Monday, August 24, 2009

F&M Week Day 6: Annihilating the Arbitrary

Maybe INTERN is just hungry, but more and more YA and MG query letters in The Pile are reading like those build-your-own pizza forms where you check off what kind of Cheese and Sauce and Crust you want—except instead of Cheese and Sauce and Crust, the checkboxes pertain to Tough Issues, Wackiness, and Diversity.

Example: "My 30,000 word middle-grade novel 'Across the Rainbow' is a multi-faith tale of intercultural understanding that spans generations. Hildegarde Ho, 12, must confront her second cousin's alcoholism while dealing with her own crack cocaine addiction, all while trying to attract the amorous attention of her hilarious, be-froed, penguin-catching next-door neighbor Mohammad Jones, whose Catholic mother tries to keep the pair apart until they triumph over adversidy [sic] with hilarious results. As the school talent show approaches, they must train the penguins to mambo—before it's too late."

Repeat, substituting "missing father," "wisecracking mailman," and "Hindu-Vampire Relations".

It all feels kind of...arbitrary. And fiction is antithetical to arbitrariness. Fiction's like a spider web—each thread belongs to the whole and has some essential function. Spiders don't go around pimping their webs with ghastly and unnecessary props that do nothing to help them catch the fly. Neither should fiction. Not saying fiction should be utilitarian or strictly weblike, but come on—is there a valid *reason* that spiderweb is full of penguins?

In particular, INTERN has noticed the following Arbitrary Things popping up again and again:

1. The Whack-a-Mole Effect
Zany, off-the-wall characters who pop up unannounced and disappear into the ether after delivering their one-liner. Ditto villains who just—keep—appearing with no logical or even illogical explanation as to what prompted them to be in that *convenient* place at that time. INTERN calls this the whack-a-mole effect, because it makes her want to whack these characters in the skull with a mallet whenever they show up.

2. The Issue Dump
The book's been rolling along just fine—the talent show is approaching, the inter-faith tension is mounting—then it's like the author thought, "oh sh%t, I forgot to have a Tough Issue!" and there's an awkward scene where one character suddenly feels the need to confess to having Terminal Cancer or Mean Parents. A tearful speech ensues. Then it's back to business.

3. Arbitrary Events
Q: "Wouldn't it be hilarious if there was a scene where the wise-cracking mailman showed up riding a cow? No, I mean, no, he doesn't have motivation, it would just be funny."
A: No.

4. The Prop Dump

The book's been rolling along just fine—the penguins are onstage, the villain is writhing in his bounds—and then it's like the author thought, "oh sh%t, I forgot to have a message of Diversity!". And then suddenly the villain is wearing a yarmulke and a Hawaiian shirt, and the penguins are in wheelchairs, and the main character's grandfather takes off his cardigan to reveal a gay pride t-shirt. Cathartic speeches ensue, briefly. Then the props are mysteriously abandoned and it's back to business.


In other news: the pancake recipe INTERN was using last night called for "non-fact cooking spray". That is kind of awesome.


  1. Love this post!
    And even more I want to track down and find some non-fact cooking spray.

  2. Maybe those writers have been INHALING the "non-fact cooking spray"!

  3. It's like the plot version of S&W's "Omit needless words."
    Omit needless Tough Issues.
    Omit needless multicultural references.
    Omit needless penguins.

    Thanks, I think we all needed to hear this!

  4. I recently sold a YA--my first--and I'm pleased to report there is no Socially Redeeming Content whatsoever. I'm less pleased to report that I suspect that if there -were-, it would've gotten more than the one offer.

    Book two will have Terminal Parents.

  5. That non-fact cooking spray must be just the thing to make great pancakes for jousting.

  6. I was appalled by the mss, but I giggled at the "non-fact cooking spray".

    Be sure to let us know when your book hits the shelves. If you blog is an example of your work, I'll want to read it.

  7. The sad thing is I have noticed that some of those books are actually getting published. The Black Tattoo by Enthoven takes place in hell (another dimension really) where weird birds throw up on your plate and then you are supposed to eat it. Random, weird, and gross seems to be making it onto the shelves and they rarely make sense. Un Lun Dun did the same thing. What is up with that?

    On a separate note, I made some blueberry pancakes from a recipe off the back of a kids book yesterday. Sadly, there were no awesome typos.

  8. "Fiction's like a spider there a valid *reason* that spiderweb is full of penguins?"

    Best writing advice I've ever seen. Even without example YA paragraph.

  9. I will have you know that my Penguins have a good reason for being in Wheelchairs. They slipped in Non-Fact Cooking Spray sprayed by Tap Dancing, Moose-Riding, S'Mores-Making Social Issues who Randomly Capitalize. If you can think of a better Villain, I'd like to hear it.

  10. I'm about halfway through my YA manuscript currently - time to add in a wonderful coming of age scene with cooking spray used as a lubricant. Honestly, this could sell.

    In other mentioned that the MG manuscript was 30K in length. What do you consider standard length for YA/MG manuscripts? I know this can differ with genre, etc, but I'm talking (writing) about general ballpark figures for mainstream fiction (not fantasy - nothing to do with vampires or wizards).


  11. Random, weird, and gross don't bug me nearly as much as cloying social messages a la 80's sitcom.

    Most people who read are pretty tolerant. The others stick to religious text only. Or Mein Kampf.

  12. The timing of this post was incredible, the same check list is slowly being applied to tv too. And not just the bad shows, the good ones too. Oy vey.

  13. I agree, I agree, I agree! Random weird funny stuff is okay if you're writing something intended to be humorous, though it might not make for the best of literature (yet I have a friend who manages to do this with style even in tragic situations, but then she only writes fanfiction so far, so it's probably legitimate...). Squeezed-in moral messages are actually horrible. My little sister once was gifted a book that was supposed to be a middle grade detective novel, and it all revolved around the hero trying to prove that someone *hadn't* committed suicide (it turned out to be an accident indeed) because Suicide Is A Sin And We All Should Love Jesus... Oh well.


  14. What? A book about hell where weird birds throw up on your plate and you have to eat it sounds awesome!

  15. 30k seems awfully short to me. My first MG ms came in at 70k and I was advised to shave 10k off that. Still, since it wasn't taken up I shouldn't try to sound too authoritive. My current effort is due to reach about 60k or slightly less.

    Excellent post. There seem to be so many shopping lists these days, not only to be ticked off by writers, but by agents and editors too (aha -- an adverb! etc.) . I doubt if readers even think about it.

  16. Venus - whilst that is indeed utterly gross, it isn't completely random. It sounds like the harpies from Greek mythology. In the story of Jason (the one with the Argonauts who went to find the Golden Fleece) he meets a man who has been condemned to torment by harpies. They came from hell (or rather Hades) and whenever he had his table laid with food they would sweep down and throw up on it and defecate on it and 'pollute' it. Harpies are bird-women and indeed, utterly gross.

    So although it seems random there is actually historical and mythological precedent for birds throwing up on your food. Bizarre as it may seem.

  17. Dear God, Intern, you crack me up!!

    Ah, yes, the whack-a-mole effect! (I used to rule that game at Chuck E. Cheese!)

    Good stuff, here.


  18. Does no one EDIT anymore? Honestly, a prop dump would not be remotely necessary if the author just did a little revision, thinking about how Grampa is gay and the penguins are handicapped from the beginning.

    Note to authors: you are not supposed to pack an entire season of Degrassi Junior High into one book. Stop it.

  19. Great post! Now, where can I find Non-Fact spray. I think I need this in my life!

  20. heehee. diversity & issue dump. SO TRUE.

  21. Every heard of PLANTS and PAYOFFS... use 'em!

    show or mention a gun in the first act... that son-of-bitch better go off in the second or third act! (A. Hitchcock, I think)

    Haste yee back ;-)

  22. I have that non-fact cooking spray. You press the spray button and nothing comes out.

    Unless it's empty.

    I love your blog. It, and you, are terrific.

  23. Must agree w/ the spider web analogy!!! Now off to re-check the YA for arbitrary BS *sigh*

  24. I love the issue dump!
    It is perfect, like on a first date (or book) and you dont really know what to say to each other, Then all of a sudden you begin to talk about the sucky ex-boyfriend's sisters drinking and promiscuity. "I would never...blah blah!" "But, you know my brothers scorpions had herpes, say, do you have herpes?"
    What would happen next in that after school special?

  25. I found this late but this is really funny and also gets your point across in such a concrete way! So much better than saying what you are tired of seeing in general terms.

    But then again I have to wonder if you don't have the start of a really funny book...

    And I just read the calorie content on the oil I was using to make some popcorn - as many calories in a tablespoon as a 12 oz soft drink! That non-fact cooking spray is sounding pretty good.

  26. Enough with the period outside of the quotation mark. You're not British, this isn't the UK, and you should stick to American standards if you're copyediting for an American publisher.

  27. OK, I was fine until they had to teach the penguins how to mambo.

    Look at the Twilight phenomenon. Lazy writing, sloppy plot development, and a gazillion books sold. Where's Sister Jane Michael, the evil Nun from Hell who scared grammar and proper plot structure into me? I'd like to unleesh her on the world. She'd teach those penguins to mambo.

  28. Dear Intern,
    Thank you for sharing your insights. You see the view from the top of the slushpile mountain. I at the bottom of the heap, and sometimes can't see the forest for the pages.

    Your posts help writers fix mistakes, scout trends, and make pancakes.

    Seriously, thanks.

    BTW, this whole phenomena reminds me of mad libs. Just fill in the blanks with a Hindu Vampire or disabled penguin, right?