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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Just Tell A Story

Hey Folks,

So many of us have forgotten that our primary purpose is to entertain, first ourselves and then other readers. Entertainent really is the sole purpose of writing fiction.

We get wrapped around words. Yet in and of themselves, they just don’t matter. Words really are only tools, like nails to a carpenter. (If the carpenter drops a nail, does he stop the project? Uh, no.)

We get wrapped around sentence structure, or about whether a group of words constitutes a complete sentence. (Never mind that most of the world, in either narration or dialogue, doesn’t speak in complete sentences.)

We get wrapped around characterization and scene and setting. We get wrapped around “plot” and “theme” and all manner of other things.

Those things DO matter, but the story will provide all of them if we just trust it.

Should we learn those things? Absolutely.

But once we learn about words, sentence structure, characterization, plot and all the rest, it becomes part of our subconscious.

Learning is conscious-mind stuff. It’s what we do in classrooms, physical or virtual. Learning is why I visit Dean Wesley Smith’s site every day. Learning is why I read fiction by other writers, and if it blows me away, I read it again and study it.

And learning is why I practice, practice, practice. And by practice, I mean I write.

Writing is an endeavor of the subconscious. It isn’t learning. It’s practicing what we’ve learned. It’s playtime. Fun time.

And as we write (as we practice), what we’ve learned about words, sentences, plot etc. dribbles forth without effort or thought through our fingers onto the page or screen.

Consider, do you stop and think about whether to put a period at the end of a sentence? No. If you’re writing by hand, do you stop and think about whether to dot an i or cross a t? Of course not.

Because you learned all of that long ago. It’s natural to you, and you trust it.

At your current level of skill, the words, plot, characterization etc. are natural to you as well. You just have to learn to trust it.

I don’t hover over one story in an attempt to make it “perfect.” Like artists in all other art forms, I practice. I write a story, publish it, and move on to the next one.

Some will say when I cycle back over the last 500 to 1000 words and allow myself to touch it, that’s hovering. It isn’t. Cycling is all done with the subconscious mind. The conscious, “thinking” mind has no place in the practice of writing.

When we sit down to write, maybe we decide we’ll practice a particular technique in the current story. Maybe we’ll decide to practice setting.

But once we start writing, we should no longer be thinking (conscious mind stuff) about any of that.

When we sit down to write, we should Just Tell A Story.

If we trust ourselves to just tell a story, everything else comes along of its own accord.

Now, twenty-seven novels and over 180 short stories later, I’m finally fully understanding the purpose: Entertainment. I’m writing solely to entertain, first myself and then others. In other words, my only task is to Just Tell a Story.

And that understanding is incredibly freeing. That’s what it’s all about.

Back in the day, writers “had no training that stories had to be perfect. [The stories] had to be nothing more than good stories readers would enjoy.” (from DWS’ post)

There you go.

Just. Tell. A. Story.

Tell it as if you’re chatting with a friend over a cup of coffee. Or as if you’re leaning to one side on a bar stool, an old-fashioned glass of Who Hit John in your grasp. Just tell a story.

If you don’t already fully realize this, when you do “get” it you’ll be amazed at how much fun writing will be.

‘Til next time, keep writing!

Harvey

On Pacing and Paragraphing

Hey Folks,

A few days ago as I write this, I was reading one of my magic realism stories to my grandson. “The Storyteller” by Gervasio Arrancado.

I wrote the thing several years ago, and I knew nothing about pacing. Or paragraphing, for that matter.

As I read it aloud to him, I got bored. Massively bored. I know it’s a good story, yet I found myself wondering what reader could possibly enjoy wading through this thing.

My pacing sucked. My paragraphing sucked worse. The two go hand in hand.

I thought I knew paragraphing. I did know what I’d learned in every English, English Comp and English Lit class I’d ever taken.

But no, I didn’t know paragraphing. And I had no clue about pacing.

The bare bones of pacing is this:

Especially when action is occurring, hit the Return (Enter) key more often.

Shorter paragraphs (smaller blocks of text) are easier and quicker to read and understand. So are shorter sentences and sentence fragments.

And all of those move the action along.

Shorter sentences and sentence fragments also convey a sense of drama and emphasis. If they aren’t overused, that’s a powerful tool.

Especially if they’re used in their own paragraph.

In an action scene, those shorter paragraphs force the reader’s eyes to catapult across the white space from one paragraph to the next in an attempt to keep up.

So even as the action is racing, the reader is racing right along with it.

But maybe the character moves into a new setting, one where he’s going to be for awhile and where action is not immediate.

For example, maybe he’s lying in wait for a victim or a perpetrator. Maybe he’s sitting with a colleague in a coffee shop discussing an interesting turn of events. Maybe he’s visiting family in Hoboken (or wherever).

That goes to pacing too.

In those circumstances, while he’s “resting” from the action, you can slow the reader with more detailed description and longer paragraphs.

So what about description? How much description of the setting is necessary?

Ask your character. He’s the one who’s actually in the story.

What does the character notice if he’s panicked and busting through a door to escape a fire?

What does he see, hear, smell, taste, touch when he’s immediately involved in a fist fight or a shootout as he enters a room (saloon, library, grocery store, airport, etc.)?

Maybe it’s all a blur. Maybe one aspect or two of the setting stands out for him.

Now, what does he notice (again, see, hear, smell, taste, touch) when he is admitted to the home of a victim’s relatives to inform them he’s found the body of their son?

What does he notice in the hospital waiting room as he awaits word about his colleague?

What does he notice when he joins the rest of his extended family for Thanksgiving dinner?

I ask “what does the character notice” because if you want to ground the reader in the scene (and you do) ALL description of setting MUST come through the character’s senses of the setting as expressed in the character’s opinions of that setting.

Think about it. He probably won’t notice a lot about the setting (but maybe some) as he’s busting through a door to escape a fire or suddenly being involved in a firefight.

He might notice a great deal more about a setting in which he’s relaxed or in which he’s spending some time as he awaits the next action scene.

When we’re bored or otherwise unoccupied, we tend to pay more attention to sights, sounds, smells, etc.

So do characters. Describe the setting accordingly.

Pace the scene accordingly.

‘Til next time, happy writing.
Harvey

“Building” Characters?

Hey Folks,

Some writers (and probably all of them/us at first) believe they have to “build” or “create” characters. Some folks even go so far as to create a “character sketch” to one degree or another.

The character sketch might be so detailed as to include the character’s educational background, childhood experiences, and anything else. It’s the story of the character.

Most often, writers who do this begin with a stick figure and then flesh it out. Those writers “assign” various physical, mental and emotional traits and “know” the character thoroughly before they begin writing the story.

Most often, these are the same writers who plot every step of a novel before they ever begin writing.

Of course, there are “hybrid” writers who create and use character sketches but also write without an outline when the time comes.

If either of these is how you write, that’s perfectly fine. Seriously, whatever works for you.

The way I see it, regardless of all the various ways there are to create a story, all writers fall into one of two overall categories:

The Almighty Writer On High — This writer is the god of his fictional world. He dictates (again, to one degree or another) who the characters Are (education, life experiences, etc.) and what the characters say and do. In short, this writer is in complete control of his characters.

This writer also most often dictates plot points, twists and turns, and most often knows what will happen “next” in the story, often all the way to the end. But this topic is about characters.

The Recorder — This writer has ceded control of the story to the characters.

So yes, he is also in charge at first. After all, how can you “cede” control if it isn’t yours to cede?

But this writer’s control ends where the characters’ control begins. Basically, it ends when the writer puts his fingers on the keyboard.

This writer realizes this is not “his” story but the characters’ story. So he chooses to let the characters tell it.

As a result, the characters go where they want, say and do what they want, and pretty much dare the recorder (the writer) to keep up.

After all, he isn’t part of the characters’ world or their story. He simply happened upon some interesting people, thought their story would be interesting, and asked permission to come along for awhile so he could record it.

Fortunately, the characters thought that would be fine.

What ensues from that moment forward is the characters’ story without so much as a single heavy fingerprint of the human “writer” on it.

Maybe the best part of this approach is that the writer learns about the characters as they develop, just as he does with “real” people he meets. The difference is, if he doesn’t like these characters, he can cause them to be killed off without having to endure all the bother of formal charges, a trial, and possible prison time.

Again, whether you choose to be the Almighty Writer on High or The Recorder is strictly up to you. Either way is fine with me. Whatever works.

But just in case you’ve been the former and are interested in trying on the latter, here’s one way (my way) to get there.

Back when I first decided to become the interested but non-controlling Recorder, I envisioned myself on a battlefield of sorts, one with trenches.

The trenches are the story, and that’s where the characters are: down in the story.

When I first started writing, I set myself up in a tower, far distant from the battlefield, and observed the action through a powerful telescope.

I watched what happened, could see what was coming, and anticipated what would happen if this character moved here and that character moved there, and they did and said this or that or the other.

And I directed them.

Now get this — because I’m only human, I was unable to think any thoughts that were different than the thoughts any reader might think if he were standing in the tower with me. So the stories “I” told were not only distant, but boring and predictable.

Later, I realized if I got closer to the battlefield I could see the action in greater detail. But I was still directing the characters and events. The stories improved — they weren’t as distant and  were more detailed — but yeah, they were still ridiculously predictable.

Finally, a couple years ago, for some reason I thought what great fun it might be to get closer still.

I sat down on the edge of a trench and dangled my legs over. Only now I was too close.

I could no longer see an overview. Oh oh.

I could no longer tell what might happen next. And next. And next.

I began to hyperventilate.

The only way to enjoy the tight proximity to the characters AND find out what happened next and next and next was to be in the story itself.

So when a character raced by I yelled, “Hey!”

He stopped and looked back. His brow wrinkled. “Say, you’re not from around here, are you?”

I shook my head. “Nope. But you guys are really interesting to me. I wanna come along.”

He frowned. “But you’re not part of our group.”

“Yeah, I know. But I wanna be.”

He looked at me for a moment. “Hey, aren’t you that guy used to sit up in the tower over there and tell us what to do?”

“Uh, yeah. But see, I—”

He turned away. “Sorry. You can’t. We don’t care for control freaks.”

“But I don’t wanna control anything anymore! It’s YOUR story. I just wanna be in the story with you!”

He turned around again, eyed me. Finally he said, “Well, you can’t be in the story. It’s out story, got it? You’re living your own story out there.

“Tell you what, though, you can come along if you want. You can be our Recorder. Just keep up. Take notes. Write down what happens, what we say and do. That’s as close as we can let you get.

“You’ll be in the thick of it, only you can’t participate. A’right?”

“Deal!” I said. Then I released my grip on all things Writerly and dropped off into the story.

From then on, I’ve only been out of the trenches between stories.

Now I learn who my characters are as they reveal themselves through their actions and words (just like “real” people do) while running through the story. I describe events as they happen. Sometimes I see things coming, but most of the time I’m as surprised as the characters are.

And that tells me the readers will be surprised too.

Oh, and the plot? For that I harken back to Mr. Bradbury: “Plot is only the footprints the characters leave behind as they run through the story.”

‘Til next time, happy writing.
Harvey

Write. What. You. Mean.

Hey Folks,

For many years I’ve kept a running list of awkward expressions, misplaced modifiers, and other syntactical anomalies that run the risk of distracting a reader. And by “distracting the reader” I mean jerking the reader out of the story.

Most often, this is a result of inserting unintentional humor into a serious scene. If the scene is also meant to invoke feelings of sadness or despair or tension, the inadvertent insertion has an even stronger effect.

One of my favorite authors once wrote that a character “kicked her horse up a hill.”

Of course, she meant to write that the character “spurred” her horse up the hill. But she caught that before it was published.

That instance was truly unique, too. Aside from the occasional “her legs raced down the road” or “his nose pressed itself against the window” or “her hip leaned casually against the railing,” these anomalies more often have to do with eyes than with any other human attribute.

Writers routinely have eyes performing all sorts of stupid eye tricks.

I’ve seen eyes popping out of heads, eyes flying around the room, eyes lighting on lapels, and eyes wandering dreamily along a garden path, among many other actions that eyes generally won’t take on their own.

Now just for the record, I don’t go looking for these things unless I’m being paid to copyedit a work. Otherwise I’m just another reader, reading (or trying to) for pleasure.

But when I’m jerked out of the story by some inane word or phrase, that’s strictly the responsibility of the writer.

I made the latest addition to my list this morning. And I took it from a passage an author used in a pull-quote on a website to advertise the book. Seriously.

II won’t mention the author’s name or website or gender or the name of the book. Here’s the sentence:

The baron shifted in his seat and raked his eyes across everyone at the table.

My first reaction was a grin. He did what now?

The second was a snarky, “Wow, dude, that must’a hurt.”

Of course, any tension the writer hoped to create with the excerpt was gone.

Seriously, can you imagine what pain the poor baron must have gone through in “raking his eyes” across those folks?

And they must have been thoroughly grossed out, as evidenced by the very next sentence in the pull quote:

Several members began to protest….

I actually laughed out loud. And for me, just like that, the passage the author used to entice me to buy the book had the opposite effect. The book was a definite no-buy.

Now understand, this occurred in a serious, tension-filled passage in a serious, tension-filled book.

Of course, I know the author meant the baron raked his “gaze” across those at the table. Or that he “glared” at them. Or something. Something that didn’t involve trying to make me (the reader) grin or laugh.

When I mentioned this sort of thing during a presentation at a writers’ conference, a writer in the audience said, “But the reader will know what I mean.”

Yes. The reader will know what you mean. The reader will figure it out. And it takes only a second or two for the reader to go through that process. That’s much less time than it would take you to actually learn the craft, eh?

But figuring out what you meant is not the reader’s job. The reader’s job is to relax and be entertained.

And that second or two might well be all it takes for the reader to put down your book and find something enjoyable to read.

Reader annoyance is cumulative, and chances are if you distract the reader with some inane phrase or formatting once, you’ll repeat it through the book.

Still, as a reader I’ll used to give a story a chance. I would “figure out” what the writer meant and fight to stay down in the story a few times. But the fifth or sixth or tenth time I was pulled out of the story, I stayed out.

These days? Not so much. I have a Kindle and I love finding new (to me) authors. Almost every night I lie back and start a book. I don’t “look for” anything. I just read the story, or try to.

But I no longer force it, because I don’t owe the writer anything. I spent the money on the book; the  writer owes ME something. So the first time the writer puts his or her ignorance of the language on display, I get the same feeling I’d get if a mechanic held up a fan belt and said, “What’s this thingy?”

Then I delete the book from my Kindle and open another one.

Will “most” readers go to that extreme? Probably not. But if they have to fight to get through your book as they “figure out” what you mean, how soon do you suppose they’ll buy another of your books?

‘Til next time, happy writing.

Harvey

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Buyer (Writer) Beware

Hi Folks,

Today I’m going to write about an old saying: Let the buyer beware.

Basically the saying means the buyer should perform a reasonable level of due diligence before committing to buying a product. And in the case of instruction, “buying” has a dual meaning: 1. purchasing, trading money for; and 2. believing.

You know what I mean. Many of you have heard me say before, “If any writing instructor says something to you that he can’t explain, stop listening.”

Well, the same goes for those who write books about writing. If they use broad, abstract terms that mean nothing and/or if they don’t bother to explain the concepts they’re rattling on about, um, er, DON’T BUY THE BOOK.

Now honestly, if your neighbor is not a prodigy and his formal schooling ended with a straight-D report card in his twelfth year of school and he just wrote a how-to book about how quantum physics meshes with string theory (or not), that’s fine. I don’t care.

But when someone slops together a soup sandwich of a how-to book on writing, slaps a snappy title on it and publishes it (traditionally or otherwise), I do care. A lot.

The fact that someone published a book doesn’t make the author an expert anymore than knowing how to drive a car makes you a mechanic.

 

I want so much to tell you the name of the book that spurred this blog post, but I won’t because I don’t want to publicize it even with bad publicity. But I will give you a few examples from that book, annotated with my comments.

A prospective editing client, after I had completed a free sample edit for her, emailed to say she liked what I had done but she wondered about my putting unspoken thought (she called it “interior monologue”) in first-person present tense.

Now don’t misunderstand. I don’t blame her for this. She’s just trying to learn the craft and got hold of the wrong book (one that passes along erroneous information).

She mailed me four copied pages from a how-to book she’d been reading. Here’s part of the email I sent back to her. The parts in bold are the precise examples I copied from the pages she sent me.

In the first example, which is erroneous in the first place (I’ll explain in a moment), the writer provided this:

Had I meant to kill her? he thought. (This is erroneous. If an actual person was thinking this without saying it, or even saying it aloud, the person would actually think (or think and then say), Did I mean to kill her? If he said it aloud, it would be, “Did I mean to kill her?” and if silently, it would be, Did I mean to kill her?

The author’s other example is Had he meant to kill her? Fine. That’s just fine, but it’s the narrator, not the character. It’s narrative, not unspoken thought. That’s why third-person past tense works. (More on this in a bit.)

The sole reason I say direct thought should be in first-person present tense is because when you or I or anyone else (including your characters) think, that thought is in first-person present tense.

The author of [this bit of anti-didactic tripe] actually wrote “unless you are deliberately writing with narrative distance, there is no reason to cast your interior monologue in first person.”

Think about that for a minute. What exactly is “narrative distance?” Can you define that? I can’t, so you’ll never hear me use the term. It’s one of those terms that sounds intellectual and means absolutely nothing.

As for the rest, the reason to “cast your interior monologue in first person” is because you want your characters to seem real to the reader, and real people think in first person.

The author continued with, “it’s far easier to simply cast the interior monologue into (um, should be “in”) the third person.”

Note that the author doesn’t bother to explain how exactly NARRATIVE can even be considered INTERIOR MONOLOGUE. The fact is, it can’t be because it isn’t. Narrative and interior monologue (unspoken thought) are two different things, and the author apparently doesn’t even know it.

Consider, dear readers, you’re driving down the highway when a car swerves in front of you, cutting you off. If you manage to remain silent, is your thought more likely to be Why’d that jerk do that to her (third person)? or will it be  Why’d that jerk do that to me?

If you’re on your way home from the grocery and have a memory lapse, are you more likely to think Did she buy a carton of milk? (or Had she bought a carton of milk? ) or are you more likely to think Did I buy a carton of milk?

 

Finally, in a passage on the second page, the author of the horrible, horrible how-to book on writing didn’t even recognize a comma splice when he saw it (two sentences crammed together and joined with only a comma). To make it worse, in this case the first sentence was a question:

Who was he kidding, he knew he couldn’t read anything in the state he was in.

SOMEWHAT BETTER
Who was he kidding? He knew he couldn’t read anything in the state he was in.

TONS BETTER (with a bit changed because of the state he’s in)
Who’m I kiddin’? I can’t read nothin’ in the state I’m in. Or if spoken aloud (mumbled, muttered, whatever) “Who’m I kiddin’? I can’t read nothin’ in the state I’m in.”

Again, I don’t argue this stuff to feed my ego, and if I feed the writer’s ego by telling them how wonderfully innovative it is of them to write unspoken thought in third person or write dialogue without quotation marks or avoid all capitalization I’m not doing them any favors.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

I am a professional fiction writer. If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up.

Note: I am also a professional copyeditor. For details, or just to learn what comprises a good copy edit, please visit Copyediting. It costs less than you think, and I know what I’m talking about. (grin)

 

A New Baker’s Dozen: Thirteen Traits of a Wannabe Writer (No, this is humor… really.)

Hi Folks,

Well, a little fun this time, at least for me. 🙂

A long while back, I listed The Thirteen Traits of a Professional Writer. I am constantly amazed at all the flak I attract for offering people something that might help them if they’ll only try it.

But really, seriously, I promise, whether or not you choose to try Heinlein’s Rules or anything else I put out there is strictly up to you. I will continue happily unabated on my own journey. So buy-in or don’t buy-in. I wish for you only Good Things, but either way is fine with me.

Here, tongue planted firmly in cheek, are the thirteen traits of a wannabe writer. The first five are a play on Heinlein’s Rules. By the way, the comments in italics are from a couple of my wannabe writer friends. T. Clem Justus hails from a holler a two-ridge jump from Hog Teat, Kentucky, and Jessybob Crapster lives in Lone Skunk, Arkansas where (she says) she was “corralled and stump-broke” by then-Governor Clinton. I appreciate them letting me use their comments:

  1. You Write. Wull, umm, maybe, after all the other thangs in my life are completed, if I’m not too tired… and if the wind ain’t a’blowin’ too hard and the sun ain’t in my eyes and if’n I got time. I have a LIFE you know. Hey, what’re you tryin’a pull here?
  2. You Finish What You Write. Wull, YEAH, of course, duh! Wull, I mean, you know, someday, maybe, or not. But at least I have a big ol’ file of possibles, so there’s that. You ain’t tryin’ t’swipe some’a my idears, are you? ‘Cause you cain’t have ’em, ’cause thur gold, y’hear? Gold!
  3. You Do Not Rewrite. Wull, now just hold on a second there. My English teachers in high school and college and ever’body in my critique group says I’m S’POST to rewrite. And despite the fact that none’a them people are making no kind’a livin’ as a writer, I figger they gotta know what they’re talking about, don’t’cha think? ‘Sides, as long as I’m rewritin’, I don’t gotta publish it and let some stupid editor or reader not like it. ‘Cause if somebody reads it and don’t like it, wull, somethin’ll happen. I ain’t sure what, but it’ll be somethin’ really, really bad.
  4. You Submit Your Work So Publishers Can Buy It. Wull, shur… a’course… you know, after I got it rewrote some times an’ revised some an’ polished some until my own borin’ old original voice is gone and my manuscript looks and sounds exactly like everything else in the slushpile. I mean, I’ve made it absolutely perfect! An’ I just cain’t figger out why the editors keep on rejectin’ it.
  5. You Keep Your Work In The Mail Until A Publisher Buys It (you don’t rewrite, you just send it back out). Whut? Umm, no! That’s just nutso! When I get that rejection slip and my manuscript back, I go through it with a fine-tooth comb, revisin’ an’ polishin’ again. THEN I put it in another envelope and send it out… maybe. You can’t fool ME into believin’ I’m ackshully good enough on my own to get published without rewriting. Just give it up already!

Now, if you agree with the italicized comments, you will remain closely, warmly, comfortably snuggled in with all the others in the Unpublished But Safe Wannabe Writers Club (UBSWWC).

However, if you follow the above religiously WITHOUT the italicized extended remarks, you will check out of that dreary place and begin a career as an actual writer. Good luck.

As before, these other Traits of a Wannabe Writer are in no particular order:

  • You don’t have time to read in the genre for which you want to write. Wull, no… umm besides, like, readin’ other people’s work will, like, totally dilute my “style” anyway, duh.
  • Writing is very low on your list of priorities if it’s a priority at all. Umm wull, YEAH, mostly because it’s SOOO HAAARD. Ugh! It’s pure-dee-ol’ D-R-U-D-G-E-R-Y. Ohmygod I HATE writing!
  • You eschew instruction from successful long-term professional writers. Wait. You mean them guys an’ gals who write really fast and sell lots’a books? C’mon, they MUST be hacks. Good writing is SLOW writing, duh!
  • Instead, you seek the counsel and advice of your peers, who have published no more successfully than you have. Wull, YEAH. They’re my friends. They’re, like, totally supportive.
  • You are a purveyor of the soup sandwich. If by that you mean that I’m, like, absolutely SURE the reader will know what I mean if I write that “the character’s eyes shot across the room,” then yeah. But is that a bad thing?
  • You tell anyone who will listen that you write for yourself, not for money. Yup, I’m totally above writing for publication and money.
  • You live on style manuals, make sure your grammar and syntax are as perfect as possible, and are very careful to be politically correct. Wull yeah, duh! Avoiding offending anyone is absolutely SO much more important than just tellin’ some stupid story.
  • You’d really rather be doing anything other than writing, wouldn’t you? Wull yeah! Duh! Writing is such a drag!

Ahh, what the hey. Here are a few more. With a respectful nod to Jeff Foxworthy, you might be a wannabe writer if…

  • even if you DON’T actually write you DO think a lot about writing and talk a lot about writing… so that’s a writer, right?
  • if you do write, it’s because you are “compelled” (or “driven” or my personal favorite, “called”) to write.
  • often, you begin writing but don’t finish and you’re off on the next shiny new idea
  • you rewrite at least [insert arbitrary number here] times because that’s what it takes to get a “polished” manuscript.
  • a “polished” manuscript is one that looks just like one written by [fill in a famous author’s name here].
  • you don’t realize you enjoyed [famous author]’s work because it was in that author’s ORIGINAL voice.
  • you don’t realize if your work sounds exactly like [famous author]’s work it is NOT in your original voice.
  • you believe your original voice is boring (duh! you’re with your original voice 24/7/365).
  • you offer your work only to nonpaying markets and markets that pay in copies as a way of “paying your dues” as a writer.
  • you believe yourself qualified to pre-judge what a professional editor will buy. (“No possible way is my story good enough so why send it?”)
  • you believe writing is a lofty endeavor.
  • you write less than an hour a day and have no idea how many publishable words per hour you generate.
  • you don’t devote time or money to learn writing from proven professional writers, but you clamber for writing advice from editors, agents, publishers and other non-writing professionals.
  • you believe you are the own worst judge of your work if you think your work is GOOD, but
  • you believe you are RIGHT about your work if you think it sucks canal water from all 50 states.
  • you invest a year or two or three in writing and rewriting and polishing a novel, then
    • refuse to invest in a professional proofreader or copyeditor and/or
    • refuse to invest in a professional cover design, and/or
    • refuse to learn how to write active sales copy, and
    • then you spend hours wondering why in the world the thing isn’t selling and why readers are so picky anyway about stuff like writing “waste” when you meant “waist.” Seriously. What’s so bad about “He slipped his right arm around her waste” or “Even from the stage the feces in the crowd appeared pinched and awestruck”?
  • you believe writing a novel in a year or less is “fast”.
  • you believe any individual who offers to do the eformatting and print layout and cover design of your book for a fee (like $200) is trying to scam you, even though
    • YOU RETAIN OWNERSHIP of all your files, including the files the person created for you and
    • YOU RETAIN ALL RIGHTS to all of your materials and
    • YOU RECEIVE 100% OF NET ROYALTIES. (Seriously, wow.)
  • you believe a subsidy publisher is NOT scamming you when they offer to do the eformatting and print layout and cover design of your book for a fee (like several THOUSAND dollars) even though
    • THEY OWN the cover and all files they create with your manuscript and
    • THEY RECEIVE a cut (like 65%) of the royalties from sales of your book and
    • YOU HAVE TO PAY THEM a hefty fee if you decide you no longer want to be scammed. (Seeing a pattern here?)
  • you ignore everything in The Thirteen Traits of a Professional Writer post and this one because you know you’re right. 🙂

‘Til next time, happy writing. Please?

Harvey

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Human Parts Do Not Have Human Traits

Hey Folks,

To follow up on last week’s post, this truism doesn’t favor any particular body part, really. And most of these aren’t as humorous as “her eyes drifted around the room and eventually lit in the corner on a barrel of nails.” But some of them are pretty good.

Basically, any time any body part is the subject of a sentence, you probably need to recast the sentence.

At least in the example that got me started last week (The baron … raked his eyes across everyone at the table) the author had the human, the baron, actually performing the action.

Had the writer written, “The baron’s eyes raked across everyone at the table” it would have been doubly awkward.

Um, ’cause eyes can’t do that. The baron wouldn’t do it, but his eyes can’t do it.

Only in certain, very specific circumstances can eyes do anything at all on their own.

If eyes ever legitimately “shoot across the room,” their owner better have been slapped in the back of the head with great force a split second earlier. Just sayin’.

So don’t write stuff like

Close to the window, his ears heard an eerie sound.

Her nose (or her palms or her forehead) pressed up against the glass.

Her hands (or hips or butt or forearm) leaned on the rail of the ship.

His hand crept along the back of the seat and eventually made it to her shoulder.

As her left hand held the forestock firmly, her right hand worked the lever on the 30-30.

As my hands ran past my ears, I felt something in my ear lobes.

Tossing my hand across the couch’s back with studied casualness, I attempted to initiate the usual subtle encircling movement but to no avail.

Chloe’s head went up and down.

Bill’s face broke into a grin that wouldn’t stop.

His eyes roamed across the room, stopping at a table with no empty chairs.

His face turned deadly silent.

His long muscular legs effortlessly loped after the bus.

Her eyes slowly climbed the tree.

Her legs raced frantically down the street.

“A place called Valentino’s,” he said as his eyes touched hers.

And as a bonus, one of my favorite oddities, although this doesn’t fit the “human parts don’t have human traits” category. This is from an email I received a few years ago: “I hate to miss your class, but I’m leaving town unexpectedly tomorrow.”

You get the idea.

‘Til next time, happy writing.
Harvey

On Seeking Constructive Criticism (or “Shall I Be Wistful, or Shall I Progress?”)

Hi Folks,

Note: I ran this originally in September 2014, but it was so much fun to write I thought I’d share it again. So here it is. Other than some reparagraphing to make it more lisible, it appears as it was written originally.

I sometimes experience an exchange of emails with a writer who asks for a critique of some writing with the proviso that I understand he or she is highly sensitive. Others ask for a critique with the proviso that I don’t tear their writing “to shreds.”

Okay. That’s fine with me.

First, I don’t tear anyone else’s writing to shreds. I just read it and report on what I find. As for whether a writer is “highly sensitive,” that’s really neither here nor there.

I’m a professional fiction writer and instructor. I will never go out of my way to hurt anyone’s feelings. That isn’t my job, it’s a waste of my time and it isn’t productive.

But neither will I lie to a writer about her writing just to spare her feelings. That isn’t my job either. It’s not only a waste of my time, but it’s counter productive rather than helpful. In fact, it actually harms the writer.

If you come to me with a piece of writing and tell me up front, “Hey, I just wanted to share this with you,” chances are I’ll say “Thank you.” Then I’ll read it when I get time.

After I’ve read it, I’ll thank you again for sharing it with me and probably say something like “Good story.” I won’t say that unless I mean it, but neither will I go into full critique mode and tell you what I believe would upgrade it from good to excellent.

If you approach me with a piece of writing and ask for a sample edit or a critique or my honest opinion, that’s what you’ll get.

I won’t try to tell you what you “have to” do, but I will tell you honestly what I believe would improve your writing and why. (That “why” is what’s missing from most amateur or unprofessional critiques.)

At such times, I automatically assume you asked for a critique so you can take my suggestions under consideration. I don’t expect you to accept them automatically. But I do expect you to decide rationally whether applying them will improve your work.

But what if you approach me with a piece of writing and ask for a critique AFTER pointing out that you’re “highly sensitive” or that you “have very thin skin” and ask me to “please be gentle” or “please don’t rip it to shreds”?

Well, then I will assume what you want is praise, empty or otherwise, and I won’t waste my time offering an actual critique. I’ll still accept your work. Then I’ll glance over it and say something like “Ahh, what a story (or essay or poem)!” You will then take that statement as you like it.

If I offer an honest critique and it’s negative in the slightest, I will have hurt your feelings. If I offer a less-than-honest critique, I’ve wasted my time and yours, plus I’ve given you false encouragement.

The point is, none of this has as much to do with developing a thick skin against criticism as it does with getting over yourself. You aren’t all that special, Pookie.

Look around. Most writers are highly sensitive, which is to say, we’re human. We ALL enjoy hearing praise, and we ALL dislike hearing criticism of our work.

The difference between the amateur writer and the professional writer, as with the difference between the amateur and the professional ANYthing, is that the amateur focuses on the emotional drama, and the professional focuses on deciding whether applying the criticism will improve the work.

In my own version of the perfect world, we would all place a higher value on honest constructive criticism than on empty praise.

I mean, we’re all adults here. If you want unbridled, unmitigated, unconditional praise, you should show your work to someone who would rather lie to you than hurt your feelings. (This is the role of your mother or that nice aunt or the siblings you get along with.)

If you want to improve your work, I recommend you eschew empty praise, acknowledge and then dismiss as a fluke any honest praise, and seek out criticism as something that at least has the potential to be a learning experience.

What I recommend you DON’T do, under any circumstance, is fling one forearm across your brow, grow wistful to the point of melting into the floor, and throw a do-it-yourself pity party to indulge the unrelenting psychological and emotional pain of having received what you requested.

That really isn’t a good look on anyone, and least of all on an aspiring professional.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey