Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Don't Be A Turkey!

The Turkey City Lexicon is a collection of tips, tricks, terms and writing pratfalls that has little to do with our fine and tasty feathered friends. It got its name from an Austin, Texas, science fiction writers’ workshop. Developed by and for science fiction writers, there is much to admire in the TCL, no matter your favored genre. Additionally, writing groups like and the Otherworlds Writer’s Workshop added their own items to the uncopyrighted mix.

As far as romance authors are concerned, the Lexicon can be of great use, whether you use it in your critique group to streamline explanations or in your personal editing to recognize naughty writing habits that don’t involve whipped cream or shape-changing heroes. The Lexicon makes no attempt to be “nice” about amateur writing, and you might find yourself flinching if you recognize some of the things you might have done in your own stories. Several entries in the Lexicon jumped out at me as issues I hear discussed in the romance industry, and I have elaborated on them below. Please note that my selections from the TCL have been edited for content, and if you want to see the whole shebang, visit one of the many websites that features it.

1) “Said” Bookism — An artificial verb used to avoid the word “said.” The term “said-book” comes from certain pamphlets, containing hundreds of purpleprose synonyms for the word “said,” which were sold to aspiring authors from tiny ads in American magazines of the pre-WWII era.

Ex: “Derek, what are you doing rifling through my lingerie drawer?” Shana ejaculated. [I don't know about you but if the female character in my story is the one ejaculating, I'm not writing in the genre I thought I was!]

2) Tom Swifty — An unseemly compulsion to follow the word “said” with a colorful adverb, as in “‘We’d better hurry,’ Tom said swiftly.” This was a standard mannerism of the old Tom Swift adventure dime-novels. Good dialogue can stand on its own without a clutter of adverbial props.

Ex: “Shana, what are you doing home so soon?” Derek said angrily. [I thought about having Derek say this startledly, but that was too much even for an example of bad prose!]

3) Fuzz — An element of motivation the author was too lazy to supply. The word “somehow” is a useful tip-off to fuzzy areas of a story.

Ex: Derek had meant to hide his pilfering from Shana, but somehow he had forgotten what time she came home from work and somehow he had forgotten to lock the front door of the house. [Somehow, I think Derek is probably a tool, don't you?]

4) Show, Not Tell — A cardinal principle of effective writing. The reader should be allowed to react naturally to the evidence presented in the story, not instructed in how to react by the author. Specific incidents and carefully observed details will render authorial lectures unnecessary.

Ex: Shana’s very painful childhood and broken marriage with Derek’s kleptomaniac twin brother left her unable to trust Derek and suspicious when she found him in her lingerie drawer. [You'd think Shana would have learned her lesson with the first twin...]

5) Idiot Plot — A plot which functions only because all the characters involved are idiots. They behave in a way that suits the author’s convenience, rather than through any rational motivation of their own.

Ex: Derek grew angry with Shana when she forbid him from her lingerie drawer because he knew she had bras to spare. In turn, she accused him of going through her lingerie to fantasize about his ex-girlfriend who had happened to call three days ago. They had a passionate battle which prevented them from admitting their true feelings. [Considering the ex-girlfriend called to invite Derek for a "repeat of last Friday", perhaps Shana wasn't such an idiot.]

6) Infodump — Large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. Infodumps can be covert, as in fake newspaper or “Encyclopedia Galactica” articles, or overt, in which all action stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures.

Ex: When they went out to dinner after make-up sex, Derek secretly wore her scarlet bra and panties under his Armani suit. Derek had made a habit of wearing his girlfriends’ undergarments for years, ever since his mother used to dress him in girl’s clothing and make him tap dance upon the kitchen counter to the delight of the rest of the family. Derek had been a very attractive boy with long black curls and luxurious eyelashes. [The black of his curls matched the black of the blade of the knife with which he... Ok, no, he's the hero of this 'romance'!]

7) “As You Know Bob” — A pernicious form of infodump through dialogue, in which characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up-to-speed. This very common technique is also known as “maid and butler dialogue.”

Ex: “As you know, Derek, I caught you in my lingerie drawer just yesterday,” said Shana. “So this makes the tenth time in a month you have gotten in my panties.” [Derek laughed inwardly because she didn't know about the other times.]

8) Frontloading — Piling too much exposition into the beginning of the story, so that it becomes so dense and dry that it is almost impossible to read.

Ex: Shana takes pity on the readers of the OtherWorld Diner and does not give a frontloading example.

9) “I’ve suffered for my Art” (and now it’s your turn) — A form of infodump in which the author inflicts upon the reader hard-won but irrelevant bits of data acquired while researching the story.

Ex: The next day, Derek resisted the urge to wear panties under his Armani suit. Cross-dressing is a growing but furtive American phenomenon that affects both males and females. It had been scientifically proven that not just homosexual men wear female undergarments but also heterosexual men. [And all sorts of women wear trousers. What is this world coming to??]

10) Used Furniture — Use of a background out of Central Casting. Rather than invent a background and have to explain it, or risk re-inventing the wheel, let’s just steal one. We’ll set it in the Star Trek Universe, only we’ll call it the Empire instead of the Federation.

Ex: Derek could stand it no longer, so he drove home at lunch to put on a bra. Their nosy next-door neighbor Mrs. Busybottoms walked around to peer in the bedroom window with her yappy lap dog when no one answered the doorbell. “Well, I never!” she exclaimed when she saw Derek in Shana’s underwear. “Wait until the ladies at church hear about this!” [They'll be lining up at the window for their own sneak peek!]

11) Viewpoint glitch -- The author loses track of point of view, switches point of view for no good reason, or relates something that the viewpoint character could not possibly know.

Ex: “Derek!” cried Shana. She was broken-hearted to notice the wisp of lace poking out of the back of his pants. He had figured his Armani suit coat would cover it. “You’re wearing my red underwear and my favorite black bra!” [Once again, Derek cursed Shana's X-ray vision for spoiling all his fun.]

12) “Burly Detective” Syndrome — This useful term is taken from SF’s cousin-genre, the detectivepulp. The hack writers of the Mike Shayne series showed an odd reluctance to use Shayne’s proper name, preferring euphemisms as “the burly detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.”

Ex: Tears streamed down Shana’s face as she padlocked her underwear drawer. The voluptuous blonde felt her world would never be the same. It would take her longer to get dressed, longer to put the laundry away, and she shuddered to think what would happen if she lost the key. Would the voluptuous blonde ever feel free and easy about her panties again? [And then it occurred to her if she switched to thongs, Derek would quit wearing them because they were so blasted uncomfortable]

13) The Grubby Apartment Story — Writing too much about what you know. The kind of story where the starving writer living in the grubby apartment writes a story about a starving writer in a grubby apartment. Stars all his [or her] friends. Also known as "chick" or "women's" lit (kidding!).

Ex: Shana went to the lingerie store. The voluptuous blonde bought some 36C bras. She paid with her only moderately overdrawn credit card. She walked through the mall and out the entryway. She scratched her nose. [She couldn't think of a blog post. She remembered how funny the Turkey City Lexicon was. She...]

From the additions:

14) Infohiding — Withholding crucial information from the reader that the POV knows. Used to create cheap tension without having a necessarily tense plot. If you need to keep something hidden, present it from a POV who can’t find out [the information] either (though the hidden thing itself should still be interesting and worthy of being hidden).

Ex: What Shana had not realized by Chapter 17 was that Derek was actually a male stripper, who would take off his Armani suit for bachelorette parties all over the city, and the jaded society women tipped better if he wore women’s undergarments. Though half the book was in his POV, he never mentioned his job or why he was really wearing the panties. [But he did have an unidentified source of one dollar bills...] (original version) ( version with extra entries) (annotated version)


Jody W. *


  1. I won't tell you how many of these I've committed at some point or another. Oh wait, you already know ; )

    Thanks for the lesson. Love your examples.

  2. Lots of good examples of what not to do. Hopefully we can avoid all of these.

  3. This is a hilarious list. Thanks for sharing.

    However... with the "said" thing? I too have heard that you should use said instead of retort, reply, etc. A friend of mine listens to audio books...a lot. She HATES authors that do that. She says it takes her right out of story to hear
    "I told you Fred ran away," he said.
    "But he had every reason to, he borrowed Shana's panties from Derek," she said.

    Yeah - that would get old to listen to in the dialogue. (Not the panties revelation but "said" as a verb).