Tag Archives: shades of grey

#SaystheEditor How’s Your Beard?


I was sitting at the field with a book the other day. Not an unusual thing for me, even as autumn chills creep into the West of Mars landscape. The players add a layer. I either retreat to my car during practice or add a layer and a blanket.

But what I encountered in the book wasn’t so easy to deal with.

It’s a contemporary sports romance (and I’m looking for more recommendations, if you’ve got any) and it was credited to a big-name editor at a big-name publisher.

And I can’t say it’s badly written. But it’s not well-written.

(Shades of grey… you guys know I’m all about ’em.)

So what’s the difference between not badly written and not well-written?

Well, shades of grey, of course. I just said that. In this case, as the author’s describing the hero, in one paragraph he has stubble. It’s sexy stubble, of course, but it’s stubble.

In the very next paragraph, or maybe it’s two paragraphs later, he’s got the beginnings of a beard.

Hello? Which is it? Stubble, or the beginnings of a beard? They are different. Very different. Stubble is short. It’s a couple hours or maybe a day after shaving. It’s brush burn on tender skin. You can’t even feel past it to caress the skin underneath. It’s sandpaper.

But the beginnings of a beard… it’s when the hair is longer. Softer. When you can put your hand on your man’s face and feel the contours of his jawline again. Sometimes, it tickles.

Makes sense to me… but am I the only one who sees this difference?

So I put the question to my panel of experts, otherwise known as teenagers, over a meal of Korean barbecue. Because what else does a family discuss over a meal of Korean barbecue?

And they agreed. Stubble is stubble. The beginnings of a beard… well, my oldest said, it’s more than stubble. Longer. It’s what his coach is currently sporting (and I maintain it’s a good look on him, too).

An example! Good child. I have trained you well.

And then, of course, the conversation spiraled. If the character goes from stubble to the beginning of a beard within two paragraphs, what does he look like at the end of the day? Dredlocked beard? Dumbledore? How often does the guy have to shave? Does he walk around with an electric razor and where other characters rub their faces contemplatively, does he flip on the razor and rub it over his cheeks and throat?

I have a creative family, even though we didn’t discuss how the differences between stubble and the beginnings of a beard affect the mental picture a reader draws.

But the point, of course, is that instead of focusing on the storyline (which is rather cliched, to be honest, and one we see all the time in Rock Fiction), we’re making fun of this book because of imprecise language. And the kids, of course, know that if this manuscript had crossed my desk, I’d have said exactly this to the author. Stubble is stubble and the beginnings of a beard are the beginnings of a beard, and they paint very different pictures in a reader’s mind. Pick one, I would say to Steve or Stevie. But only one, at least right here.

Stubble is stubble. The beginnings of a beard are the beginnings of a beard.

Know the difference, all you Steves and Stevies. Know the difference.


#SaystheEditor Shades of the Middle


I had a dust-up on Facebook with someone I like and respect the other day. She’d reposted one of those memes (fortunately one with proper grammar. I know. A rarity!) and left a comment about it that bothered me.

I replied that it was better to withhold judgement until all the facts in the case were known.

We had a lot of back-and-forth discussion, but she held firm to her position like a fly on flypaper. Or maybe like she was mired in quicksand. That might be a better analogy.

Here’s why: Her position targeted one group of people, and only one group. For her, it’s black and white. If you are THIS, don’t do THAT.

And essentially, I agree. But as I tried five ways from Friday to explain, I also see the problem as being much, much bigger than that.

Here’s where the situation circles around to be relevant to us as writers. And yes, my friend is a writer, which is why I’m surprised she’s so unable to see the shades of grey in a situation that she sees as black and white.

As writers, we know that every single book opens in the middle. Something has happened and as we work toward resolution, we have to learn the backstory, too. We learn the reasons characters act as they do. We learn those shades of grey, we learn why the situation isn’t what we first took it to be. Almost unfailingly, we learn that our initial assumptions were wrong.

Many reviewers who pick up a copy of my Trevor’s Song hate Trevor in the beginning. You’re supposed to. Trevor’s a self-centered whiny jerk. He’s also funny as hell and so brutally honest, he’s often painful to be around. But if you keep reading, you realize it’s a front.

But you have to keep reading. You have to explore beyond the obvious. You have to put your assumptions aside.

You’ll see this most clearly in a mystery, especially a mystery that opens with the discovery of the dead body. We only know half the story. We know someone’s dead. We don’t know the how or why. It’s the hero’s job (and our jobs as the writer) to learn it. What’s the backstory? Why did this person act the way they did? Did the man kill his boss because someone else got the promotion, or did the man kill his boss because the boss was dealing drugs at his desk and one of his customers had started stalking the killer, gotten dirt on him, and blackmailed him into killing the boss?

Makes you look differently at the killer, doesn’t it? He’s gone from being petty and angry over a promotion to being pretty sympathetic. The boss was a dick. The killer wound up the victim of someone else, trapped in a desperate situation.

Circumstances matter. Situations matter. There are shades of grey in this world for a reason, folks, and that reason is to enrich our lives. To keep us from being a carbon copy of everyone else around us. It takes all kinds to make the world. It takes all colors to make fiction so vibrant and alive.

Whether it’s real life or fiction, we need to remember that. Look beneath the surface. Remember that old cliche about pointing one finger and four pointing back at you.

Things aren’t what they seem. As writers, it’s our job to tease those things out. As writers, it’s our job to take the unlikeable and make them likeable. It’s our job to realize that while stereotypes exist for a reason, what makes our writing super rich is the ability to transcend stereotype. To not step into the quicksand and refuse to move out when someone asks you to consider a bigger picture.

Embrace the world, embrace our differences. Explore what sets every person apart from each other. And remember that the facts in every single case are different and taking a stand against everyone, like a blanket, is only going to cause more hurt and pain than what you’re trying to prevent by opening your mouth in the first place.

Until you know someone’s story, don’t judge.

Until you know your fictional character’s story, keep writing.