NVDT Writerly Thoughts – AI Busted for Impersonating Writers!

From NPR – The science fiction and fantasy magazine Clarkesworld has been forced to stop accepting any new submissions from writers after it was bombarded with what it says were AI-generated stories.

The magazine officially shut off submissions on February 20 after a surge in stories that publisher and editor-in-chief Neil Clarke says were clearly machine-written.

The good news here is that there are still a few editors out there who know shit from shinola.

The bad news is that most do not.

What AI has over most of us is better straight line logic.

What it lacks is human rhythm, the aura a work, even a bad one, exudes.

But for academic writing, book reports, what happened in Wisconsin in 1843. It’s great.

But I’ll bet feeding it TV tropes would make somebody an overnight sensation in the script writing world.

NVDT Writerly Thoughts – Sentences and Dialogue

I’ll bet the Twain quote was about authors and dialogue…

Several comments on my comments and a few emails prompted this post. They were, mostly, about sentence structure and dialogue. Lucky for me, those are two of my favorite subjects.

See that? In a non-conversational style, that introductory clause and the BS would be gone.

I received several comments regarding sentence structure and dialogue.

For clarity, find where to insert ‘after a recent post.’ Or the adverb ‘recently.’

Sentence structure is easy. If it’s awkward, break it down to simple subject/verb. Recall Lanham’s Jim kicks Bill. Or kicked. No matter what else we throw at action with adverbs, supporting actions and reactions, Jim kicks Bill is the point. Any sentence longer than that is suspect. Not that they are illegal, but getting writerly requires us to examine anything longer than the direct action.

Or – Long sentences are not illegal. It is our duty as writers to inspect them for continuity. See? We can make all of our words sound conversational or stilted.  With or without rhythm. How we phrase becomes our voice, our style(s) for a given piece.

“They” encourage writers of fiction to develop a voice. Rarely do “they” mention rhythm, phrasing, melody. The only true rule? Logical Movement. Ex – Three periods ago, a passive sentence would have served better than the awkward Direct Speak. Often abandoning the ‘rules’ for a better ‘tone’ enhances fluidity. And to be honest, it’s how we communicate. Generally speaking (pun?) we do not communicate in clipped, stiff, direct phrases except under certain, possibly emotionally charged situations.

One more example, and I use myself – As you can see from the graphic Dear Mrs. Bird made the rounds of an elderly ladies’ book club before it came to me, where it got a 7.


What happened there? I purchased a used book entitled Dear Mrs. Bird. Inside the book, I discovered a handwritten note. From that note I deduced the book’s previous owner(s) to be an elderly Ladies Book Club. Both reviews in that note rated Dear Mrs. Bird a Seven. Now, that isn’t lyrical, or conversational, but it was my point. I tried to put it all in one sentence (in a hurry) and ended up with a textbook squinting modifier.

Before falling into my hands, this particular copy of Dear Mrs. Bird, as witnessed in the graphic, made the rounds of an elderly Ladies Book Clubwhere both reviewers rated it a 7.

I could easily have dropped any reference to the graphic in the sentence and made it parenthetical (See Picture), and used the recovered space to make it more intimate–I picked up this copy of Dear Mrs. Bird from a bed-sheet-covered folding table at an estate sale and a note fluttered out detailing how two elderly women had read the book and rated it a seven.

That’s what we do when we expose or withhold information in our writing. Deciding the impact of a sentence after it hits the page is what editing is all about. More personal information, more intimacy, more trust in the characters and narrator. Whatever we are after, we accomplish with our three best friends -Tone, rhythm, phrasing.

All I have to say about sentence structure can be summed up by Elmore Leonard in Ten Rules of Writing – “ I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. (I would add “and logic” to that in the appropriate spot) It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.”

Welcome back Tone, Rhythm and Phrasing to a discussion of dialogue. Nowhere is an author more obvious than in dialogue. Many find it difficult to stay out of it. First, and this is mandatory, breathe. Second, mind the tags. Their length, their content. Try to maintain a rule of three (max) and avoid redundancy in action tags. Two different characters shouldn’t do the same thing, worded the same way, in a dialogue exchange. And find your rhythm. Read it out loud if you have to because that alone will show if it sounds like people or a writer trying to sound like people. If you couldn’t have heard what you wrote at the grocery store or the license bureau or soccer practice or a birthday party or on the news or anywhere people gather, it’s pretty much a lock that it sucks. Harsh, I know. But humans drop words, use the wrong words, make poor grammar choices so the very best advice is Learn To Listen. Sure, we can avoid the pitfalls of human conversation like call and response and bunny chasing, but it still has to sound like people. As well as being cognizant of directorial action and description. Less is more.

For starters or a quick refresher on excess and author intrusion, I recommend the first ten pages or so of Body Language. A quick reference for character action and description by Ann Everett. Or Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells A Truth or any in a long list of commercial, academic or lit pop star penned How To. For me, I always go back to Jim Kicks Bill for dialog tags.

Example – Jim sat down on the couch, in the chair, in the car. Is there any other way to sit than down? Jim sat on the couch. Or Jim sat. Or Jim waited to take his cue from Amy before (sitting, taking a seat, he sat). The same in reverse. Jim stood. Or maybe Jim knelt. No up or down required. Keep it moving.

The same goes for things characters do while talking. If you can skip a few moves getting whatever they’re doing done, do it. Jim put his belt around his waist and buckled it – Come on. Really? Jim slipped his feet into his boots. Jeez. Where else do belts and boots go? Jim buckled (hit up the thesaurus for cinched, tied, hooked fastened etc). Jim slipped on (more thesaurus) his boots. I was told as regards action in dialog, “Don’t go all the way ‘round the bend to get where you’re going.”

More best advice? Read dialogue that rocks. And it’s not always where you’d expect it. I’m a fan of PD James, but when there are only two people talking, using ‘said’ after every line of dialogue, including one-word dialogue, is where I close the book. My feeling being I don’t need this shit and I don’t give a rat’s ass who wrote it. If I have to put up with a book full of it, AMF.

If you want to read exactly how NOT to write dialogue, read the excerpt in this review.

I’m sorry, I’m only one man’s opinion and all that, and I don’t know the author from Adam although he’s a fellow Texan (it’s a big place) and I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but talk about redundant, in the way and generally awful dialogue…

Rule 1- Unless it’s imperative, and it rarely, if ever, is, try not to start a reply to dialogue with a tag. Paraphrased –

“Well, I’m not sure you fellas are who I’m looking to travel with.”

Jim pressed. “But we drove all this way to pick you up.” That shit right there takes us right out of it. Talk first, then tag if you must. Ex – “But,” Jim pressed, “We drove etc. etc. etc.”

Exclamation points and question marks. “Godammit, you kicked me!” Bill screamed. Yeah? Well. we know he screamed. The ! told us. Add some content if you must–Bill reached to stem the flow of blood from his shin or something. Question marks and author first drive me nuts.

“Is that you?” Jim asked.

Bill groaned. “No. it’s the Easter Bunny, dumb ass.”

Groaning, Jim raised his head up off the couch. “What do you want?” Jim asked.

Exhaling, Bill replied, “I want kick your ass.”

Jesus—Jim. Kicks. Bill. Or in this instance Bill Kicks Jim. That’s the intent of the dialogue, not all that redundant and often recycled in the same scene tags crap. I’m channeling a pair of mean rednecks for a short story, they’re in my head right now so here’s some spontaneous Let ‘Em Talk. Which means I listen, look when I have time and transcribe.

 “Bill?” Jim rose from his couch slouch. “Is that you, man?”

“No, dumb ass. It’s the Easter Bunny.”

“What the hell do you want?”

“Whattaya think?”

“You’re still pissed about your shin?”

“Hell yes.” Bill’s boot toe landed just below Jim’s sternum. Jim responded by painting the coffee table with half a pizza and three beers.

“Why’d you have to go and do that?”

“Because, asshole,” Bill watched Jim run the back of his hand across his mouth and wipe it on his shirt. “My leg hurts like a motherfucker.”



“Damn.” Jim watched his dinner drip from the coffee table, rubbed where Bill’d kicked him. “You feel like Denny’s? All of a sudden I’m hungry again.”

And–this is critical-know where to stop. Quit while you’re ahead.

Yeah ,yeah, crazy profane rednecks or thugs or more likely band members, but the G rated versions work exactly the same way. Danger Barbie And Hunky Ken Generate Diabetes With Politeness doesn’t get a pass on bullshit dialogue. Keep talking, keep moving, get the hell out of the way.

NVDT Book Review- Two I Wish I’d Written

Dear Mrs. Bird, A.J. Pearce – Briarpatch, Ross Thomas

Before I move on to a few books that will show up only because they present issues with writing, the publishing industry or perception and I get to a short story that’s talking to me, let’s do these two.

First, it’s rare, and wonderful, to read two books almost back-to-back where I learn things, have other things reinforced and am entertained all at once.

Dear Mrs. Bird – A.J. Pearce 

As you can see from the graphic, Dear Mrs. Bird made the rounds of an elderly ladies’ book club before it came to me. The ladies rated it a 7. If I were grading it solely on the “story” I would have gone 8 or 9. Not that it’s a story unlike any ever told, but it’s written so damn well it could be about changing various model year Volkswagen brake pads and I’d still go that high.

Why – The protagonist’s voice never falters, her presence never out of character, her emotions tangible, her situations believable. The writing is the same. No dips, no sidetracks, no distractions, no over writing, no author anywhere in sight. No slop. I mean no slop. Not that a Grammar Nazi or ProWritingAid couldn’t find fault, but on The Story Is The Most Important Thing level, it’s as good as it gets. I think I had to read one sentence twice, and that one was on me. Emmeline, the lead, reuses a few adjectives three or four times throughout the book, (I checked) but never to where you recall it from the previous page or chapter. They are always in keeping with Emmy’s voice and it’s to the author’s credit that she didn’t hit up the Thesaurus for something that would make her look erudite and her character out of character. What I need to say here is this is how stories should be told. Engaging and never about the author, even when using the most conversational tone. You read this book as a journey with the protagonist, Miss Emmeline Lake, right behind her eyes.

Major Observation Point – The author employs a stylistic nuance that I had to stop and figure out where I’d seen it and Why It Worked So Well. When any phrase or referenced dialogue hit cliché or sloganeering or spoke to a Broader Issue, it’s capitalized. Where, oh where oh where I asked – Aha! A. A. Milne’s The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. As readers, we associate caps with proper nouns, but not in Pooh, and not here. Which made perfect small containers for Larger Concepts and eliminated the need for quotation marks or awkward reference or defining tags. Here’s an example of both, perfectly executed in quick succession —

Miss Knighton, a freckly girl of about my age with pretty green eyes and unfortunate hair, looked at me blankly.


“Yes, which floor is her office on, please?”

“Well”—she paused, as if it were a trick question—“this one.”

Miss Knighton struck me as quite young to be An Eccentric, but I said Righto as I was new and you don’t make friends if you’re standoffish.

– Dear Mrs. Bird

Lifting the quotation marks and the use of a strong verb to avoid the authorial injection of Emmy felt or thought keeps us right in the scene. I can’t think of a better example of This Is My Book, Thank You head time that doesn’t read like head time. Add this style feature to the little things like Dialogue First, Please and Straight-Line Story Telling with one-and-two-line backstory drops where appropriate and you get a book that’s fun, heartbreaking, courageous, and all the other adjectives best left to liner notes and press releases. It was all of that and more for me, and I found Being Emmeline for the journey was Never A Bad Thing.

The takeaway, besides no slop – Find out what you’re good at, Miss Lake, and then get even better. Mr. Collins to Emmeline. A true He Who Has Ears To Hear, Let Him Hear quote if ever there was one.

Briarpatch by Ross Thomas 

More About Me – I set parts 1 and 2 of a Grand Unfinished Project I wrote to relearn writing, for lack of anywhere else, in my old hometown. I named it but used (mostly) disguised or fictional locations. My first editor suggested I change it to a place like that town and not naming it outright. I listened, and in later episodes the protagonist and others refer to it euphemistically, with made up nicknames. I didn’t go back and fix it because I didn’t know how to artfully describe the general geography. Learning is part of why we read, right? Well, turns out Ross Thomas grew up where I did. And this book takes place there, just like early parts of mine, only he never calls it by name. Too bad proximity doesn’t make me Ross Thomas, but now that I’ve seen it done, I get it. It would be easier for me, as I spend much less time in specific, recognizable locations that would need renaming. Further, I knew exactly where this took place when early on Thomas’s character mentions the city as being home to Two Notorious Inventions – the parking meter and the shopping cart. Only natives would know that. Here’s a blurb from Amazon that got it all wrong.

“A long-distance call from his small Texas hometown on his birthday gives Benjamin Dill the news that his sister Felicity—born on the same day exactly ten years apart—has died in a car bomb explosion.”

To whomever—Not Texas, and the town’s not that small. But as my friend Jackson’s California Publicist says, “You can’t be an Okie, even if you are. You’ve got the accent, and Texas is so nouveau.” Need I mention “car bomb explosion” is redundant in the extreme? Enough of Me And What I Learned.

Briarpatch won an Edgar Allen Poe Award in 1984 for Best Novel. The author won The Edgar in 1967 for Best First Book. I know why. This thing screams Modern Noir. The pacing is a work of art. Fast, slow, nerve-wracking, witty, snide, observant, sensitive, deadly–all when called for. Dialogue tags? A page can go by without attribution. It’s not needed. We know who’s talking, and how they say what they say keeps us in it with tone. In fact, I read this as I was feeling guilty about scenes in My Last Work where I let the characters talk without me and decided if it’s good enough for my homey Ross, then it’s Good Enough For Me.

The story(ies) in Briarpatch are convoluted, full of enough Shadowy Red Herring Corners to keep the Spooks And Spies And Conspiracies crowd happy without beating it to death. As one review suggests, watching Thomas juggle and never drop two plot lines is almost as much fun as reading the book. Thomas’s first book weaves four different times and locations. In the interviews I’ve read, Thomas always states that he didn’t know how his books would turn out when he started them. Which explains why reading them you never know where it’s going or what’s going to happen. The other thing that happens, like any good book, is when you put down a Ross Thomas, you’re never where you were before you read it. When big time award winners call Ross Thomas the Elmore Leonard of politics, believe them.

Takeaway “… (A) whole shelf of books with his name on them, in none of which one will ever encounter an ill-chosen word, an infelicitous phrase or a clunky sentence.” From Lawrence Block’s foreword to a reprinting of Briarpatch.

When I say I wish I’d written these two books, it’s not because their subject matter represents the Greatest Stories Ever Told, although Briarpatch is right up my alley. To me, both books exhibit the difference between marginal to good, workmanlike Close Enough For Horseshoes And Hand Grenades writerly output and elite craftsmanship. It’s not simply down to an understanding of the little things, of skilled mechanics and the finesse that keeps you turning pages without getting kicked out of the story. It’s being a big enough storyteller to put your best into it and get the hell out of the way. These two books do that, in their own way, and both represent, to me, the highest form of craft. If it’s not story, it’s not there. The story lines and styles might not be for everyone, but whatever you write, these are Stories About People, and textbooks for How It’s Done.

NVDT Book Review

Just an Odd Job Girl – Sally Cronin

I mentioned I read waaaaay out of my usual Reading For Entertainment sphere beginning sometime last summerFor those reading this you know by now I don’t do book reports. For all the finer points of the story, the characters, the plot, summations and all of that you need to read the book for yourself. All the And Then Imogen Does This or That and Golly What a Laugh are for readers to discern. To me, reviews should be impressions of the Product, not a retelling.

4.5 Stars– Sally always turns out something good, and always has wonderful things to say about Indie books and authors where, for the life of me, the best I could do for some of them would be in the “Nice sweater. It really hides your double chin” vein. That is all to say Sally is a Saint in the world of Indie Authors, and yes, I know it’s difficult to knock on anything that reads like a memoir if it’s well done, and this one is.

So why 4.5 on an easy “Five for what it is” book? Because I take a multi-faceted look at books, and lately I have been leaning on What It Could Have Been barring certain mechanics. In this case a comparison might be made to a five-star restaurant using plastic utensils. We are served a wonderful dish on a paper plate vehicle.

My .02 – Enough mid-life women dumped for the sultry secretary by men too innately stupid to see past the end of their peckers. While late in the book the ex and his wife’s failure to adapt to a baby is humorous, it’s also, as is the alone in mid-life by aforementioned stupid men, beyond stale. This sort of fictional memoir, replete with all the peripheral Mr. Mom letting the “I” binge eat, lose self-esteem and identity and then recover, would be better off leaving all the cliché vehicles at the front gate and entering the missive without them. These well-written, colorful, conversational style scenes would shine much brighter without the cliché tarnish. All a reader needs to know is the woman is single, in mid-life, and has applied for a job. Thinking of all her past jobs before becoming the once Mrs. Haus Frau and preparing to pull herself up by the bootstraps is story enough. Even the blurb could do without the dumbass husband, who we see throughout the book in various positions as boyfriend, non-boyfriend, eventual husband and ex. All we need to learn on the front end is the chump is gone. We’re here, now, with this pleasant, humorous woman and her crazy quilt of experiences and for my money the story is its own backstory and requires no set-up mechanism of Why Or How I Came To Be Here. “I” am here, and here’s some stories.

Does that sound harsh? Maybe so, and maybe it’s a preference. However, anyone who disagrees that tired set-up is acceptable in the memoir format, particularly one that covers a lot of ground, I commend them to Sandra Cisneros’s vignettes in The House on Mango Street or Eudora Welty’s Thirteen Stories. Or even the refried trickster fables of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus. The narrator, the “I” is on a porch or in a park or kicking bricks in the Barrio and shares a story with us. I can see Sally Cronin’s narrative voice looking out her window, sitting in her garden, taking a walk, looking in the mirror, bustling about town feeling both determined and out-of-place, telling her stories as shorts, without the “I’m here because I married a dick head”. There are reviews out there who disagree and wholeheartedly embrace the Louse Of A Husband set up. Hear this -I am not suggesting jump in In Media Res, but The Odd Job Girl is why we’re here and her stories stand up by themselves. We should meet the “I” as she is and let her talk, sans distraction.

Also on display here is the author’s wonderful way of presenting characters with just enough description to make them our own. There are short gems in here every bit as good as MacDonald, Chandler, pick your author who only needs a line to put you in the characters’ space.

Last Call – If you want to read a Very Good Version of the discomfort and ultimate satisfaction of youthful to adult job hunting, job finding, job doing, re-careering and all the oddball characters and situations you’ll meet along the way, as well as some not overindulgent or overdone Discovering of Self, this is a Very Good Version, ex and all.