my husband, best friend, and family have read my early drafts. But I'm really, really glad I sent it out, because the responses a) cheered me up and inspired me, and b) pointed out some really important things! So, thank you to Jim, Alexandra, Steph, Amber, Lexi, Heather, Nerd Goddess, Frida, Daanon, Chary, and Owen. You are all made of awesomeness. May the universe reward you with cupcakes until the day comes that I can reward you myself with cupcakes (or, in Daanon's case, voodoo donuts!)

Yesterday I got a phone call from my favorite 10-year-old boy, Owen. He is the boy who swooned at my feet at Wordstock last year, which will be a high-point of my writing life for as long as I live. And he kind of looks like Talon, without the facial tattoos, by the way. And his father runs a literary festival, and his mother owns a chocolate shop. Ladies, if you were ten years old, who would be your boyfriend? Owen! So, he told me his current thoughts on the book, and about how his rock band just wrote a protest song about the environment. (love)

And I got a very endearing email today from Enna Isilee, who is friends with Nerd Goddess (they are in a critique group of two), asking very nicely (and persuasively) if she might read Nerd Goddess's copy of Silksinger draft 2. Nerd Goddess (how wonderful is that name?) is apparently taking to heart my note that readers can let their friends read the manuscript, but only if they then kill them. Nerd Goddess, it's okay. You don't have to kill Enna Isilee. I would feel really, really bad about that. (By the way, these two are Shannon Hale fans, so you know they're awesome. A writer can dream about having the devoted fan following of the lovely and so-talented Shannon Hale.)

So, thanks again to all reader! I go forth fortified to finish the third draft, with far fewer "suddenlys" and a fatwa against italics!


Amber Lough said...

:-) I'm glad I'm not the only one with these issues! My biggest crutches are "seem to be" and using the same "beats" over and over, like "she said, while looking at her feet." I also use "as" an awful lot--"as I was walking," "as soon as he..." etc. I catch myself sometimes and get halted in the process, trying to find an alternate way to describe something. My last book was harder in that I had to describe everything from the POV of a girl who'd never seen much of the world. I couldn't even use standards of measurement, like hours and feet.

S R Wood said...

Here is one of my weaknesses: comma-less adjective strings. As if by leaving out the commas I can somehow make people think I'm not just stringing adjectives together. And it seems so *poetic*. Or so I tell myself in my blind whirring grasping fits of rare genius. See, like that.

Other weaknesses (weaknii?): constantly describing how things smell. Chirring cicadas that seem to follow my characters around: wherever they go, they hear cicadas! Characters who sigh with frustration a lot. Or shake their heads. I can write a whole wordless conversation with people twitching and bobbing their heads at each other.

That's it, though. I have no other weaknesses. None. None none none.

Laurel said...

Dude, I *totally* got the same letter. My copyeditor slashed my insane italics, and then the copychief put them all back, and then my editor said, "follow your gut". But my gut was confused byt the 3 colors of pencil, and I ended up slashing almost exactly half in an effort to please.

My funny quirk was discoering that I use extra punctuation (?!) and also that I had like 4 places in one short book where ther while, "nobody spoke at first, but then..."

Good post!


~Molly~ said...

I could never be a writer because why can't you just tell a story??? Sheesh!

Molly(of the commas and these things).

Laini Taylor said...

Oh, these comments are totally cracking me up!!

Amber, I totally overuse "seem" too, and as for "as," for me it's "even as": "even as she [verb], the. . ." And as for the standards of measurement, etc, I have problems too -- I'll use some measurements, but for the purpose of metaphors I really try to stick just to things from the natural world, to keep it "faerie."

Seth -- I'm still snorting over your "whole wordless dialogues" -- I know. Me too! How about dialogues conveyed entirely with eyes and eyebrows? The cicada thing seems kind of weird, but I discovered on this draft of Silksinger that I was apparently obsessed with ash metaphors. Everything was ashy and ashen. Huh!

Laurel -- my editor/copyeditor disagreement on the last ms wasn't italics, but commas. The copyeditor made about 6,000 little comma slashes on my ms, and I overrode about 90% of them -- to me, commas are all about the sound of the sentence.

Molly -- yeah, the story has to sneak in between the commas and stuff. It's a trick!

Stephanie Perkins said...

You are very, very welcome. Here are some more, just in case! Picture these around any mention of Talon:

<3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

:) :) :) :) :) :) :)

The other day I realized my characters keep puking. Or talking about puke. Not sure why I'm so fascinated by vomit.

Stephanie Perkins said...

Oh, and can I have Owen's phone number? I kind of want to marry him.

Alex S said...

Silksinger is made of supreme awesomeness itself but it is time to tell everyone the truth, and that is that you could never ever ever have done it without eating all your hamburger-filled donuts day after day. Whenever I think of you, two images come to mind: tennis socks and hamburger donuts. If those two things don't sum you up, then I don't know what does. (How did you like my sparse use of italics Fatty???)

Heather said...

First off, italics are highly underrated. I had no problem with Emily using them, and no problem with you using them. I need to be told when to stress words, otherwise I would read the book in a bland, boring context and the tone would be lost on me.

Second, asking you to cut 28 words from each precious page is akin to asking you to put children up for adoption. Can't be done.

Third, my biggest stumbling block (as you may have noticed from emails) is my overuse of commas. Sure, I know the proper placement of them, but then I get all confused and put them in willy-nilly. Argh. Bad writing habits, bad!

Fourth, I'm wracking my brain on how to get to Kidlitosphere. So far, hiring a camel is the best option.

Finally, there is an author I read in the recent past (who shall remain unnamed). She wrote about a jillion books about the same topic and by the 13th one the tale was getting a bit dry (and almost pornographic). Anyway, she must have used the phrase "I let out the breath I didn't even know I'd been holding" about 5 times (or more) per book in every book. I wanted to PUNCH the air out of her by the time I got to the last one!

Linda said...

Counting up italics kind of reminds me of when the king (I will shamelessly admit I remember not which king) in the movie Amadeus told Mozart his music had "too many notes".
I think that is just your writing style! And it is fabulous.

Did Proust's editor tell him, "listen, buddy, if I have to read one more run-on, I'm gonna toss my Madeleines"??

Go with your gut!
But good luck making all the editors happy...I can't wait to read the finished book! :-)

Debbie Barr said...

Oh, I'm so glad I don't have to kill Enna Isilee. Since we're such good friends and all. As she pointed out, though, if I did kill her after reading Silksinger, at least she'd die happy. ;)

My woe is commas. I love them. Perhaps, too much. *le sigh*

Anonymous said...

I have problems with the whole comma thing as well. I just stick them in all over the place. I use them like words. In my head they are words. I always tell people that we should have "air commas" as well as "air quotes".
My characters vomit a lot. I think its because i like the word retch. It's a very descriptive word.
I also tend to randomly stick people in dungeons. I should really stop doing that.

Enna Isilee said...

I can be pretty comma crazy because I've always been told that a period ends a thought, and really my stories are just one big thought, so periods are sparse. Lots of , and ; though.

And, Nerd Goddess, do you think we have enough room in our schedules to add another author to our Authors-worthy-of-Groupies list? I think we might be able to squeeze Ms. Taylor in.


Debbie Barr said...

Hmmm, yes, I think we should be able to fit her in. Now we have another name to chant to the book-Gods come Newberry Award time!

However, we may have a problem stalking her, since she doesn't conveniently live as close to use as Shannon does.

Enna Isilee said...

Yes, you have a point. It will take a little bit more time and planning, but I think we'll manage it. Someday.

andalucy said...

That inspires me to know that even one of my favorite authors has irritating writer habits! Mine are overuse of parentheses and like Amber, using the same beats over and over. I especially like "she looked down at [insert something]." I'm also a "seems" abuser. I used to have an "exceedingly" problem, but I think I'm over it.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, editors hate it when you've got too many italics? Well, I despise the use of italics so I won't have a problem there. ;) My problem is with "seemed". It's always "he seemed to be this" or "it seemed to be that" editor will attack me on that one.

The main character's name is Whisper? The main character isn't Magpie?! I thought it was going to be all Talon and Magpie and crows doin' the typical devil huntin'...ness. Now some new faerie is taking charge.

Ugh, I can't wait for Silksinger! My head might explode! How do you expect me to wait until Spring?!

tone almhjell said...

Haha. Alex S, you are one funny lady.

Anonymous said...

The best writing professor that I had in college told me that I used the word "that" too much.

I think that all of us have certain tendencies that we have to fix when we read through our writing. And normally I would, but I think I'll leave them where they are for this post.

Laini Taylor said...

How funny -- 2 comments from writers whose characters vomit a lot! Very interesting.

Nerd Goddess and Enna Isilee, I would be deeply honored. Hopefully I can make it to a bookstore or library near you some day!

Jehsyka -- yes, the main character of Silksinger is Whisper Silksinger, but don't worry -- Magpie & Talon are in there too! And I don't want your head to explode -- maybe I'll be able to get you a galley so you can review it on your blog :-)

Amber Lough said...

Had to add that Rohana threw up at least four times in drafts 1-3. She still does a bit in the current draft, but it's been tapered. What with all the body hacking, I had to tone down on the body fluids.

meg said...

My three main vices in this world are [deleted to protect your YA readership], [still illegal in some states], and run-on sentences.

I've got a story going right now that was getting so out of hand with the run-ons that I finally had to go through and just chop up each sentence into 3 separate sentences. I haven't decided yet if it's actually improved my writing any, but it's certainly making my brain hurt, so it must be good, right?

Speaking of certainly, I think that it's probably my most over-used adverb. Probably is pretty high up there, too. *sigh* I guess I should work on that...

I'm fascinated by all these vomit-writers. I don't think I've ever mentioned vomit in anything I've written. ...And yet I'm pretty sure I mention queasiness on a regular basis. (*wince* Ok, ok, and I maybe have a problem with ellipses, too. I've been working on it, though. For real. 10 years ago, a good 70% of all my sentences contained an ellipsis somewhere. Now I only use them when I'm feeling stressed or know... indecisive.)

I am firmly in the pro-italics camp, by the way. I say to hell with all those anti-italicists. Do they proofread sheet music and redline through all the pianissimos and fortes? Emphasis is part of the music of human speech, and therefore has a right to proper notation.