Friday, August 5, 2011

Wandering Body Parts: A Cautionary Tale

Sounds kinda sexy, doesn't it, as if some delectably hot man is letting his fingers wander slowly over your skin as he seduces you. Or chilling, if the body parts are just wandering around the parking lot when you go to the store for a gallon of milk--disembodied arms and leg flopping across the tarmac on a mission to kill you.

Alas, it's nothing so dramatic, dear writers. It's just a description of a character's action written as though the character has no control over what their body parts are doing.

Believe me, though, it is out to get you. Muahahahha! (That was the phenomena of  wandering body parts laughing, not me, by the way. I have enough problems with it myself.)

Would an editor, seeing a flood of WBP's in your submission pass on the project? Depending on the editor and the standard of writing expected, of course they could. Like head hopping or any other big no no, editors know they're gonna have to explain how passive and active voice works to that author should they accept the submission, how voice relates to perspective, yaddah yaddah yaddah. That's a lotta work an editor would rather not have to do.

Here are a few of the classic examples we all know and love:
Her eyes flew across the room.
Her lips nibbled his neck.
His feet pounded the path.

At one time or another we've all come across them in some variation or another.

It is a phenomena, by the way. And even the most conscientious, anal retentive of us get caught up in it. If you're looking at a bunch of action sentences all close together, in a sex scene, say, and trying to avoid starting every sentence with 'He' or 'She', do your best to not fall into the "Oh, using a wandering body part-passive voice-type sentence adds variety" trap. Wrestle those words around until the subject is the character, describe around the action, leave the sentences alone for a few days and gain a little distance, do anything...

Wow, Mary. Talk about dramatics.

But feel no guilt, dear writers, just recognize the WBP phenomena, correct it and move on. Tell your beta readers and CPs to be on the lookout for it in your work and do the same for them. Like having a spa day and treating your friend to one too, it just does you both sooo much good.

Here's another way to look at Wandering Body Parts. Remember Sir Isaac Newton and "A body at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force"?

How strange that I sucked so badly at physics in high school I flunked all the tests about the laws of Gravity and Motion, yet here I am, an editor, realizing Sir Isaac was indeed a god of science. Hmm. No wonder my mother threw a fit when she saw my grade...all that education money down the tubes.

Anyhoo. Sir Isaac was correct as usual. A character's body parts stay at rest unless used by the character to do something--anything.

And that's exactly what should be happening in those example sentences but is not. If a character is acting even in the smallest way, unless they can't help it, that character is in control of their actions. Every eye movement, gasp, sigh, motion of their hands, feet and every body part in between. Lips do not just nibble--the female character nibbles using her lips. His feet don't pound without him making them pound; he pounded the path with his feet. Remember that.

Yes, sentences are written like that all the time, in all sorts of books. That doesn't make it right, or cool, though it might be trendy, and can be especially embarrassing in sex scenes. Just imagine, as an author has written it, whoo-hahs and schmeckels doing whatever the heck they want all over the page without the knowledge of the hero or heroine. Cringe-worthy, and a little scary, I think.

I'm truly blessed as an editor, because every author on my roster, even those sparkling new to the Mary's World of Writing Weirdness party do not intentionally make the Wandering Body Parts mistake. They fight it tooth and nail. I can tell that whenever I read their work. But like me, they're human, and like any writer, seeing the trees for the forest is hard. I place no blame and totally sympathize. We are in the boat together.

This cautionary tale is for anyone preparing submissions and revising out there in the world beyond my roster.
If you've figured out that the true and correct subject of all the example sentences is 'he' or 'she', and realize that's true of any sentence involving a character acting--even if the 'he' or she' is just understood and not blatantly trotted out as one of the words in the sentence--you, dear writer, are golden. And if your character can't help nibbling your hero's neck or gasping because he's so unbelievably delicious, then that must be specified. Easy, huh?