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

Note: I despise those annoying pop-up ads that populate so many websites, don’t you? This blog is supported only by donations from readers like you. If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out or click paypal.me/harveystanbrough.

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

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.

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