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

12 Ways to Make That Critique Group Work (Revised and Updated)

Hi Folks,

Note: I originally posted this back in August, 2013. Much has changed since then. I’ve updated it to reflect those changes.

Most notably, I no longer recommend critique groups. At all. Mostly because

1. Criticism (or critique) by definition is a function of the conscious mind. It’s wonderful for “deconstruction,” but worthless for creation. Also,

2. Nobody, even writers who are much farther along the road than you are, can know all the intricacies of your work in progress (WIP),

3. Nobody else can “speak” in YOUR original voice, and

4. I don’t care for books that were basically written by committee. Even if the final product turns out “good,” I can’t help but wonder how much more original and therefore how much better it would have been had the writer simply trusted his or her own voice. But perhaps most importantly,

5. I don’t know and have never heard of a single successful professional fiction writer who workshops (offers up to a critique group) his or her work. Most professional fiction writers jealously guard their WIPs until it’s published, with the exception of showing it (of necessity) to a trusted first reader and/or copyeditor.

Now, what do I mean about “writing by committee”?

Simple. If the other writers in a critique group primarily want to change the writing to reflect the way they would have done it, and if the targeted writer feels obligated to take their advice, that’s writing by committee.

However, all writers are different.

On the surface, participating in a critique group seems an excellent idea, and it probably can be for some writers. Maybe. In fact, I wasn’t always of the opinion that critique groups are harmful. I actually created and facilitated a critique group when I lived in Roswell NM many years ago.

So if you prefer using critique groups or believe them valuable, that’s fine with me. After all, your process can’t directly affect my own creativity or my sales.

So here are some things to look for in a GOOD critique group.

First, if you want to join an established critique group,

1. pick one that has not degenerated into a mutual-admiration society, and

2. pick one that has safeguards in place against a piece of work eventually being written by committee. You will see those safeguards below.

If you want to form or participate in a good critique group that stands at least a chance of actually being beneficial, here’s what you need.

1. A conscientious facilitator who will steer the participants to honesty in their critiques.

A critique group without a facilitator usually will degrade quickly into a mutual-admiration society, a group in which flattery is trump. And a “be nice to me and I’ll be nice to you” atmosphere certainly causes the participants to feel good about themselves, but it also leaves them wondering about the quality of their writing.

2. Limit the size of the group according to the length of time you are able to meet.

For example, there were ten participants in my critique group, but we met for two hours every other week. Each participant had time to read his or her work (if he or she wanted to) and receive the criticism of the other participants.

3. Only one person at a time is the writer in the group.

If you aren’t reading your work to the others at the time, you’re a reader/listener, not a writer. Don’t endeavor to change the person’s writing to fit your style. Rather, point out places where, for you as a reader/listener, the story stumbles or stalls, where you feel you don’t know enough (or you know too much) about a character or a scene, where confusion creeps in, and so on.

4. Don’t require everyone to read every time.

Take off your control-freak boots, flex your tired toes and chill. Everyone can be an active, valuable participant without reading at every meeting. Some people will want to read every time, and others won’t.

5. However, the members all should be serious about writing.

To maintain membership in the group, I suggest that everyone should be encouraged to submit something for critique—even if it’s only one poem or one stanza or one scene from a novel or memoir—at least every other meeting if you meet monthly or every third meeting if you meet more often. Again, though, notice I said “encouraged,” not forced.

However, non-participation (say one member very seldom reads her own work and very seldom comments constructively as a reader/listener) should be grounds for dismissal from the group, especially if there’s a waiting list of folks who are serious about the craft of writing and would like to join. (See 2 above.)

6. Be honest in your critiques.

This is the most important feature of a good critique group. Honesty, even brutal honesty, is critical. After the first session or two, any hurt feelings will subside and those who prefer the mutual-admiration society will have dropped out. The participants who remain will begin to trust each other and appreciate the honest feedback. And when acceptance letters and checks begin replacing rejection letters, they’ll appreciate it even more. Besides, “honest” is not synonymous with “hurtful,” “hateful,” “spiteful” or “mean.”

7. Always provide positive critiques.

But didn’t I just say you should be honest? That’s right, so when you point out what you believe is a flaw in someone’s writing, make it a positive critique by offering a recommendation for improvement. Remember, though, that you’re trying to help the writer improve HIS OR HER work, not make it your own. Besides, you should point out the bright spots as well as the flaws.

8. Bring your “first draft” to your group.

I recommend that your second draft should be a run-through with a spell checker. And a third draft should be your original manuscript to which you’ve applied whatever changes your first reader has recommended IF YOU AGREE with those recommendations.

But if you’re in a critique group, you probably don’t have a first reader and probably still believe you have to write numerous drafts to turn out quality work (you don’t).

So at least give the members of your group your most original effort (your first draft).

9. Perform “blind” readings.

If honest critique is the most important feature of a good critique group (and it is), performing blind readings is a close second. Although this advice goes against the common practice of most critique groups, I’ve found that the author should not provide copies of her work for the other participants.

Instead of trying to read along with the reader, during a blind reading the other participants should be able to listen attentively, noting on a pad any passages that confuse them, stop them cold, or impress them. They might also note passages that either bog the story down or move it along too quickly.

Once the author is finished reading, each participant then offers his or her critique. Blind reading lessens the chance of participants “parroting” each other and leads to a more honest, constructive critique. It also forces the reader to read his or her work aloud, and that is always a good thing.

10. The facilitator should avoid influencing the other participants’ opinions. To do so, the facilitator should offer his or her critique last.

11. Don’t argue with critiques as they’re offered.

This is a non-productive waste of valuable time. Besides, you should respect the opinions of the participants as listeners; that is, don’t expect more from them than they can give. If they were experts, they probably wouldn’t be in the group.

12. Consider every participant’s critique.

Don’t automatically accept or reject any critique. What one listener (reader) likes, another will dislike; what one finds believable, another will find ridiculous.

Carry the critiques home with you, calm down, then use or discard the criticisms one at a time at your leisure. As a rule of thumb, though, if you hear the same critique from more than one participant (after a blind reading), you probably should consider it more seriously.

Overall, critique groups are a paradox. Few group interactions can be as rewarding as a good critique group or as destructive as a bad one. Fortunately, which group you belong to (or whether you belong to one at all) is your choice.

You need answer only one question: How important is your career as a writer?

So if you’re already a member of a group and if the group isn’t working well for you, consider bringing these ideas to the attention of the facilitator; if you aren’t a member of a group yet or are considering forming one, choose wisely. After all, it’s your career.

Okay, but if I don’t recommend critique groups generally, what do I recommend?

Learn from those much farther along the road than you are. Visit Dean Wesley Smith’s blog regularly. I do.

And if I’m farther along the road than you are (26 novels, 4 novellas, and over 180 short stories as of September 5, 2017), consider hopping over to my Daily Journal and subscribing. It’s free, and there I offer insight into the daily life of a professional writers. Several times a week, I toss out writing advice in a Topic of the Day.

‘Til next time, Happy Writing!

Harvey

To a World Free of Cliché

Hey Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 1/10/2014. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.

Once upon a time, I edited a manuscript that was teeming with clichés, ripe to bursting with platitudes and filled to the brim with trite, self-serving crap.

It virtually screamed Look at me! Aren’t I wonderful? Aren’t I generous with my time and helpful in all things? Aren’t I just pretty much Oprah on steroids?

Of course, the clichés and platitudes were slumping along behind like great lummoxes, mumbling, Hey, uh, looky here. I ain’t never had one original thought, an’ I’m dang proud of it. This here’s m’nose-pickin’ finger. Yup, I’m dumber’s a bagga bricks.

Did you ever read something that actually made you recoil?

The unoriginal writing in that particular masterpiece bludgeoned me so strongly and so often that I wanted to curl into the fetal position and hide beneath my desk. I hoped the writing gods would come and spirit that evil piece of sh-riting from my laptop.

They didn’t. I’d gotten myself into it, they said, so I could get myself out. Ugh.

So why did I accept the manuscript for editing? I got lax.

Although the writer sent me the full manuscript per my request, I took the sample edit from the first few pages. It didn’t take long during the edit to realize those pages plus a few more had been previously edited so that they weren’t ugly, hairy legged, knuckle-dragging things slouching toward some poor, unsuspecting reader.

But hey, mea freakin’ culpa. I gritted my teeth and forced myself to  f-i-n-i-s-h   t-h-e   e-d-i-t. Have I mentioned how happy I am to be writing full time now?

But back to the original point. Far more important than me having to put up with a horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible—I suppose I could have written that (horrible)5—piece of writing was the realization that many writers, we who are supposed to be sources of original thought, simply aren’t.

So here’s a new rule for you, annotated to ease understanding. Not that YOU need it to be annotated—I realize that—but face it: some of the folks reading this are missing more than a few spots off their dominoes.

Strive (attempt with all the power of your will)

never (not even once)

to write (put pen to paper, fingertips to keyboard or mouth to recorder)

an unoriginal thought (a syllable or series of syllables that have been uttered before, by anyone, at any time, anywhere, ever)

except as you do so purposefully (intentionally, with intent, on purpose)

to create (cause to occur, bring into being)

a certain (premeditated, planned, intentional, particular)

effect (emotion, gasp, increase in heart rate, smile, chuckle, laugh, recoiling in horror, etc.)

in the reader (person whom you want to impress so much with your work that s/he will seriously consider breaking into your home just to learn more about you).

Again, Strive never to write an unoriginal thought except as you do so purposefully to create a certain effect in the reader.

That one rule would cover a LOT of the other lessons I’ve tried to teach writers over the years, especially if you include the use of the various marks of punctuation in that “create a certain effect in the reader” part. And you should.

Of course, if one of your characters actually speaks in clichés and utter platitudes per his role in society, that’s fine. Let him.

At least until you hire another character to fit the cliché-ridden guy with reinforced-concrete underwear and drop him off a pier somewhere.

Give me three hours’ notice and I’ll drive. Hey, I’ll even help you load him in the trunk. But your narrator… well now, that’s different.

See, thing is, you’re a Writer. You were brought into existence on this funny, filthy little blue marble to shake it the hell up, to look it in the eyes and dare it to say or do something that you can turn into a story.

And in your writing, although your characters will wander around being themselves (as they should), your narrator can’t.

The narrator describes the scene, period, albeit through the characters’ senses and the characters’ OPINION of that scene. The narrator provides a great transitory bridge between the colorful, magical world of your story and the grey-white, humdrum existence of your reader’s reality.

You and your narrator will describe the scenes in vibrant, expansive splashes of prose that leave the reader gasping for breath, not crawling under his desk to hide from an onslaught of boredom.

You and your narrator will make readers laugh until their sides ache, cry until they’re dry, or sleep for three weeks with one eye open.

You and your narrator are too intelligent to mumble clichés or platitudes when you have a perfectly good brain right there between your ears.

And I hope you’re just plain too stubborn to use something someone else has used a thousand times.

So get on with it!

‘Til next time, happy (original, unboring, unclichéd) writing!

Harvey

I am a professional fiction writer as well as a copyeditor. For details, or just to learn what comprises a good copy edit, please visit Copyediting.

If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up. In the alternative, you can also click the Pro Writer’s Journal tab on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.

Why Do You Write?

Note: This post was originally scheduled for October 2014. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post A LOT so it’s up to date.

Hi Folks,

In my years of dealing with other writers, I’ve heard a few clichéd thoughts. In every case, the clichés are caused by the same old myths we’ve all been taught and bought into to one degree or another.

One of the more prevalent myths is that writing for money somehow taints the pure art of writing.

The truly hilarious kicker here is that although writing fiction is as much a pure art as painting or sculpting, most would-be writers don’t present their pure art. (Especially those in Group Three below, but don’t skip down.)

They edit and wheedle and whittle away until what was originally pure looks just like they believe it “should” look, which is like everyone else’s stuff.

It’s extremely difficult to be “special, just like everyone else.” 🙂

Okay, but this post is about the nonsense that writing for money is not a good thing. I’ll deal with the art side of this another time.

“Oh, I Don’t Write for Money,” (he said, one forearm draped dramatically over his forehead as a glass of wine and a cheese stick balanced precariously in his other hand.)

First, a disclaimer — I am aware there are folks out there who are not writers and don’t care to be. That’s fine. What follows is about those who are or claim to be writers.

Over all the years when I was goofy enough to believe I was making a difference presenting in writers’ conferences and sitting on panels (there’s a waste of time you’ll never get back) in genre conventions, I must have heard it at least a thousand times: “Oh, I’m not into writing for money.”

And every single time, for me, that begged the question, “Then why in the world are you here?” I mean seriously, if you don’t write for money, why are you spending money on the latest conference, convention, or seminar?

Okay, some folks love learning strictly for the sake of learning. Got it.

But what about the other five or six out of a bajillion?

Now don’t get angry. Coming from a (former) writing instructor, “Why do you write?” is a completely valid question. But really, it’s strictly rhetorical.

The fact is, writers who say they don’t write for money belong in one of four groups:

Group One consists of hobby writers.

They really don’t write for money. They also don’t invest much of their own time and money in learning how to write. When they do invest money in their writing, it’s for a good and specific reason.

These are the ones the other family members turn to when someone has to write a eulogy. Perhaps they write to leave a legacy—perhaps a memoir or a family history—so descendants will have a record.

Perhaps they pay a proofreader or copyeditor to clean up the writing a bit, and they might even attend a writing workshop or two. That’s perfectly understandable. Absolutely nothing wrong with being a hobby writer.

Group Two are the same folks, but they harbor a secret desire to be professional writers.

They really don’t write for money either. And they hedge their bets by not investing much of their own time and money in learning how to write. If they don’t learn, they have no reason to write seriously and they will never risk failure.

However, they’re so overcome by the fear of failure that they will never seriously consider themselves writers, nor expect others to consider them writers.

That’s okay too if they can’t overcome the fear, but I hope they find something they love to do and do that instead.

Group Three consists of those who are not writers, will never be writers, and know it. They are who this topic is really all about.

They say that they don’t write for money in a tone that indicates they’re bragging. They believe themselves above scrabbling for the filthy lucre, and generally — if they actually write at all — they’re in pursuit of writing The Great American Novel.

They have an elevated calling, you see, and they’re above the whole sordid mess in which we mere mortals are entangled.

However, for some reason they believe others see them as writers (Pssst! No, we don’t.) and they attach some elevated importance to that as well. They would fit right into the Brit TV show Keeping Up Appearances, and any one of them could play the role of Hyacinth. And they’re precisely as annoying.

Those in this group spend sometimes vast amounts of money on appearing to be a writer. But learning and honing the craft doesn’t matter. Appearance — what others believe about them — is everything.

Shrug. Stretch. Yawn. Okay. Whatever.

Those in Group Four are writers, or at least aspirants who have a real shot at being writers.

Those say (usually humbly) that they don’t write for money either. But they invest time and money wisely in learning and honing the craft. (Like those in Group Two, they’re also hedging their bets, but only out of fear of rejection.) We can lump them in with those in Group Five.

Everyone else belongs in Group Five. They are writers. They never utter “I don’t write for money” unless they’re being sarcastic.

These folks have learned what those in Group Three will never learn: If you want to write, write. It’s that simple.

Neither do they think nonstop of all the money they’re going to make. That isn’t what it’s about. They just write.

As one personal example, I seriously doubt I’ll ever make a solid living with my writing. But I also seriously expect my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will rake in cash by the barrel load. And that’s fine. But I get all the fun of telling the stories and putting them out there. (grin)

Let’s pause here for a moment so you can do a quick self-assessment if you want to. Nobody’s judging. Whether and why you belong in any of the first four groups is strictly up to you to decide.

Okay, all done?

Good. Now, here’s what you do.

If you belong in Group One, Two or Three, you can go home now.

Stop reading this and go find something fun to do.

Why? Because I see no reason to take you seriously, or at all, as a writer. And frankly, if you’re in Group One or Two, you don’t expect me to. In fact, you’re probably laughing along with the rest of us.

If you’re in Group Three — well, sorry.

I realize you expect the rest of us to not only realize you’re a writer but admire your tenacity, etc. Here you go. Let’s see if I can hit the high spots:

  • You expect the rest of us to grovel and beg for an autographed copy of your recent release.
  • You authored your book (but not for filthy lucre) and are selling for some exorbitant amount because it’s Just That Good.
  • Oh, and because you paid some subsidy publisher a few thousand dollars to like it enough to publish it.

That about right?

You’re also probably madder than eight wildcats in an oil drum right now. But really, just chill and go find something you actually enjoy doing. Seriously.

Now, if you’re in Group Four or Five (Bonnie), hey, this entire post celebrates you. I’m pulling for you, I’m proud of you and I’m glad you’re one of us.

Keep learning, keep writing, and keep making wise investments in your education.

But don’t tell people you aren’t writing for money. Just keep having fun making stuff up.

‘Til next time, happy writing (or whatever you most enjoy doing).

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. In the alternative, you can also click the Pro Writer’s Journal tab on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.

Top 10 Proofreading Tips

Hi Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 4/27/2014. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I revised it (especially sub items in number 4) to express my current opinions, but the main list remains intact. It is timeless.

First, I’m not talking about proofreading someone else’s stuff, although you can apply these tips to that process. But mostly here I’m talking about proofreading your own stuff.

Note: I am a professional fiction writer as well as a copyeditor. For details, or just to learn what comprises a good copy edit, please visit Copyediting. It costs less than you think.

Proofreading your own writing is considerably more difficult than proofreading the work of others. Okay so here are the top ten step to proofreading your own work. In true Top 10 format, they’re in reverse order:

10. To be sure each sentence makes sense by itself, read in reverse.

Read the last sentence first, then the next, then the next and so on to the first sentence.

When you read in the proper sequence, especially if you’re reading silently, your mind will often insert letters and even whole words that are actually missing from the writing.

This is especially true of shorter words like “the” or “of” that happen to occur at the end of a line of writing.

I realize you probably won’t do this. That’s why it’s number 10 on the list. Still, it’s a good technique.

9. Check longer words to be sure you haven’t omitted any vowels (a, e, i, o, u).

8. Don’t depend on “professionals” like news anchors, who use words to make their living, to be correct.

For example, despite its widespread misuse, “likely” is an adjective, not an adverb, and it’s synonymous with “probable,” not “probably.” I cringe every time a weather guy says, “It likely will rain tonight.”

7. Use the spell checker, but not as a substitute for your own mind. It will not catch wrong words (e.g., that for than, an for and, waist for waste). You can set some spell checkers to “contextual spelling” now so they will catch “We sent our best solders into battle.”

6. If a word doesn’t look right or “feel” right to you, don’t depend on the spell checker. Look it up in the dictionary.

5. Watch closely for the omission of “ed” or “s” on the end of past tense or plural words. (Reading in reverse will help you catch these as well.)

4. Double check the spelling of words that sound similar to each other. If you aren’t sure, look them up. Here are a few I’ve seen misused often:

  • there is a place, their is possessive, and they’re means they are;
  • personal means pertaining to one person, but personnel means a group of people within a profession;
  • forward is a direction, but foreword is the opening of some books;
  • effect is a noun, but affect is a verb;
  • the writer or speaker implies, but the reader or listener infers;
  • advice is what you give someone, advise is what you’re doing when you give someone advice;
  • a whole is composed of its parts, and the parts comprise the whole; and no matter what the dictionary says
  • till is a cash drawer (or a verb meaning to turn arable land with a plow; ’til is the abbreviated version of until. And finally, because someone has to say it,
  • journal is a noun, not a verb. Seriously. When people say they’re journaling (or even chronicling, a much older bastardization of the language), it’s because they’ve yet to find that big, scary word writing. Or maybe “I’m journaling” makes them feel important. I don’t know.  A writer who says she’s “journaling” is like a mechanic who says he’s “spark plugging” or a carpenter saying he’s “cabineting.”

Note that some dictionaries have begun to blur the distinction between some of these words, even imply and infer. Don’t forget that dictionaries are written by human beings, ALL of whom are biased in one way or another. My personal bias is for learning, not merely accepting.

Living languages change, but that change should be a long, difficult, arduous process, not merely a surrender to stupidity. While I’m on the topic, “ebonics” is not a new language. It is a dialect. And like most dialects, it is a signifier either of a lack of education or laziness in pronunciation.

3. Be careful of words that contain double vowels.

  • Succeed, proceed, and exceed are the only words that end in “eed.”
  • Supersede is the only word that ends in “sede.”
  • All other words with this sound end with “cede”: precede, recede, and so on.

2. Be careful of words that contain double consonants, such as occasion, occurrence, and accommodation. My personal thorn is millennium. Seems like one N should be enough.

1. And the most important tip I can give you: Read Your Work Aloud, even if you do so quietly. (It’s better and more fun if you emote.)

When you read aloud, you’ll catch problems you wouldn’t normally catch with your eyes, especially inflection and punctuation errors. Remember, the reader can’t hear your voice when he reads your work. He has to see it.

If it sounds right to you when you read it aloud, it will sound right to the reader when he reads it silently. When I was editing, I often read my clients’ work aloud as I conducted the edit.

‘Til next time, Happy Writing!

Harvey

I am a professional fiction writer. If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, click The Daily Journal tab in the header of my HarveyStanbrough.com website and sign up.

 

Distractions

Hi Folks,

Distractions happen. They do. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about them.

But if you’re a mechanic and you get a phone call (distraction) and your spouse or significant other shows up unannounced for lunch (distraction) or a chunk of spy satellite falls out of the sky and flattens the dry cleaner across the street (distraction), you look, you take care of it, and you go back to work on the engine or the transmission or whatever.

Or you can use the distraction as an excuse to take a day off. Doesn’t matter to me. I’m not making a judgement here. But I’m just sayin’, it’s your choice, not something that’s forced on you.

If you’re a writer, same thing.

Distractions will happen. You can either say “Oh darn. Guess I won’t be able to write today. Maybe I’ll start tomorrow.” Or you can take a look or a listen, deal with the distractions, then go back to work on the story or novel or whatever.

Today I had distractions. It’s end game on the novel (see yesterday’s post). I’m all geared up to use whatever excuses happen to offer themselves to me. I didn’t think I’d put a thousand words on the page today (like the past few days). Yet I surpassed my goal.

How?

Distractions happened.

I gave them the attention they deserved.

Then I went back to work.

I hope that works for you too.

Happy writing,

Harvey

On Specificity and Clarity in Writing

Hey Folks,

I was going to write a whole post on this topic, but really, that isn’t necessary. It’s a personal pet-peeve kind of thing. And far be it from me to foist my “beliefs” on anyone else.

What pet peeve?

Well, people who write things and then postulate—not even apologetically but more apoplectically and with a wag of the hand—that “The reader will know what I mean.”  Those folks get on my nerves. Deep and hard.

But I have come to understand that such things don’t matter, by and large, to many people, writers and readers alike. Or at least it seems so to me.

For example, despite published writings that are replete with inappropriate instances of absolutes (all, never, always, everyone, nobody, etc.), apparently no writers write like that. Ever.

If you don’t believe me, ask them.

And despite published writings that are chock full of eyes wandering out of heads and doing things on their own (her eyes flew across the room and came to rest on a barrel of metal shavings), again, no writer put those words on a page. Again, ever.

And the same goes for other body parts: “her legs raced along the sidewalk” or “his nose smelled something strange” or “her ears listened closely” or “his finger dialed the telephone” or “his hand crept into his pocket to retrieve his revolver.”

No writers that I’ve been able to find write like that either. Ever.

But based on the hard evidence contained between the covers of some books, some do. Or maybe the publishers are sneaking that stuff in.

Anyway, if you mention those faux pas to the writers, they grin the grin of a thousand braying jackasses, wag that hand in the air as if you and they are old buddies and say something like, “Aah, you know, the readers know I didn’t mean it like that.”

And most often I smile and say something noncommittal, like “Hey, when you’re right, you’re right” or “Ah.”

But the truth lurks in my mind: No, Sparky, they don’t.

Readers read for either or both of two purposes: entertainment and-or information. If you write “never,” they read “never.” They don’t automatically substitute “seldom” or “sometimes” or some other less-inclusive, less blanket-clad word.

If you write that “her legs raced down the road,” the reader sees disembodied legs racing down the road.

If you write that “her eyes came to rest on a barrel of metal shavings,” the reader will wince. Because face it, that had to hurt.

And it isn’t the reader’s fault that they take you at your word(s). It’s your fault.

After all, the reader has no choice but to accept what you put on the page, whether it’s in your novel, in your Essay On Some Topic Of Major Importance or on your Facebook page.

I’ve never known a reader who was hungry for a verbal repast to go looking for a soup sandwich. But that’s often what they get.

It is up to the purveyor of the repast to determine whether he or she is going to serve a nutrituous, delicately balanced meal or something that’s half-baked and barely slopped together.

Am I being nitpicky?

Yes. But only where my own sensibilities are concerned.

Hey, if you want to continue slopping grey, watery soup over stale bread in a bowl, go ahead. If you want to hit it with a dash of sea salt, proclaim it prime rib and hand it out to weary, gaunt-eyed travelers who are starved for sustenance, that’s your business.

I’m only giving you notice that I will not partake. Nor will I sidle up alongside you in the soup kitchen, grab a ladle and begin flinging greasy dumplings at the wall in the hope they will stick and “be something good.”

So anyway, I was gonna devote a whole post to this notion that writers, not readers, are responsible for the clarity or lack thereof in writing.

But it’s a personal thing, so I won’t.

I’ll just pass along a wish that your characters’ eyes will remain in their head. Unless it’s a horror novel and they get whacked really, really hard.

‘Til next time, happy writing.

Harvey

PS: If you wanna see what I do when I’m having fun, swing by Harvey Stanbrough Writing in Public (https://www.facebook.com/HarveyStanbroughWritingInPublic/) and take a gander. For the month of June, you can watch short stories grow there scene by scene.

Getting in My Own Way

Hi Folks,

Sometimes, probably more often than not, my own biggest problem is Me.

Today I knocked out something over 2000 words before I went walking. Didn’t walk all that long. I didn’t even need a shower, really, although I took one because that’s what you do.

After that, I was fired up to leap back into writing another scene in The Marshal of Agua Perlado.

And I did.

Then I got stuck.

I wasn’t stuck like writers usually complain about being stuck though. I was stuck because I really, really liked the scene I had just written. And I wanted folks to see it early.

So I excerpted it, then adapted it (changed a few words here and there, added a bit of info to clarify names that readers of the novel would have known but that seem orphaned in the short story, things like that.

Okay, good. The short story of the week for next Monday (5/25) is done early, ready to go. (I wrote it after 9 a.m. this morning, so it’s legit for the new week.)

Only now I have to create a promo document for it.

The promo document is just a Notepad document that contains the story title, name of the publisher, the story description and Internet search tags so I can copy and paste them into Smashwords and Amazon instead of rewriting them every time.

And a cover. I have to find a suitable cover photo, select the right font(s) and create a cover for it. Well, and then I have to publish it to Smashwords and Amazon and my free story website and HarveyStanbrough.com.

Okay. All of that’s done so now I can get back to the novel. Three and a half hours later. (groan)

That’s okay. Breathe. Fortunately, I had typed well over 2500 words (my daily goal is 3000, remember?) before I started all the insanity, so I have to type only one more session and I can call it a day.

Of course, I don’t count the words in the short story in my word count since they’re virtually the same as the words in the novel. There are maybe twenty words in the short story that are not in the novel. Not worth the time to figure it out. So I show the word count for the short story, but those words are not duplicated in the totals at the end.

So that’s what I mean about getting in my own way.

It’s like I ran out in front of myself, stuck out my leg, and tripped me, making me stumble for almost four hours during which I should have been writing or cursing or drinking or something. I don’t know. I’m only one guy here.

Usually.

Happy writing,

Harvey

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Hi Folks,

A writer and friend once asked in a comment over on my Daily Journal whether I would

“address the issue of setting the bar of productivity so high that [some] of us … can’t possibly keep up with you? As much as I want to, I can’t keep up. I’m guessing that eliminates me from the ‘professional writer’ category.”

I did respond in a comment (on the Journal), but I know a lot of readers don’t go back and read comments. Also, there are at least two separate issues in his question, and I didn’t answer them both.

First and foremost, please understand, I don’t set the bar of productivity for anyone but myself.

Your job as a writer isn’t to keep up with me or anyone else. Your job as a writer is to write. Period.

And that’s a job you took on yourself voluntarily. You can quit if you want.

We all live different lives with different requirements, different interests, etc. I wouldn’t dream of setting your goals for you. You have to do that yourself, or not.

Here’s what I recommend to calculate or set your own productivity goals if that’s something you want to do:

  1. Figure out about how many publishable words of fiction you can write per hour. (Same goes for other kinds of writing.) Most writers who practice writing into the dark tend to get 750 to 1000 words per hour (that’s only 13 to 17 words per minute).
  2. Figure out realistically how many hours per day you can write. This doesn’t have to be every day. It’s your schedule, so set it up the way you want to. (If you feel that you have zero free time every day, email me and ask how to find extra time. I’d be happy to fill you in.)
    • If you write only one hour per day and you put out 1000 publishable words per hour, you will write 30,000 publishable words in a typical month. That’s 360,000 publishable words per year.
    • I started to add that if you write only two hours per week, you will write 110,000 words per year, but that isn’t really true. The numbers are there, and it’s possible. And I’m sure there are exceptions that prove the rule. But the fact is,
    • if writing is such a low priority that you can find only two hours per week to practice your craft, chances are great that other things will take over and the writing will fall away.
  3. Prioritize. Do remember, please, that only you can set your own priorities in your life. If you’re in prison, then many of your priorities are set for you, but otherwise you set your own priorities. The fact is, when we want something badly enough, we find a way to make it work. When we don’t, well, we don’t. That’s priorities.
  4. Write. You can’t be a writer unless you write. Yes, it’s a free country. You can SAY you’re a writer even if you never write anything more substantial than a grocery list. But you can’t BE a writer unless you write.
  5. This is a bonus. Know that there is power in streaks. If you want to be a writer, set goals and challenge yourself.
    • If I hadn’t set a goal to write a new short story every week back in April, 2014, I wouldn’t currently have 92 short stories on the site at HarveyStanbrough.com and another one due by Monday at 9 a.m.
    • If I hadn’t set a personal daily goal to write a certain number of publishable words per day back in October, 2014, I wouldn’t currently have six novels and a novella finished and be over 25,000 words into another novel. And finally,
  6. It doesn’t matter WHAT goal you set, as long as you set one and then strive to reach it.

Okay, that’s one question answered.

Second, if you can’t keep up with me does that automatically eliminate you from the “professional writer” category?

No.

  1. I don’t keep up with Dean Wesley Smith, but I still consider myself a professional fiction writer.
  2. I don’t keep up with ANY of the old pulp writers. Many of them routinely hit over 1,000,000 (that’s one million) words per year of published fiction, and they did it on manual typewriters.

As I said above, it isn’t about keeping up with anyone else. It’s about setting a goal and then striving to achieve it.

Only you can decide whether you are a professional fiction writer. But don’t judge yourself based on what I do or on what anyone else does.

In my world, if you’re a “professional” anything, that means you engage in a certain activity as your chosen profession.

If you’re a professional automobile engine mechanic, you repair engines. If you’re a professional house painter, you paint houses. If you’re a professional teacher, you prepare lesson plans and conduct classes. If you’re a professional writer, you write and you put your work out there so readers can find it.

As I wrote at the outset, I didn’t write the Daily Journal and post my numbers to intimidate anyone or even to challenge anyone. To be honest, I posted the numbers “in public” primarily to hold myself accountable. Secondarily, I post the numbers to show other writers and would-be writers what is possible if they follow Heinlein’s Rules and if they practice Writing Off Into the Dark. I posted my Topic of the Night pieces to share my knowledge. (shrug) Nothing more to it than that.

If my postings here or on the Journal encourage any other writers to greater heights with their writing, good. I am honored.

Finally, just so you know, I blatantly stole the idea for my Daily Journal from Dean Wesley Smith, who does something very similar. He calls it Writing in Public.

Honestly, I think he got the idea from Harlan Ellison, who at one time set up a chair and small desk in the display window of a department store and wrote short story after short story “in public.”

He wrote the stories on the spot on a manual typewriter, and as he finished each page, he stuck it to the display window so the readers gathered outside could read it as he wrote it.

How’s that for confidence in your ability as a professional fiction writer?

Happy writing,

Harvey