BONUS: Terrible Food, Pizza Edition

Okay. Lemme start off by admitting this: as a working woman, I am periodically driven by desperation to eat something other than organic rainbows and the pearlescent farts of celebrities for lunch. Sometimes, my lunch item has to be stuck in the Box of Horror, known to the less enlightened and economically ungifted among us as ‘the microwave’. Sometimes, I don’t HAVE fifteen minutes in the morning to pack a salad in a goddamn mason jar. Sometimes, I care less about whether what I’m eating is raw, vegan, and full of the proper vitamins and more about ohmiGAWD I’m hungry, PLEASE vast world of comestibles provide me with something I can cram in my flabby maw.

This, I suppose, is how we wound up in possession of this particular item:

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“Oh, shit,” you say, turning your head sideways to follow the Piza-like leaning of the toppings. “What IS that?”

The answer, my dear, is DEFINITELY not pizza. We shall, in fact, ITEMIZE the ways in which this particular pizzoid object has disappointed me.

1) Veggie pizza is simple, right? Crust, veggies, cheese, and sauce. I ask you where in this equation–WHERE, dammit–is the nameless brown sludge located on the top of VitaPizza. Nowhere in the ingredient list did I find ‘semiliquid shit on a shingle’. Nor ‘sinus infection rhinoceros snot’. Nor–and this was my last hope– ‘Taco Tuesday afterwards, on Thursday.’

Instead, there is a frightening claim to ‘meatless pepperoni’. “Oh,” you say, understanding in one phrase what it took me a taste to assimilate. “So, basically, the contents of Hitler’s chamberpot.”

2) The ‘crust’. I see you, cardboard. You aren’t fooling me.

3) See those three black dots, located roughly at the VitaPissoff epicentre? Those are the mushrooms. I repeat: THOSE. ARE MUSHROOMS.

And you though mushrooms were roughly hemispherical in shape. Pffft. Did you also think they tasted like something? Silly rabbit.

I honestly would have rather mixed ground glass and sawdust up with a shot of Everclear. At least then I would’ve been drinking. However, the image of bright and cheerful veggie pizza (along, yes, with the promise of ‘only 220 calories!’) on the box swayed me. I don’t have high expectations of microwave pizza–this ain’t my first rodeo–but this failed to meet even my ‘something I can gnaw on to keep from starving’ standards.

Dammit, Vitalicious. Your VitaTops are all right. Those I can get behind. This mess…this…Faustian deal with the devil. I’ll only be getting behind it if I have a loaded shotgun and I can pass it off as self defense.

Writing Wednesday: Stylistic Advice and Why We Loathe It

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Writing Wednesday: Stylistic Advice And Why We Loathe It

There are three pieces of ‘writing advice’ I see mouthed by pretty much every Internet denizen who has ever put pen to notepad. These are:

1) Never use passive voice.
2) Adverbs are the sweet, sweet children of Satan, and you should never use them.
3) Never use any speech tag aside from ‘said’. Or, conversely: use ANY speech tag that ISN’T said.

I take exception to all three of these. There’s a place for passive voice, a place for adverbs, places where ‘said’ is/isn’t appropriate. Can you guess why I’m bringing this up?

Yes, it’s because I’m going to offer you writing advice. It is, indeed, Writing Wednesday. And my writing advice takes the form of this simple, easy to follow rule:

1) NEVER SAY NEVER.

Writing is a creative discipline, just like painting or acting. And when I start to see all these ‘nevers’ flowing through my news feed, I get a little antsy. These parts of speech exist because, at some point in history, somebody needed them. Who’re you to deny thousands of years of written tradition?

Don’t get me wrong, you should probably play it pretty light with adverbs and passive voice. An entire story written in passive voice would be pretty dull, and a story jam-packed with adverbs would have all the emotional immediacy of a jellyfish trapped in talcum powder. Say ‘said’ too much and people are going to start shouting, whispering and screaming that you should go fuck yourself, no, really. On the other hand, ignore ‘said’ for declared, stated and declaimed, and people will be so busy looking up your speech tags in a dictionary that they’ll ignore what your characters actually say.

But these things have their place. Let’s start with numero uno:

1) Never use passive voice.

I think of three famous words in politics, as most people do when they hear the phrase ‘passive voice’: mistakes were made. Oh, were they? People laugh at this line, and it’s for a reason. Regardless of what you think about which group of assholes said it most recently and whether or not there were mistakes, what a perfect, weaselly, politically snivelling way to say it. A king who says ‘mistakes were made’ is, with indirect perfection, owning up to making them. Passive voice is a good indicator of shovelled blame, guilty conscience.

It’s also (and this blogger, thewordweasel , explains this very well) a good tool to have on hand when the thing that’s actually happening is more important than the subject of your sentence. For instance, if you write:

The dogs were let out at dawn.

I better, at no point in this story, wind up asking the ancient question: ‘who let the dogs out?’ I might use such a line to end a chapter, or in this sort of situation:

Lord Barton was displeased. He was, in fact, more than merely displeased–he was furious. Each apple that vanished from the garden, each fruit plucked, each seed stolen, was another wound in his side, another howling mark against a world that, regardless of his attempts to restore order, kept on being disorderly.

Lord Barton was done with such things. He was done with disorder, done with thieves.

The dogs were let out at dawn.

In a situation like this, passive voice adds a note of foreboding as well (one I find most useful as an endnote). You know damn well who released the dogs. But there’s a sense of released responsibility, even finality, in passive voice–of throwing your hands up and saying ‘fuck it, what happens, happens’–that comes in handy when something game-changing has been done, or some weird shit has been perpetrated.

So no, you probably shouldn’t use it all the time. Most of your sentences should have a clear and relatable subject. But it’s a good occasional tension reliever, and it’s good for an ending.

Which brings us to:

2) Adverbs are the sweet, sweet children of Satan, and you should never use them.

Excuse me, what? That’s an entire part of speech you just dissed there. While I applaud the rich tradition of minimalism that flows through our writing community, you just killed roughly 1/8th of the English language.

I blame Stephen King for this one, I really do. His famous line, ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’, has to be one of the oft-quoted leviathans of the writing community by now. And Stephen King can write well. Most of the time. Better than me, but hell, I calls ’em as I sees ’em.

You can’t dispose of an entire part of speech just because Stephen King tells you to. What if he’d said the road to hell was paved with verbs? How would you handle things then? Very confusingly. Very, VERY confusingly. And if it were paved with adjectives, there goes your character’s wavy auburn hair and striking emerald eyes.

Don’t get me wrong, adjectives AND adverbs alike are fluffy things. In fact, think of your writing as a bed, and the adjectives/adverbs in it as stuffed animals. One or two might be cute, or simply important (where else would Morky the stuffed horse and Pushy the penguin wind up, after childhood? Are you going to spend four hundred bucks and shadowbox them, along with your fucking Pulitzer?). But too many stuffed animals and your bedroom winds up looking like a thirties porn boudoir, or your grandmother’s guest room. And, unless this is what you’re going for, that’s probably a big red NO.

When you pad your story with these not-strictly-necessary parts of speech, your reader is taken away from the emotional heart of your story. ‘She was sad’ reads stronger than ‘she was very sad’, ‘she was extremely sad’, or, for a little interest, ‘she was platonically sad’.

But here’s the thing. Sometimes, the way in which your character does something is more important than the fact of it being done.

For instance, say your teenaged main character is sweeping the floor. Unless this is a minor household goddess bearing the Broom of Thor, I thoroughly expect this sweeping to be a setpiece for bigger and better things. Is your character thinking about something? Daydreaming? Sousing out revenge schemes in full mindblown technicolor?

An adverb can suggest what’s going on in there with a single word, and without a lot of fuss. Observe:

Bitterly, she swept the floor.

This tells you something. It does it quickly and painlessly. I prefer it, infinitely, to:

Her mind full of revenge and angry murmurings, she swept the floor.

It’s just less awkward.
Adverbs are also useful in humorous context. For instance:

Go fuck yourself,” she said cheerily.

Is a very different animal from the mere:

“Go fuck yourself,” she said.

I don’t encourage adverbs in speech tags often. Adverbs are not your friends, and you shouldn’t use ‘said’ plus an adverb when a single strong verb will suffice. But every once in a while, again, you need to express how something is being said, and you need to do it quick and dirty.

And sometimes those single strong verbs aren’t quite right. Which one would you use for ‘said cheerily’? ‘Trilled’, maybe? ‘Chirped’? They’re close in meaning, but they aren’t quite the same. Also, sorry, but they’re awkward. Do you lose some immediacy with ‘said cheerily’? Yes. But you also aren’t left wondering whether or not this character has suddenly sprouted feathers.

Speaking of speech tags, I believe we’re into:

3) Never use any speech tag aside from ‘said’. Or, conversely: use ANY speech tag that ISN’T said.

I love this one. I’ve seen it, many times, both ways. And its continued existence, in both forms, just reinforces my belief that you should NEVER SAY NEVER.

I’ll tell you, I believe mightily in ‘said’. It gets the job done. It does it unobtrusively. When what your character is saying is more important than HOW it’s being said, ‘said’ is your righthand man. This having been written:

Sometimes, people shout. Sometimes they screech. Sometimes they hiss. Sometimes they whisper. Sometimes, you pretentious ass, they even declaim or declare.

Best advice I can give you here: when you imagine your character saying this thing, listen to them in that snuggly skull of yours. Do you hear them shouting? Screeching? Declaiming? No? Then use said. Or, even better, see if you can get away without a speech tag. If you’ve got two people talking to one another, you often can.

Convincing dialogue does vary speech tags, but it also varies speech tag placement. Even the basic switcheroo– ‘said Wanda’ as opposed to ‘Wanda said’– can vary the cadence of your writing enough to keep the spice alive. And cadence, I feel, is an oft-ignored art in prose. Your writing should sound good when you read it aloud. Not fancy-pantsy purple-mountain’s-majesty sort of good. It should sound natural. Short sentences should be interspersed with long, fancy words with simple. Said should be interspersed (about seventy-thirty, we’ll say) with whispered, countered, swore.

Language is a hodgepodge, and we’ll talk about art of rhythm in another post. But there IS one. Trust me.

But remember, most of all–you shouldn’t be getting too hung up on speech tags. They’re a purely utilitarian thing, with a purely utilitarian purpose. Your speech tags exist to make it clear who is speaking. If they do this without being clunky or inane, they’re doing a good job. Now focus on your dialogue.

To sum it up: you’re writing the story. You make the rules. Big bolshy DO NOTS like the three I’ve mentioned are, to me, limiting things in a discipline that doesn’t need any more limitation. Will you fuck up occasionally? Sure. Everybody does. But that’s why you edit. That’s why somebody else, preferably a professional, helps you edit.

And you know what? Even on draft fifty, even after a professional editor comes in with a flamethrower and blasts your writing into the stratospheric realm of As Good As It Gets, you’re still going to make mistakes.

And that’s just how it is. No one’s going to put down your book because you used ‘exponentially’ awkwardly. If they do, they’re probably not the person you want reading your story anyway.

Write with heart, and conscience, and above all with love. If you’ve done these three things–if your story is the one you want to tell, the way you want to tell it–people will forgive you the rest. And if they don’t: fuck ’em. You did your part. Not everybody liked Mozart, either.

There, I just made myself tear up. And I just realized, this post is like an f-bomb Blitzkrieg. Sorry about that. I guess.

I’d ask you what you think, but I trust you to tell me anyway.

BONUS: Excerpt from Death-Dealer

Just posting this for fun, as I don’t think it spoils anything. This is an excerpt from Death-Dealer, sequel after the sequel of Aurian and Jin. I like being a book ahead of myself. Have I mentioned that yet? Anyway, here’s the basic overview for the scene:

The Chief Historian of the College of Things That Were has tasked her daughter, Mercery, with finding new clothes for Cecily, the mute and poorly dressed ward of the quite vocal and poorly dressing Aurian Koch. Mercery, unfortunately, believes in Kindness with a capital K. Or, well. Maybe it’s KINDNESS in block caps.

Of course, this is about to get her into trouble.

This is like the only couple of paragraphs I think I have EVER written about dresses. It’s fun, but I feel I’m also pretty obviously out of my element.

*****

At heart, Mercery was a completely kind woman. It took a lot, actually, to be completely kind–Mercery had raised kindness to a special plush pedestal, turned it into her particular soft art. Mercery didn’t eat meat, crush mosquitoes, or speak unflatteringly about anybody.

She had spent years honing this art. There was, she figured, enough unpleasantness in this world without adding her own to it. And when she saw the girl–a poor wan little thing, gripping her slate and chalk as though they were the last things familiar to her on the face of the earth–she felt as though, finally, she understood why she’d been doing it.

She was pretty, this girl. If she ever smiled, she would be ravishingly beautiful. Mercery made it her daily mission to coax as many smiles out of her as possible.

She was having a difficult time.

The girl had gone through the three large closets in Mercery’s room. Mercery had encouraged her as best she could: phrases like ‘that silk looks beautiful on you, honey’, and ‘goodness, that green brings out the pink in your cheeks’ had provoked, at best, little half-smiles. The fabric of Mercery’s wardrobe, satins and silks and laces and damasks, brocades and velvets, printed cottons and vibrant batiks, ran through the girl’s small hands. She never failed to replace a dress on its hanger, straighten it and return it with more care even than Mercery would have paid it. After touching each dress, her eyes saucer wide, the girl wrote on her slate:

THANK YOU!

After a while, she stopped erasing it and simply showed it to her after each dress. Mercery was beginning to tire of the words thank you and the nimbus of chalk dust that accompanied them. Mercery was kind, dammit. This girl was going to pick a dress.

Seven dresses, Mercery corrected herself. This had become a multi-dress problem.

“But is there nothing you like?” Mercery asked searchingly. “That apple-green silk was certainly pretty on you. I wouldn’t miss it, not a bit. Looks far nicer on you, anyhow.”

The girl blushed, ducked her chin, began scribbling on her slate. Mercery watched, one finely groomed eyebrow raised.

THANK YOU MISTRESS, the girl had written, BUT THESE ARE FAR TOO FINE FOR THE LIKES OF ME. I AM JUST FINE IN WHAT MASTER KOTCH FITTED TO ME. DO NOT WORRY. I AM HAVEING SUCH FUN JUST TRYING THEM ON.

“Koch is spelled without a T,” Mercery said reflexively. “We’ve got to write that name a lot, here, so I’d know. And the E in ‘having’ is silent. I know, it’s funny how some are and some aren’t.”

She shook her head. No, that wasn’t at all what she’d meant to say. What was it about a slate and chalk that brought out Mercery’s schoolmarm tendencies full-force?

“I want you to take a dress,” she said at last. “Take a few of them, as many as you can carry. As you can see, I’m in no need. It would make me happy if you’d take them. You’re a beautiful girl, and you should have something beautiful to wear. Master Koch hasn’t got the dress sense of a cow making pies in a pasture. I mean–” this as her reflexive kindness kicked in– “not that this is a bad thing. Makes him look very–erm. Manly.”

The girl shook her head, eyes luminous. It was getting dark, and they were lighting the lamps in the Yard outside–the effect made the girl’s thin face ghostly.

I COULD NOT DEPRIVE YOU, she wrote.

“By ‘could’,” Mercery said, “you actually mean ‘should’. And I’m saying it’s okay, so why shouldn’t you? No,” Mercery said, as new plans for kindness snapped into place behind her eyes, “wait a minute. The problem here is, you don’t want to take something that belongs to somebody else, right?”

The girl nodded vigorously, glad to be understood.

“Well, there’s only one solution to that. We’ll have to go down to the dressmaker’s and get one made for you. C’mon, they’ll be open until firstbell at eight. We’ve plenty of time.”

The girl gave a toungeless squawk of what Mercery just sort of assumed was unrestrained pleasure. Mercery seized her hand. She was still wearing one of Mercery’s dresses, a black and white damask that was, perhaps, a little too dramatic for her coloring. Mercery hoped very much she forgot all about it, and accidentally wore it out of the city. If not–perhaps Mercery could sew it into the lining of her travelling bag.

No, no. If she was doing that, might as well make it the apple green one that looked so good on her. And the dusky purple that made her hair blaze. Wouldn’t that be a nice surprise?

Mercery was kind. She was going to be kind. As kind, she thought, as humanly fucking possible.