Please, Don’t Be Ignorant

Or at least don’t put your ignorance on display.

Hi Folks,

Ignorance is not a “bad” quality. It just means a lack of knowledge.

But if you choose to be a writer, shouldn’t you at least try to learn everything you can about the language and word usage?

It seems to me we’ve entered an age in which many of us would rather sound cool than illustrate that we aren’t ignorant.

I’m talking about creating nouns of verbs and verbs of nouns and other word-usage anomalies where there’s no reason to. Other than wanting to sound cool.

I don’t mind, really. But it’s still annoying. And disappointing.

When I read the work of a favorite author and see, in narrative, phrases like “should of” instead of “should have” or “should’ve,” it doesn’t completely destroy the reading experience. But it mars it pretty badly.

When I hear that a writer “journals” when what she means is “writes” or “keeps a journal” or “makes entries in a journal” I want to hurl chunks. I know, I know, but bear with me.

When I hear that someone “journals,” I wonder why nobody “diarys.” And why doesn’t anyone “novel” or “short story” or “flash fiction” or “poem”?

“I can’t go tonight,” she said. “It would interrupt my journaling.”

Yeah? Well, I can’t go either. It would interrupt my “short storying” and maybe even my “noveling.”

In the “Of Interest” section of my Daily Journal blog awhile back, I featured an article by Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader.

In that article, he featured an infographic that was titled “The Ultimate Flowchart for Finding Your Next Book.” Perfectly legitimate, that.

But in the title of the article he wrote to showcase the infographic, Nate saw fit to change “Book” to “Read,” as in “The Ultimate Flowchart for Finding Your Next Read.”

Why?

The change doesn’t enhance the meaning of the title. It doesn’t make it more descriptive or more informative.

It only makes me wonder whether the author is actually ignorant or lazy (he isn’t, I believe) or is trying too hard to be innovative. The fact is, “read” used as a noun is horribly disfigured shortspeak for “reading experience.”

I feel the same way when, in a work written for publication, I find “gift” used as a verb in place of the perfectly adequate “give” (or “gifted” for “gave” or “presented”).

And I feel the same way when I hear professionals use “likely” when they mean “probably.” Or when body parts are given human traits (the character’s “nose smelled” “legs raced” “eyes looked” “ears heard” etc.).

Contrary to what some folks believe, I don’t go around looking for instances where the writer’s ignorance is on display. I really don’t. Even when I edit.

I just read. Those instances leap off the page of their own accord and interrupt my reading. And the author’s number one task is to not interrupt the reader while he’s reading the author’s work, don’t you think?

Food for thought.

‘Til next time, happy writing.
Harvey

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The Use of Italics, Revisited

Hi Folks,

For a very long time, I used italics to indicate unspoken thought and anything that was being read (still unspoken thought) like signs, short notes, etc. (Note: what I accurately call  “uspoken thought” is what others refer to as “internal monologue.”)

One day I sent an assignment in to the instructor in a workshop I was taking online. He enjoyed the story, with one caveat. Each time he encountered italics, he said, it jerked him out of the story.

Well, that’s not good. As a reader, I’ve been interrupted, my suspension of disbelief shattered, by various problems. Often those were formatting issues, usually either ALL CAPS or BOLD CAPS or just bold print. Sometimes, though rarely, it was what I saw as overuse of italics.

Other times it was some technical error that screamed the writer’s inexperience or lack of knowledge, something as simple as Marine being spelled in all lowercase (when talking of a member of the Marine Corps) or the writer using “clip” to mean “magazine.” (They are not the same thing.) As one example, I found mistakes like this regularly in James Patterson’s books; as a result, I no longer even try to read them.

Each time I encountered any of the problems mentioned above, I was shoved out of the story. Understand, this was not my choice. I didn’t go looking for something to annoy me. I was just reading, attempting to be entertained. But when something pops out and shoves you out of the story… well, as I say, this isn’t something the reader chooses.

Sometimes, if the story itself was very good, I muddled through, re-established myself in the depth of the story, and kept reading. Other times, I put the book down and never returned to it. I’m an avid fan of Stephen King, but that even happened with one of his books. The story was very good, but not quite good enough to enable me to ignore the formatting uglies.

Make no mistake: your number one priority as a writer is to not interrupt the reading of your work. Everything you put on the page should advance the story, pull the reader in, and keep him reading.

Of course, you can’t please every reader. No worries. But you’ll please most of them if you remain mindful of things that have jerked you, as a reader, out of a story.

Consequently, I can say without reservation that you should never use ALL CAPS  unless you’re using an acronym (like LAX for Los Angeles Interational Airport) or BOLD CAPS or bold font. Likewise, you should never use exclamation points unless their in dialogue and the character is yelling or screaming. Things like that.

Okay, so back to the use of italics.

After being chastised by my instructor (I’ve read his note several times over the past few months), I unserstood what he was saying. I glanced through several novels by various writers and found that most of them used italics only very sparingly. However, I’ve come to believe he went overboard when he said to “never” use them.

Several months later, I now (again) advocate using italics to indicate unspoken thought, but sparingly.

In my own novels and short stories, I use a combination of methods.

Sparingly, I use italics to indicate unspoken thought when it feels right to allow the reader to “hear” the character’s unspoken thought directly. Of course, that’s always presented in first-person present tense because, well, that’s how it come out when we think. I also sometimes use third-person past tense on occasion, mostly so I don’t overdo it with italics. Look at this example:

   Standing on his porch, he glanced up the street to his left and frowned. No, that isn’t right.

   He looked back to the right. That way. It was only twelve or thirteen blocks—he forgot which, but it wasn’t important—and then a left turn at a particular corner where the main drag sliced through the middle of town. Probably he would pause on that corner, look back and say a final goodbye to his old life. The corner would serve as a final threshold of sorts. He grinned and stepped off the porch.

In this example from my current WIP, No, that isn’t right and That way is his unspoken thought. And notice that I never use “He thought” as a tag line.

Most of the rest of the example is still his unspoken thought, but presented by the narrator:

It was only twelve or thirteen blocks—he forgot which, but it wasn’t important—and then a left turn at a particular corner where the main drag sliced through the middle of town. Probably he would pause on that corner, look back and say a final goodbye to his old life. The corner would serve as a final threshold of sorts.

I could have done it all with italics, but to me that seemed unnecessary and a bit of overkill:

   Standing on his porch, he glanced up the street to his left and frowned. No, that isn’t right.

   He looked back to the right. That way. It’s only twelve or thirteen blocks—I forget which, but it isn’t important—and then a left turn at that corner where the main drag slices through the middle of town. Probably I’ll pause on that corner, look back and say a final goodbye to my old life. The corner will serve as a final threshold of sorts. He grinned and stepped off the porch.

Which version do you like better?

No matter how you present unspoken thought, remember that all description—whether directly from the character or through the narrator—must be filtered through the character’s physical and emotional senses. It is the character’s opinon of the setting that matters, not the narrator’s and not the writer’s.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

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Roberta Jean Bryant’s “Seven Laws of Writing”

Hi Folks,

Recently I pulled a scrap of folded, crumpled, mutilated paper out of my desk. I opened it and found Jean Bryant’s Seven Laws of Writing.

I had actually typed them on a sheet of typing paper, then cut out around them and saved them. I don’t know for sure when that was, but I’m certain it predates the book in which they’re now found (see below).

Anyway, now and then when I look back on this I am amazed it took me so long to learn these incredibly straightforward guidelines.

These “laws” are excerpted (now) from Roberta Jean Bryant’s Anybody Can Write: A Playful Approach (2002). You can find it at https://www.amazon.com/dp/0760731764/. I recommend it. Of course, the book contains a great deal more than these laws.

But for now, here are the Seven Laws of Writing:

1. To write is an active verb. Thinking is not writing. Writing is words on paper.

2. Write passionately. Everyone has loves and hates; even quiet people lead passionate lives. Creativity follows passion.

3. Write honestly. Risk nakedness. Originality equals vulnerability.

4. Write for fun, for personal value. If you don’t enjoy it, why should anyone else? Pleasure precedes profit.

5. Write anyway. Ignore discouraging words, internal and external. Persistence pays off.

6. Write a lot. Use everything. Learning comes from your own struggles with words on paper.

7. Write out of commitment to your ideas, commitment to yourself as a writer. Trust yourself.

There you have it. Writing into the dark, anyone? Add this to Heinlein’s Rules and it’s all you need. Well, that and a keyboard.

Happy writing!

Harvey

Note: This blog is funded only by your gracious contributions. For a one-time donation, click the Donate button at the top of the sidebar. To consider becoming a patron and reap extra rewards, click Become a Patron. If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider sharing this post with your friends. Thanks!