Thursday, September 25, 2014

Sighs, Nods, and Shrugs: Those annoying Little (Literary) Tics

I teach college biology. One of the many perks of my job is that it provides me ample opportunities to observe human behavior in all its glorious, and not so glorious, variety.
My husband also teaches, so we sometimes share stories about amusing things that happen in our classes (in ways that respect the privacy of all parties involved of course). One thing we've both noticed is that every class seems to have a mad sigher--a student who emits theatrical sighs when the instructor announces a quiz or homework, changes topics in lecture, misspeaks and corrects themselves, or when another student asks a question.

Needless to say, it's a noticeable mannerism. It's something that calls attention to itself. And while everyone sighs from time to time, some people do it more (and do it more loudly) than others.
Mannerisms are an important part of character building in fiction. Some characters will sigh, nod, blink, shrug etc. more than others. This is fine if it's intentional, but we often don't even realize it. Simple, everyday gestures can become mindless insertions.

So how many times can a character nod before readers think herhead may fall off? How many times can a writer mention quirked or raised eyebrows before they start to resemble great fuzzy caterpillars that may escape and attach themselves to the wainscotting?

Writing instructors and editors often enjoin us to be more mindful of stock gestures. I've even run across blogs that suggest that you only get five or six nods per manuscript. While I agree that excessive use of these gestures can become annoying, I got to thinking. Why five or six? What's magical about that number? And do all  successful and popular writers (or their editors) follow this advice?

I have both a nook and an ipad, so I've become an avid consumer of e-books. One thing these devices allow me to do is to conduct word searches. So I thought I'd do a little informal experiment and count the number of uses of some of these "go to" words in some of the books in my e-library. My reading is heavily weighted towards fantasy and SF, so all the titles save one fall into this category.

The words I searched for were: sigh, nod, shrug, grin, frown, eyebrow, gritted (in the context of teeth), groan. I didn't look at specific context, though I did toss incidents that were embedded in unrelated words or not used in the description of a character, and I considered all tenses of these words.

The books I examined were: The Last Argument of Kings, by Abercrombie; Promise of Blood, by McClellan; Fool's Assassin, by Hobb; Ancillary Justice, by Leckie; Cold Magic, by Elliot; King Rat, by Meiville, Old Man's War, by Scalzi, The Thousand Names, by Wexler; Havemercy, by Jones and Bennett; Colours in the Steel, by Parker; The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by Jemisin; Oryx and Crake by Atwood; Foreigner by Cherryh; Fade to Black by Knight; and The Lies of Locke Lamorra by Lynch.
Obviously, I can make no claim about how typical these are for their genre. One interesting thing I noticed is that the three SF novels on the list (Foreigner, Ancillary Justice, and Old Man's War) were all below the overall average in their usage for all of the words in question, as was the one book on the list by a writer who could be termed  "literary" (Oryx and Crake). The sample size was not large enough to do meaningful statistical analysis, of course.

What I did discover, though, was that while there was an incredible amount of variety between authors. And most of these words were used more than five times, on average. Of all of them, nod was the most popular, averaging over 60 uses per book, ranging from a low of 7 uses (Cherryh) and a high of 179 uses (Wexler). The largest single word use in one book, however, was frown, with a total of 208 uses in Abercrombie's book. Tooth gritting was the least popular overall, averaging 4.5 uses per book (and ranging from 0-28).

Every single one of these novels had at least one mannerism that was mentioned seventeen times or more.

After I did this gesticular bean counting, I went through my own manuscript and discovered that my own characters rarely grit their teeth or groan, but they seem to nod (78 incidents) and grin (60 incidents) more than the overall average for the novels I sampled.

So, what does this mean? Are uses of stock phrases like "nodded" and "shrugged" the kiss of death to a manuscript? Clearly not, since some highly successful writers make heavy use of them. Is there some predetermined number that represents a tipping point in a given novel? If there is, it's clearly much higher than five or six. But I'd also argue this doesn't means a writer should be oblivious to their use of these words.

One thing to consider is that some words also call more attention to themselves than others. Raised eyebrows and gritted teeth were mentioned less frequently overall, and probably for good reason.

In contrast, I think that some of the more common stock phrases, like nodded, grinned, frowned, and shrugged can be nearly invisible to readers, assuming they're spaced out reasonably well. Still, it certainly won't hurt anything to ask oneself whether or not the description is really needed, and if it is, whether or not there might be a way to make the gesture more evocative.

Also, are all the characters in a novel using all the various gestures equally, or is one more likely to, say, grit her teeth, while another is more likely to sigh like a forlorn maiden? Trademark gestures can be an aspect of characterization, but it doesn't take a huge number of repetitions to get across that a person is an inveterate sigher, or nodder, or shrugger.

A writer can reinforce that a repeated gesture is part of a character's mannerisms by having the other characters in the story notice them, especially if they have the potential to be irritating. It can be amusing to have one character call another out on it. The character can (if we spend time in their point of view) become self-conscious and worry whether they're doing it too often.

So are there any repeated actions or mannerisms you find irritating in a novel, or are there any you find you have to watch in your own writing?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fifteen Authors Who Have Influenced Me Greatly

There are various lists making the rounds lately, most notably the ten books that have stayed with me lists. I have one of those, but it occurred to me that some of my favorite authors are not on the list, because some of them wrote series where it is impossible to ferret out which book was the most influential. And of course, there are some stand-alone books out there too (To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind) where the authors did not go on to write more.

But my favorite genres by far are fantasy and SF, and authors of these genres tend to write series or create universes that pull their readers back time and time again. So I decided to list my favorites. But then I got to thinking. Should I limit my selections to books that I've read as adults only, or only to adult books? Should I have only SFF books? Should I make an effort to include some classics that I didn't actually like very much, even though they've probably influenced me and everyone else who grew up when I did speaking English as their sole or primary language? I'm humbled by the prevalence of classics that are not remotely contemporary, or even SF or F on most of my writer friend's favorites lists. Makes me feel like an imposter.

But in the end, I have to be true to my own perceptions. I ended up with fifteen authors, not ten. And even so, there are some favorites I have left off.

One sobering thing for me is the lack of diversity on this list. Of my fifteen, only two are writers who are not white. Ten out of fifteen are women, which is rather biased towards one gender. But given the lean that most people's lists have towards men, I don't feel too bad there. I'm not sure about the sexual orientation of most of these writers. Five of these writers are/were British, Nine are/were American, and one was an American who adopted Ireland as her permanent home. I suppose this bias is understandable, given that I am white, English-speaking, heterosexual, cis-gendered, female, and American. I'm going to have easy access (and relate to) to more books by people who are like me in some ways at least. But still, I want to do a better job of reading books by people who come from different cultures than I do.

1. JRR Tolkien. I think this is the book that really made me fall in love with fantasy. I don't seek to emulate Tolkien's style, but I've probably re-read The Hobbit and LoTR more than any other novels.

2. C.J. Cherryh. One of the unsung SF greats in my opinion. She was and is a master at weaving intricate worlds and cultures, and she is one of the people who pioneered the use of a more "limited" point of view in SF. When she started writing, many SFF writers felt you "had" to lapse into telly omniscient from time to time, because the reader wouldn't "get" the world building otherwise. She has a special talent for immersing you in the perceptions of a character and for making their reality yours. I think she's had a pretty strong influence on me stylistically.

3. Ursula K. Le Guin. She also had/has a flare for world building and a simple, yet lyrical way with language. She proved to me that you don't need purple prose to paint a clear picture of a world and character. And she deserves kudos for writing fantasy where the default race wasn't white and for exploring our assumptions about gender.

4. Alice Walker. She did such an amazing job of bringing me inside the heads of characters who have lived very different lives than I have, yet to whom I can relate so utterly and completely. She has a talent for writing in a very colloquial voice without making it inaccessible or distracting. I cared deeply for Celie and Shug in particular, but all of her characters were real people to me.

5. Robin Hobb. There's an uneven and somewhat bumpy ride here (I liked her Shamen Trilogy, and Rain Wilds books, but they weren't as good to me as her earlier titles), but her Farseer and Tawny man books moved me deeply, and her latest Fitz and Fool book has pulled me back into that world with a vengeance. She doesn't get much credit for this, but her character of the Fool was definitely outside of the binary concept of gender. She just handled it much more subtly than some writers have. She made me fall in love with modern fantasy and showed me that broken, flawed people make the most compelling characters. There's probably a bit of Fitz in my current protagonist, for all that he's a very different person in a very different situation.

6. James Herriot. I just loved his books growing up, and I've read and reread them over the years. He's one of those rare authors who really felt like a friend, even though I'd never met him. Last time I was in the UK, I was able to go to the Herriot Museum, which is in the house where he (real name Alf Wight) really practiced with Donald and Brian Sinclair (aka Seigfried and Tristan Farnon)  for many years. It was just so cool to see the places I'd read about coming to life.

7. William Shakespeare. Regardless of how you feel about his plays, he is probably the greatest and most versatile writer the English Language has produced. His work resonates even today, and it's impossible not to be influenced by it.

8. Judy Blume. I loved her books as a pre teen and teen. She portrayed issues that I may or may not have been able to relate to initially, but once I read about them, I couldn't help but do so. They made me into a more empathetic human being, and her book Forever, which portrayed a teen aged girl having her first sexual relationship as if it were not (gasp) a terrible thing had a profound influence on my own attitude about sex in general and my own resolve to never have unprotected sex unless I wanted to become a parent.

9. K.M. Peyton. Another YA fiction writer from the 70s. Her stories about the horse-crazy Ruth Hollis pulled me in, but she had a number of other stories too, most notably about Pennington, a very troubled musical prodigy, and her Flambards books (set around the time of WWI). She didn't talk down to teens at all, but she also didn't sugar coat the consequences of bad decisions or promise her readers that every good decision, personal victory, (or love affair) would end in a happily ever after.

10. Micheal Moorcock. I don't know why his Elric stories have stayed with me the way they have. I didn't especially like Elric, and his whole situation was rather depressing. But darn it if some of his plight doesn't carry over into my current work (though I really hope I can have a happier ending).

11. Amy Tan. I love her books. Her characters are relatable, even when I am angry at them for their flaws and foibles. I think my favorite was The Hundred Secret Senses, but they've all spoken to me in one way or another.

12. Connie Willis. Her stories set in the universe of her time-travelling Oxford Historians are my favorite, but Passage and Bellwether also pulled me in. She has a knack for making me laugh and cry at the same time, for weaving everyday frustrations and absurdities into the darkest stories. And she never fails to remind me that the biggest heroes often go unnoticed.

13. Margaret Atwood. Lovely writing, memorable characters, fascinating, non-linear approaches to narrative that would be too unexpected and unintuitive for me to like at the hands of anyone else. I don't think she's ever written a dud. I don't think I'd ever in a million years try to write the way she does. But I've been enriched by her prose.

14. Anne McCaffrey. Her work  helped pull me into modern SF as well. She gets dinged a lot for (possibly) flogging a successful series into the ground, and in spite of her many awards and huge following, she doesn't seem to get included on many lists of masters or all-time greats. And there was that stupid "tent peg" comment that reminded me how someone can be admirable in so many ways, yet hurtfully wrong in others. But I have read and re-read her Dragonrider books over the years, and they've stuck with me in ways many other series have not.

15. David Brin. I loved his Uplft books, and I have wished so much that he would return to that universe. If I wrote SF, I'd probably be shooting for something in between him and Cherryh in terms of style and approach.