As I lay dying…or at least as my hard drive did…

A requiem, please, for my computer’s (well backed-up, thank goodness) hard drive: after days of clinging valiantly to life (and occasionally allowing me access to e-mail), it succumbed this morning to the fate that awaits us all. A well-deserved rest, certainly: many, many manuscripts — my own, members of my writing groups’, and editing clients’ — have passed over its faithful screen. It had a lot of miles on it, both literally and figuratively.

Farewell, old friend. You had a better memory than I did, Gunga Din.

Which means, among other things, that I won’t be able to get back into the files containing the blogs I had stored up for you for another week or two, when the necessary parts arrive (perhaps from the North Pole Apple store, where Santa presumably shops for iPods) to install. Thus, I need to put those potential posts out of my mind for the time being, because trying to recreate them from scratch will only end in tears, and just move on to other topics.

Actually, it’s been fascinating to watch myself NOT being on a computer full-time for the last few days — over the past couple of years, it’s truly an anomoly. Not only do I have work in my head that I want to see on a screen, but my body keeps gravitating toward my studio, and not, I think, merely because it’s the room with the full-spectrum lights. Every part of me wants to be writing again.

(I had told you about that trick, hadn’t I? If you’re having trouble getting yourself to write in the winter months — a VERY common phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest – stock your writing space with full-spectrum lights, and your body will be happier there on a gray day than anywhere else in the house. Don’t be surprised to find your pets drawn to the room, too.)

Writing honestly does become a body habit, if you do it consistently, just like drinking 8 glasses of water per day or exercising regularly. Once your brain accepts that you will be sitting down to do creative work at predictable intervals, it can get pretty nonplused if it misses a session or two. Think about it: who is more depressed than a writer who has no time to finish a novel that’s already complete in her head?

Of course, I’ve known writers who can binge-write successfully — that is, walk away from their projects for large periods of time, then lock themselves up in a cave for a month and crank out chapter after chapter before the next long hiatus — but in my experience, predictable, regular bouts of writing tend to lead to less writer’s block, as well as more consistently-met deadlines.

Why? Well, if you save up all of your writing energies, as many aspiring writers do, for when you have big chunks of time to devote to it, you raise your expectations pretty high, and that can lead to performance-anxiety-induced writer’s block. “Oh, no!” your beleagured psyche thinks, “this is my only writing day in three months! I just have to make up for all that lost time!”

Pretty good prescription for panic, isn’t it?

If, on the other hand, you have proven to your psyche over time that (a) you do not need to write an entire chapter in a single writing session, and (b) that you will sit down to write again tomorrow, or the next day, or at the same time next week, your brain is a lot less likely to go into stress overload. If tomorrow honestly is another writing day, when you’re blocked, you can afford to spend today’s writing time brainstorming.

But writer’s block is not what I wanted to discuss today. My psyche — nay, every fiber of my being — longed to sit down today and talk to you about the common writing mistake that gives the impression of too many things happening simultaneously.

I refer, of course, to the extremely popular construction, “As Protagonist was doing X, action Y occurred.”

Naturally, there are many situations where this construction is perfectly valid: during the Civil War, President Lincoln was assassinated, for instance. As one is opening a car door, one could conceivably also be humming a jaunty tune. And so forth. Singly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this type of sentence.

The problem, to the eyes of those of us who read many, many manuscripts in any given week, is not so much the fact that so many writers are extremely fond of this construction as the FREQUENCY with which any given author tends to use it in any given manuscript. Or in any given chapter. Or, in many cases, in any given paragraph.

Seriously, I’ve seen paragraphs that have consisted of NOTHING but “As X was happening, Y occurred” sentences. Why is this problematic? As with any over-repeated sentence structure, it can become pretty tiring for the reader. Take a gander at this sterling example of the breed:

Jenny was plowing the back forty when Gertrude came running out of the house, screaming. As Jenny descended from the still-purring tractor, she wondered what her sister wanted. Before she had reached the end of the furrow, Gertrude was already shouting orders. Jenny threw her arms around her to stop the flow of words, saying, “Gertie, what’s happened?”

Now, a non-professional reader might not find this construction repetitious: after all, it’s not as though every sentence begins with the same phrase. However, agents, editors, and contest judges, who see masses and masses of prose, tend to regard the over-use of this type of construction as a sort of back-handed writing trick to increase the tension of a scene.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: how much do agents and editors like to be tricked? Not much at all.

So, those of you who survived the entire Idol rejection reason series (see post of October 31): how wise do you think it would be to use more than one of these constructions on the first page of your submission?

It is very, very common for books to begin with such a sentence. Haven’t we all seen some flavor of, “As the fire roared behind her, reducing her childhood home to charred bits of rubble, Tatiana stood dry-eyed” open books, both published and unpublished? Presented singularly, followed by a differently-structured sentence, there is nothing wrong with this sort of opening, of course.

But remember that agency screener I asked you to conjure for the Idol series, the one scanning 300 submissions per week on an intern’s salary? Okay, now picture her reaction to reading her 23rd first page of the day that begins, “As X was happening, Protagonist did Y.”

Not pretty to imagine her impatience, is it? Now channel her again, and sit in her uncomfortable desk chair, the one located under the bad fluorescent lighting, and experience her reaction to the 8th submission that day that opens with three or four similar sentences in a row.

To place her probable reaction within this construction: as Tanya’s bloodshot eyes fell upon the dreaded sentence yet again, her too-hot latte seemed to curdle in her stomach. Before she had reached the end of the first paragraph, she was already reaching for the SASE to return it to its author. “Why me?” she demanded of an apparently deaf universe, as she sealed the envelope and the author’s doom in one swift swipe of her tongue.

Okay, okay, I concede that it would be a pretty good trick to say anything out loud whilst licking an envelope. But I do not admit for a second that this particular rejection wasn’t avoidable. While you are revising, keep an eye on how frequently you have used this type of sentence: in the long run, you will be happy you did.

Yet another rejection reason it would be nice if agents and editors happened to mention a little more often. As my computer lay dying, I thought it might be a good time to bring it up.

Keep up the good work!

One Reply to “As I lay dying…or at least as my hard drive did…”

  1. So sorry about your trusted friend. Thank God for back up. I’ve been madly burning my novels and other writing since you brought the subject up. Not writing, however, will not do.
    I didn’t own a computer when I started writing my first novel so I wrote 3/4 of it by hand and kept it in binders which I still have today. I also wrote on the back of envelopes while standing in line at the bank and eventually on the notebook paper I kept on me in a folder. After my father gave me his old computer with orange letters on the screen the novel did finally get into a word process program. I got an updated one of my own, but I still carry paper on me, sometimes printing off the last page of what I had been writing and continued. I could still write by hand if I had to. When the words come on, I have to stop and make sure I get them down.

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