Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Bourne on Monday: Sample

I'm 46k words into my latest fantasy. It's a cross between Oceans 11 and Beauty and the Beast. Mr. Mask is a shape-shifting thief with a soft spot for a young misfit witch. Here's the first draft of chapter one.

Nothing could go Wrong


“Give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.”
—Oscar Wilde

It was Monday morning, so I wore the face of Solomon Bourne, a fortyish mouse of a man who worked for the magical Knox Vault Company. Because my parents never gave me a name, I could choose any I liked. I remembered this identity using the children’s nursery rhyme, “Solomon Grundy, born on a Monday.” Like the poem, he was from England.
I climbed the stately stone steps of the Maryland Smithsonian office and tugged on the door. I feigned surprise when it was locked. Then, I held my vendor’s ID up toward the security camera.
A heavy guard ambled over from his desk, powdered sugar from a donut staining his solid-blue tie. He was an ex-football player from New Jersey with a bad knee. He recognized me the way people did the moving boxes in their basement that they never opened. “Why are you here? Don’t you know what today is?”
My big score. I tapped the tickets in my left vest pocket. “The comic-book convention?” I asked with a faint British accent. The success of any magic trick is based on staying in character and selling the lie.
“No. Memorial Day. The place is closed. You don’t need to be here to open the vault.”
He was referring to Dangerous Religious Artifacts department, so named because the US government could never admit that magic exists. Built in the Lincoln era, the DRA was the most secure facility in the country. I’d been here as Bourne every time they opened or closed the vault. But on a holiday, there were only four guards in the entire building instead of the normal ten. I had arranged the perfect way past the defenses and rehearsed it until nothing could possibly go wrong. My client would be pleased.
I pulled an authorization form out of my doctor’s bag. “That’s why the company wants me to drain the tanks today. With all the arrests and artifact seizures this year, you have record levels of dark Kirilian radiation massing. Wouldn’t want any of that stuff leaking out, would we?” That was the polite 1970s term for black magic that would melt your eyes out for even looking at it.
With a sigh, he let me in. The current display in the lobby had to do with Watusi ceremonial dress, but the wooden staff in the mannequin’s hands wasn’t Watusi; it was Northern Chinese. I couldn’t read the runes to be more precise. Not my circus, not my monkeys. Bourne wouldn’t know the difference, so I can’t say anything. Officially, this facility was storage for overflow Smithsonian exhibits, and the workers rotated the items in the lobby to keep us appearances.
While Donut-stain radioed his boss in the control room, I signed the logbook in front of a surly African-American woman. She must have started her civil service career in the TSA because she had me take off my leather sandals first. Then she patted me down thoroughly. In the process, she failed to notice that I had temporarily removed my fingerprints.
“Pass your bag through the scanner.”
I had latex gloves, tools, Chiclets gum, and a dozen other suspicious devices in my kit, but the only thing that raised an eyebrow were the medicated wipes in my jacket. “It’s for hemorrhoids.” I didn’t say mine. The container had a gel-filled false bottom the exact size and shape of the gemstone I was here to liberate. I used a gel because I didn’t want anyone to rattle the container and find the cubic-zirconium replica.
“It’s okay. He always carries them,” said Donut-stain.
I’d made them a part of my identity since the beginning, making them invisible.
She grimaced. “Proceed to the elevator on the left. You must be escorted at all times.”
Yeah, but they never follow me into the bathroom. I had tested the switch technique on a smaller item. I could toss the container out the narrow bathroom window and walk out scot-free. Within a minute of the drop, my associate Elaine would pass by walking her dog and scoop it up in a plastic baggie.
Another side of beef in blue stood at attention beside the elevator. They both had six inches on me, but I could take them out without a sound if I had to. Bored by the holiday closure, guard two did something unheard-of. He asked me a social question. “How about that Polish soccer game last night?”
He meant the FIFA tournament, but I didn’t own a TV. However, I didn’t want to reveal a personal fact that they might use to track me later. So I touched the hearing aid in my right ear. “Pardon?”
Soccer guard averted his eyes. It’s a trick I learned. People avoid looking at what they perceive as disabilities. It makes them uncomfortable and leaves fewer witnesses for me. I can lip-read for other reasons.
The guards put their keys in on either side of the ancient elevator and turned them simultaneously. Donut said to Soccer, “The people downstairs like that he can’t listen in on secrets about m-a-g-i-c.”
“How did it happen?”
“Testing one of their vaults with dynamite. Long story. His family has been in this business for generations. His grandfather met Jesse James.” A good legend grows with each telling.
The doors opened, and I stepped inside. The elevator had two buttons but only needed one—not here. In twenty minutes, I would be holding the thing I’d worked two months to steal. I’d also spent almost every dime I had on the preparations.
As the doors began to close, a woman’s voice called from the lobby, “Hold the lift!”
When I saw her long, white hair, I pushed the Close button frantically. It didn’t help.
Soccer guard put his foot in the gap.
I froze in terror. What is she doing here? If I weren’t working for someone else, I would’ve run away then and there. The Drinking God always enforces oaths; he’s touchy about that. She won’t recognize me if I don’t speak. This can still work.
Slightly out of breath from the run, the gorgeous blued-eyed Nordic woman passed over credentials from the pocket of her business jacket. “Delilah Theowin, Salem security. I’m here to suspend the wards for the special opening today.”
Donut-stain frowned. “Why not Agnes?”
My sentiments exactly. Agnes was a half-blind bureaucrat and let me get away with anything. If things went south, I couldn’t choke Delilah unconscious and look myself in the mirror again.
“The theonic radiation in the DRA is a concern, so they brought me in as a specialist. I’m a priestess skilled in handling sacred items.” Witches didn’t use judgmental terms like dark or evil.
“Yeah,” said Donut, glancing at me. “I heard something about that.”
Crap. She had certain rare immunities and resistances that had been strengthened by the tattoos all over her body. Instinctively, my eyes went to the ward spiral visible through her white nylons. Don’t stare! With great effort, I raised my chin to be a gentleman, even though nobody else was. I’d brought this on myself, spreading the backstory too far. Stay in character, and this will all work. I held the door open for her, and she backed into the elevator. Her hair smelled of lavender, just like it had ten years ago. With her heels, she was an inch taller than me.
She said one word, and I knew I was screwed. “Morgan!”
The ten-year-old girl came galloping through the lobby like a wild horse, her wavy black mane flowing unbound. Small for her age, she made up for it with attitude. She wore a private-school uniform with a pleated skirt but no shoes. She’d removed them for the security search but never bothered to put them back on.
Her mother growled, but the infraction didn’t merit an argument in front of people she worked with.
Donut-stain frowned. “Hey, this is no place for kids.”
Delilah pushed the down button. “Yeah? Well, I’m not from this country. Nobody told me her new school would be closed today, and she’s been banned from the only suitable day care. Anger issues.”
“Mr. Mask!” said the girl, gazing at me with her chocolate eyes.
How the hell did she recognize me with implants and surgical alteration? Despite having a mouth like a truck driver, this child was the most dangerously smart and creative person I had ever met. I tried to reason with her, putting a finger to my lips.
Donut-stain stepped into the elevator at the last instant to do his job. Why is he starting now? Then I remembered Delilah’s legs. “He can’t hear you, kid. He’s deaf.”
Morgan opened her mouth to contradict him, but I took a chance and signed, “Play along. I can’t talk, or your mother will know my secret.”
Her eyes grew huge. “I understand,” she said aloud. Then slowly, she signed back. “How do I understand?”
“Magic,” I replied vaguely. You don’t tell a little girl about mommy’s nasty deal with an elder god.
“I suck at magic.” She made a gesture that she shouldn’t have known for several years. “I’ve been thrown out of three schools. Can you help?”
I smiled, recognizing the symptoms from other crossbreeds. “Then those schools suck. They only know how to teach people to do magic. You are magic. You have a rare and precious gift. You can speak any language that the person you’re with knows.” Other abilities should manifest as she matured. “Some of your anger may be generated by the disconnect between what people are saying with their mouths and the truth that their body language is revealing.” My mother had been an oracle, and personal information sometimes popped into my head when I met people. The talent came in handy when planning a new job. Hacking people is easier than cracking safes.
“Well, stick a flute up my ass and call me a unicorn,” she muttered in Quebec French. Her face lit up like I’d given her the keys to her own life.
“Language!” her mother said sternly without turning.
The elevator stopped, but our signing conversation continued as Donut led us down the hall toward the head archivist’s office. “Are you my guardian angel?” Morgan asked, pointing toward my sandals.
They don’t have a word for what I am. Not a nice one. “Not an angel, but I watch over you whenever I can.”
Her mother pointed to a row of chairs. “Sit!”
Both Morgan and I obeyed reflexively.
Harrison Tweed stepped out of his boss’s office, the holiday replacement. This buffoon was everything I hated in an Ivy League bureaucrat—attractive, oily, and fond of claiming the accomplishments of others. “Hello… who do we have the pleasure of meeting?”
Gosh, he never kissed my hand.
Donut made introductions.
Harrison took Delilah into the office to sign some forms.
I whispered, “Call me Pepe Lepew. Mwah.” I kissed the little girl’s hand.
Morgan burst out in a fresh round of giggles.
“You two know each other?” Donut asked.
“What? You mean do I break into her house once a year and leave her presents, while she puts cookies out for me? That would be creepy.”
Covering her face, Morgan held in a snicker. That’s exactly what we’d been doing. When she turned three, she’d left her favorite platypus plush doll in a hotel. I tracked it down with my divination skills and returned it, but she caught me in the act. To buy her silence, I’d taught her how to tie her shoes. Her mom was a rightie while Morgan was a leftie like her no-good absentee father.
The guard took out his phone and pulled up a video of some sporting match. I used his moment of disinterest to transfer the Chiclets into my jacket pocket.
She signed, “Why are you here?”
“To rescue someone.”
“Who?”
The most powerful genie of his age, trapped in a vault. I made a locking gesture over my lips.
“Angel stuff. Got it.”
I wanted to hug her, but that would get me arrested for other reasons. Instead, I asked, “What happened at the day care?”
“I don’t know what the big deal is. I took a nap during some boring movie, and one of the other kids woke me up, screaming that I was a freak. So I washed his mouth out with hand sanitizer.”
She’s glowing in her sleep again. “You can’t do that.”
“They didn’t have any soap.”
“Nap anywhere but your own bed! I warned you.”
“Why not? Normal kids do.”
“For now, you have to trust me.”
The manager’s door opened, and Harrison frowned at the guard. “Take the child to the break room. Buy her something with sugar. Just keep her out of our hair.” Then he gestured me inside.
The access to the vault area was through of the back of the manager’s office.
I glanced down the hall toward the exit. Delilah could lose her job for what I was about to do. Watching her cry about that would be hard, but facing a berserk immortal would be worse.
****
Harrison narrated the whole experience as if he had designed it. “The DRA is surrounded by three feet of reinforced concrete on every side, with alternating meshes of silver, cold iron, and electrum to prevent access from supernatural forces. Recently, Knox has installed blockers for cell phones and ground-penetrating radar.” To be fair, the Knox Ultima mark 7 was an impressive piece of craftsmanship that filled the entire wall. The brushed-titanium fittings and pearlescent midnight-blue paint job wouldn’t be out of place on a Jaguar. Not many people could see the faint wards woven beneath the lacquered surface. The US government had spoiled the effect by installing fluorescent fixtures in the seventies. “The glassy substance around the perimeter is eog, a living aetheric material that absorbs any magical attack and transfers it to a storage array in the floor. It’s wand-proof. Inside, we maintain a self-contained environment so tight it could be used to store smallpox. And the only way in or out is through this seven-layer door.”
Just to throw him off his smug stride, I pointed to the two-foot plus sphere in the left corner.
Harrison rolled his eyes. “Oh. That’s the night depository. It’s how agents drop off dangerous items after hours.” The top quarter of the ball had been cut out like a Pac Man mouth with a pivot rod through the jaw. He demonstrated by lifting the lever at the bottom to show how the contents could be dumped onto the other side of the wall.
“Like a mailbox,” Delilah said.
“We catalog and shelve them the next morning. Nobody can access the magic sink that we’re draining today without opening that door.”
She smiled at the dramatic flair. “I’ve read the specs, sir. It’s a simple three-person lock. Mr. Bourne turns off the antimagic sponge. I suspend the wards, and you turn the combination. If you don’t mind my asking, why is he here instead of a federal employee?”
“Ah, well… one of the Special Branch geniuses invented a dimensional-gate detector last Halloween, and we’ve been busy rounding up artifacts ever since. Unfortunately, this storage facility isn’t rated for such a large influx, and our last two specialists passed out. Mr. Bourne’s disability has made him immune to the aetheric resonances.”
The first collapse had been a fluke, but I’d arranged the second by coating a car-door handle with a chemicals. I relied on the collapse fallacy for my plan B. If nobody gave me the ten seconds I needed to switch gems, the chewing gum in my pocket contained blood caps. I could fake internal bleeding. While they ran to call the ambulance, I could do the deed.
Delilah frowned at the idea that anyone was disposable.
Tapping his watch, Harrison prodded me to do my part. The nondisclosure signing and tour had put us behind schedule. The vault timer only had another five-minute window where the combination would work.
I opened the access panel and worked the override levers and knobs like an eighties kid with a Rubix cube. I wasn’t as dexterous as one of those teens, but I was a great deal stronger. Mechanical devices respect that about me. I twisted the final valve into the off position and nodded.
“That’s your cue, Miss Theowin.”
Delilah pulled a delicate Sterling silver rod from her purse, slashed downward, and uttered the release phrase. When that didn’t work, she cleared her throat and repeated the incantation.
“We don’t have all day, miss. Are you sure you’re qualified for this?”
Nope, that was the spell to reveal asshats. To be fair, she wasn’t a field tech. Her natural talent was absorbing other people’s magic and redirecting it. While it made her hard to kill, it was no substitute for hours of practice. Her form sucked.
She flipped through her manual, looking for what she might be missing.
Mr. Sphincter tapped his right wingtip.
During the third try, her voice and hand were shaking so much that she botched it worse than a first-year student. Three minutes. I needed her to succeed as badly as the Special Branch did. I let go of the valve and cleared my throat.
“Oh. The dampener must be interfering,” she said. “Something that old is bound to be touchy.”
As someone almost as old, I could have taken offense. Instead, I took her hand and drew a deep breath.
She smiled shyly.
Harrison snapped. “Just do it, you stupid woman!” Only he didn’t use the word “woman.” The slur was hard to pretend not to hear.
Delilah’s eyes sparked with dangerous fire. She wanted to spend the last few minutes of my window reaming him out.
It might have been worth the loss of the gem to watch this, but the explosion near the elevator knocked us all off our feet. White dust rained down from the acoustic tiles.

As I helped the witch to her feet, I realized someone else had figured out that today would be ideal to rob the vault, but Delilah had blown the timetable. Such precision meant an inside job. I began to suspect Harrington of being more than a jerk, though I couldn’t open my mouth to warn her. My best hope was that these thieves were professionals. I could still rescue the gem and use their incursion to mask my own crime.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Classic Space Opera for Free

Fellow Indie author Craig DeLancy has a free novel this week. His series reminds me of the snark in the old Retief books and the alien races ring true to classic Flinx space opera.

Click here to pick up a copy!

Well of Furies: Predator Space Chronicles I by [Craig DeLancey]


Monday, April 27, 2020

Opening Salvos


I analyzed first sentences and first pages from 566 common-domain and free novels to better understand what makes a good book beginning. From a publishing/programming standpoint, we’ll call a page 250 words. Clearly, math tools won’t write the perfect opening for you, but it can, like spell-checking your resume, prevent readers from dismissing you before getting to the end. I don’t know what ideal is, but I can look at the bell curve of hundreds of attempts and tell you what the bottom 5th percentile looks like.

FIRST SENTENCE

The first sentence should ideally grab your reader and demand attention. I’m not talking about using an exclamation point. The best ones set the tone and character without the reader realizing how much you’ve communicated. Often, they state a theme that the book is going to prove. I only saw one “it was a dark and stormy night.” I wish I could give good and bad examples below, but copyright restrictions prevent that. I can relay observations. The average grade level is 7.4, although applying the Gunning-Fog reading level to just one sentence isn’t reliable, so we’ll need other indicators.

One thing you want to avoid is proper-noun soup where you bombard the reader with long, foreign words until they give up. The samples averaged 1.3 names per opening sentence, with a record of 9 names. Statistically, anything over 3 is excessive. If you have a military space opera, though, you can safely make it four because those readers are accustomed to ranks being part of the name.

How long is an average first sentence? However long it takes. I’ve seen them everywhere from a one-word expletive to 112 for “Le Mis”. However, if I cut out the few ancient tomes over the 100-word level, we’re left with a pretty consistent average of 17 words, plus or minus a 10-word standard deviation. Thus, if you take more than 32 words to grab your reader, it’s probably too much. For hard words (3+syllables), they averaged only one occurrence, with that usually being part of a name or an adverb. Having over 3 hard words should be a red flag unless you’re writing a medical thriller. What about commas, another sign of complexity? Of sentences I scanned, exactly half had any. Use one if you need it. The 8 eight percent with more than two are probably risking their audience, and the guy with seven is daring them to leave.

What should this opening sentence be composed of? First, I will examine the verbs used. The most common, by far, were forms of IS. Note the exponential curve, where SAID appears half as often. The remainder of the top achievers were all action (total 33%+), sensory (8%), or recall (5%) verbs. These all make sense because they set the tone/mood for your scene and pull the reader in—except begin/start, which stood out as weak and could have been eliminated to make a better opening. People tend to die, fall, or awaken much more in the first line for the sake of drama. They also stare rather than look.

Verb
% line ones
% first
page
is
11.9
9.1
said
5.3
6.0
know
2.6
2.6
come
2.3
1.9
stand
2.1
0.9
begin
1.8
1.0
sit
1.8
0.8
see
1.8
2.0
go
1.4
1.2
make
1.4
1.6
take
1.4
1.3
die
1.2
0.4
stare
1.1
0.3
think
1.1
1.2
wake
1.1
0.3
fall
0.9
0.5
hear
0.9
0.8
glance
0.8
0.3
look
0.8
1.5
remember
0.8
0.3
believe
0.6
0.6
check
0.6
0.3
feel
0.6
0.9
move
0.6
0.3
wait
0.6
0.4
watch
0.6
0.4

What also speaks volumes are the five common words in the rest of the novel that we never see in the first line: get, seem, keep, try, and happen. I’ve found that I can replace almost all instances of the overused word “get” in my writing with stronger/more specific ones. I suspect the same may be true of some of the other passive ones.

Did any sentence pattern establish itself as dominant? Not really. Not even all the sentences were complete. In the span of an entire novel, I see few patterns occur more than .5 percent of the time. The most common are usually:
SV       SVAN             SVN                SVJN

For opening lines, I saw these in lower concentrations plus few others, mainly with AJN instead of S and a wide variety of prepositional phrases. The range is so extreme and sparse that I could make no further generalizations.
SVRSVANPAN         AJNVJ            AJNVJPANPNPO     JNVJN                        SVJPN
SVPJN                       SVPAN           SVPN

The next thing to examine is the difference between the parts of speech in the first sentence when compared with all the others in a novel: no profanity or interjections to speak of, fewer pronouns, contractions, verbs, and objects. When you think about it, proper nouns have to be used before the pronouns or objects that represent them. Contractions should only be used in dialog, so those should occur less often. The increased prepositions tended to be mostly “of” or “in.” Adjective counts fluctuated based on style and genre, but they would remain fairly consistent throughout a given novel. Openings use more prepositions, articles, and proper names to compensate for the missing parts. (see table)

Part Of Speech
% First
Sentence
% Other
Sentences
First
Word %
by Type
Prepositions
14.5
10.7-11.9
5.5
Articles/his/her
14.7
10-11
22.7
Nouns
13.5
13.1
7.3
Ambiguous(noun or verb)
13.5
14.3
5.2
Adjectives
8.9
7.0-8.7
6.1
Pastp verbs
5.1
5.2
0.9
Proper nouns
5.0
2.9
19.5
Adverbs
3.2
3.4
3.2
Subject (he/she/it/you)
3.1
6.1-8.5
17.8
Gerund
2.9
2.4
0
Is verb
2.7
2.2
0
Clause
2.5
3.6-4.3
4.1
Other verbs
2.5
3.1-3.5
0.6
Conjunctions
2.35
2.4
0.9
Help verbs
1.9
3.5
0
Contractions (N plus V)
1.2
2.0
0
Objects
0.8
1.3
0
Said
0.7
1.8-2.3
0
Interjection
0.0
0.2
0

Zeroing in on the very first word, we can see that two-thirds of the opening sentences start with a strong article, proper noun, a subject, or an adjective. A good choice of subject is usually I or we. The word “it” leads to meandering passive voice, but this may be the Victorian tone the author is trying to set. The use of “he” or “she” as the opener immediately begs the question for the reader—who the heck are you talking about? Even when the title of the chapter explains who the author is referring to, having to go back and deduce the information hacks me off. Beginning with a verb, conjunction, gerund, or interjection is not normal unless it is a past participle used as an adjective or a command such as a forceful “don’t” inside dialog. I would go so far as to say that spending your first word on a conjunction is a complete waste, as is beginning with the vague adverb “there,” or a padding word like “actually.”

Why is this important past the first few seconds of reading? Well, the rules for clarity and creativity for the first sentence apply to every chapter and scene break after that. When readers put down and restart your book, it will likely be at one of these breakpoints. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve stopped an Indie novel because they began every scene with the name of the main character. Boring! It’s like flipping a coin that always turns up heads. By the third time in a row, you’re going to know something is wrong. Only it’s worse for proper names because the odds for repeating them three times at random would be one in 400. With hundreds of scenes in a novel, it can happen, but it shouldn’t be the default.

FIRST PAGE

By contrast to the opening line, the first page smoothes out to an average reading level of only 6.1 (down 1.3 grades). The average sentence length is also 2.1 words shorter than the opening sentence. This tells me that many books overextend a little on the first sentence trying to shove all the info-dumps in. This happens for Indie as much as traditional publishers. About all I can say with certainty is that if your first page is above grade 9.5, you should simplify it.

What lessons can we apply from what we learned from the first line? If you start three paragraphs in a row with the same word or type of lead-in (name, article, gerund, or relative clause), people will notice, especially since paragraph beginnings stand out on the first page.

You should avoid introducing too many characters right off the bat. When you do, give them unique names that don’t look or sound alike, so we know who is who. How many new character/place names is too many on the first page? The average was 8 +- 6 unique names. If you have over 17 different uppercase names on page one (not counting ranks and titles), think hard about trimming. My personal record was 24, where two people were discussing Dwarves (which I capitalized to denote the race) and their favorite Sean Connery movies. So these rules of thumb have exceptions.

How long should we wait before starting dialog? The graphs were bimodal on this one, with 12 percent of them jumping in on the first sentence. The rest of the books waited an average of 190 (+-40) words, setting the scene carefully before anyone speaks. Thus, unless your main character is stranded on a desert island, you should have some sort of dialog before the top of page two. But some of those quotes I spotted were air quotes or nicknames. To compensate, I tracked how far to the first flowing dialog, where one quote ends and another begins with no tags in between. One-third of my samples never achieved this feat! Now, most of these were due to the samples being short stories or only 20 percent of a book, but several were because newbies hadn’t mastered the technique. I came to the conclusion that if the author didn’t have flowing dialogue by the 30K word mark, it probably had occurred by accident. Without these outliers, the average distance to flowing dialog was 1051 words +-1122, somewhere between pages 1 and 10. The threshold for starting too late is around page 15 (3750 words). I may use that as one of my metrics for whether to buy an e-book from the sample.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Best-Edited Free Books on Amazon

In my last post, I processed 212 published e-books with my PREEN 3.6 editing tool. One of the numbers I obtained was the EEK score, or estimated errors per kiloword. It's a composite score, telling me how difficult a given manuscript will be to edit/read. The lower the better, but it never gets to zero because the remaining "errors" were intentional or too trivial to bother with (like eliminating all repeated words or asked vs said comments). My own books average a score of 2.5. I recommend not publishing a book until it's polished below 10. Above a score of 16, I stop reading because the frequent mistakes make the story impossible for me to enjoy. I've seen a 49, a 37, and several 26s. I could instantly tell how much effort an Indie writer put into having the manuscript professionally edited. Below are the best score of the books I rated, something to be proud of.

SCORE  TITLE

10.08 Atlantis Ship
10.07 Warship
 9.96 Trilisk Ruins
 9.85 Inheritance (FV)
 9.81 Into the Unknown
 9.76 Renegade Star
 9.56 Someone Else’s Daughter
 9.38 Schism8: The Green Ones (FV)
 9.32 Back Worlds
 9.31 The Breakers
 9.28 The Gamma Sequence
 9.10 Quantum Tangle
 8.94 Viable Hostage
 8.70 Do No Harm
 8.66 Star Shroud
 8.64 Hidden Deep
 8.45 Black Obsidian
 8.38 A Killing Truth
 8.05 Passage at Arms
 8.00 Heart of Darkness
 7.90 Of Metal and Magic (FV)
 7.79 Silver and Superstition (FV)
 7.73 Cost of Glory (FV)
 7.40 Rose Red (FV)
 6.03 Dragon’s Maid (FV)
 5.15 Snapped


Note that FV refers to Fiction Vortex titles. This company has access to a beta version of my tool, which results in quality improvement you can measure.

Unpack your Adjectives

In the movie Amadeus, one of my favorite scenes is when the king criticizes one of Mozart's pieces for having "too many notes." I feel this way every time I'm in a crit group and someone complains I have too many adverbs (and her boyfriend's story had exactly the same density). In beloved classics, I've seen everything from 33 to 87 adverbs per thousand words. It takes exactly as many notes as necessary to achieve the desired effect. However, with all my work on editing software, I know that there is a definite threshold at which adverbs become noticeable--around 50 instances per thousand words. I don't require a hard limit when I'm making my final pass on a story, but it's a signal for me to thin the number of excess adverbs in dialog tags, places where I start three sentences in a row with the same type of word, and reduce the instances of my top three addiction words (currently just, still, only). Thin areas where people may object. Think of it like hair--everybody needs it. You just need to have it properly styled to fit your personality. A rock star will have a different expectation than a drill sergeant.

I said all that to ask if there is a similar threshold for adjectives because I count them as part of the statistics for the prototype I did for Fiction Vortex/Story Shop. Editors call too many lurid adjectives being "purple." Looking down the list on one book, I discovered my use of the word "whole" 88 times was an affectation, which could be eliminated with no loss of meaning in many cases.

Running the tool on over 200 published books (25 of my own, 25 from Fiction Vortex, 13 Andre Norton, 125 free Kindle, and 23 classics from the Guttenberg Project), I found a definite recurring value. Modern writers across genres average 52 adjectives per thousand with a standard deviation of 7. For those of you who aren't math majors, a deviation is enough of a difference from the average to warrant docking you a letter grade. So, if you have 60 adjectives per thousand, you should look it over, and at 67, you're as purple as Barney.

This number is not hard and fast for many reasons. HP Lovecraft had eldritch beasts and all manner of queer folk, topping out at 77 for Dunwich Horror.

old 50
some 45
more 39
great 33
much 20
any 19
such 18
strange 18
certain 17
black 16
kind 15
big 14
monstrous 14
another 14
dark 12
ancient 12
cold 11
terrible 11
deep 11

In fact, narrative-based epic fantasy that has longer paragraphs and less dialog will necessarily rely on more descriptive words to convey setting and tone. Some action-heavy sequences are the same. You use the tools you need. Hemmingway had journalistic training, so he was a minimalist. He chose every word for maximum effect. But it bears noting that the Victorian epics like Jane Austen with 600-word paragraphs intend to be baroque and overly detailed--that was the style. So a friend who has a Victorian superhero story with lots of Steampunk battles or a Three Musketeers styled courtly romance, intrigue, and sword fights can expect to average 61+-9 adjectives per thousand. However, Dunwich is purple even for these genres, and movies made from his work tend to be over the top. But that's why his fans like them. If people went to see Kill Bill 2 and it didn't have as many dead ninjas as Kill Bill 1, people would ask for their money back. The point of a tool is to see if what you have on your canvas is what you intended.

Since I was collecting stats, I threw paragraph length into the mix. I saw everything from 93 to a thousand words in the classics. But modern novels average 165 words +- 36 (expecting the range 129-201). If you are outside this range, it should be by conscious intent. All the books I wrote before 2010 were over the 200-word boundary, but this was the Ancient Greek or Tolkien style I wanted to emulate. However, at 250 words, your paragraphs are a page long and your reader may need some white space, and it can feel like a flogging (Moby Dick details on the whaling industry). More importantly, you should vary the lengths over the course of a novel so you don't bore your reader or wear them out. Also, make the length appropriate to the mood. Action passages should be brief and have punch. I remember reading what should have been a thrilling escape through the wilds of Canada and saying "Another two-page description of mountains?"

The last statistic I examined was the percent of the novel told through dialog. This was the most variable of them all. The average was 31 +- 12 (expect 19 to 43). However, my YA novels and team books have more. This wasn't a place where I could make any rules. Seven percent dialog seemed natural for a novel about survival alone on an alien planet. Call of the Wild and Robinson Crusoe are both 3 percent, whereas Sherlock Holmes is 75 and Time Machine is 87. There doesn’t seem to be a wrong answer for the average, as long as you keep things interesting and give adequate descriptions of each new person and place.

Editing sofware can be a valuable tool to improve the quality of your writing, but in the end, the artist and reader have the final say over whether the components used achieve the desired effect.