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.

Using Italic Attribute in Fiction

Hi Folks,

This is a bit of an embarrassment for me.

I used to actively teach that the writer should use italics to indicate the characters’ unspoken thoughts.

When I was actively editing for other writers, I applied that erroneous rule. One time, I even passed up doing an edit for one writer because she adamantly refused to allow me to change characters’ unspoken thoughts from normal typeface to italics. I felt like she was paying me to not do my job, and I’ve never been bent that direction.

At any rate, I was wrong.

I sent a short story to Dean Wesley Smith one time as an assignment for one of the online workshops I took.

He wrote back that he very much enjoyed the story, but had two complaints.

“Why the italics?” he wrote. “And what’s with the ‘he thought’ tags?”

I explained to him that I use italics to indicate unspoken thought. Sentences contained within quotation marks were spoken thought (dialogue or monologue) and any text that was not either contained within quotation marks or set in italics was narrative.

His only response was, “Well, do what you want, but the italics jerk me right out of the story.”

Wow. The one big overall major concept I’ve always talked about — the one concept that underlies all other writing concepts — is that the writer must never do ANYthing to interrupt the reading of his or her own work.

And here was a writer I highly respect telling me that my use of italics pulled him out of the story.

Now Dean has well over 200 traditionally published novels and around a hundred independently published NEW novels (in other words, not including older novels on which rights have reverted and he’s now republishing as an indie publisher). Oh, and several hundred short stories.

I mean WOW.

And an epiphany hit:

Whether or not you use italics attribute (other than for emphasis) has absolutely no effect on the story itself. So it can’t help, but by disrupting the READING of the story, it can do great harm.

Now I had already decided to trust DWS. He wasn’t trying to convince me of anything. He just wrote, “[T]he italics jerk me right out of the story.” The day after he wrote that, I stopped overusing italics.

But I started rummaging through the works of other writers I respect, both older and more recent.

In every book, I found italics used only sparingly, to indicate emphasis. Never—not one time—did I find a successful long-term writer using italics to indicate unspoken thought.

Then it happened.

In Under the Dome, a novel by arguably my favorite novelist, Stephen King, he uses italics not only to indicate unspoken thought, but also over-uses it to emphasize entire sentences of dialogue when the character is speaking in an excited tone.

For example, one of his characters might put his hands around his mouth and yell, “No! Get back! Don’t go over there! It’s electrified!”

The sentence would be italics AND he would use the exclamation points (arguably correctly to indicate, you know, exclamations).

And every time I encountered the overuse of italics, it pulled me out of the story.

Readers are intelligent enough to know, almost immediately, whether a sentence that is not contained within quotation marks is narrative or the characters’ unspoken thought. You don’t have to tell them with the use of italics. And you might run them off by using it.

While I’m on the topic of things that pull readers out of a story, S. King, at least in Under the Dome, also uses bold font attribute when he writes a single letter or when the narrator or character reads a sign.

For example, “The car approached the place where the road T‘ed” or “The sign read Dairyman’s Dry Cleaners.”

Not kidding. And that use of bold attribute also pulls me out of the story. It’s just distracting and annoying.

Does it make me stop reading? Well, yes, but only momentarily. The story is good enough that I doubt anything could cause me to stop reading completely. But it does make reading the story a lot more difficult. (UPDATE: I was wrong. After encountering several more examples of bold attribute and unnecessary italics, it was distracting enough that I finally gave up on trying to read the story.)

My point here, aside from explaining why I converted from Saul to Paul regarding the use of italics, is that some otherwise excellent writers will occasionally make a booboo.

So don’t take everything you see for gospel just because a famous (to you) writer does it.

I seriously hope this helps.

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

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.

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

If you want to learn the nuts and bolts of writing (and even Writing Off Into the Dark) from a valid source, check out my Audio Lectures.

To sign up for my diary of a professional writer’s journey and learn by osmosis, click The Daily Journal.

Note: I despise pop-up ads all over the place when I visit a website, don’t you? This blog is supported ony 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. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much. If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. (grin) Again, thank you.

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

Beware of Rights Grabbers

Hi Folks,

I really hope I’m preaching to the choir here. Forgive me if that’s true, but better safe than sorry. And if you aren’t currently in the choir, this should convert you.

A new literary acquaintance I’ve never met, Linda Maye Adams, commented on Dean Wesley Smith’s blog post  one day awhile back:

Just passing along another rights grab I ran across. It’s a writing contest sponsored by a non-profit [Story Shares] who is trying to help teens and young adults read. If you SUBMIT to the contest, you automatically give up all the rights to your story and payment. SUBMIT, not win or place.

I emailed Linda to ask her to divulge the name of the particular non-profit. She did, so I added it to the quote above [in brackets].

Rights grabbers are organizations that take all rights to your work. And folks, even if it’s FOR payment, that’s just wrong.

A major example of this is Reader’s Digest, at least a few years ago. At the time, they offered payment for short pieces in various sections of the magazine. But upon payment, they own all rights to the piece.

Most, if not all, traditional publishers are rights grabbers, but if you sign a contract with one of those—well, frankly, you deserve what you get.

Unfortunately, rights grabs abound in places you would never suspect. And their stock in trade are writers who don’t read submission guidelines and rules of contests. Or publishing contracts.

Think about it. Your copyright is your intellectual property. It’s like a rental property that you own. With a rental property, you rent or lease apartments or houses for a specific use by a specific person for a specific length of time.

With copyright, you license slices of it for a specific use by a specific company for a specific length of time.

But when that time is up, you still own it. If you give away “all rights” to your work, it’s exactly like selling your rental property outright to a renter in exchange for one month’s rent or a year’s rent in advance. Would you do that? Of course not.

Back to the contest Linda mentioned on Dean’s blog. It’s only a writing contest, right? No biggie. Submit, win or not, then submit elsewhere.

Wrong. Read Linda’s comment above again. If you only SUBMIT to this contest, you forfeit all rights to the work you submitted. You created it. But you no longer own it. In this case, you just gave away your rental apartment or house to someone who showed up to look it over.

Rights grabbers also appear in other, slightly less-innocuous forms. Believe it or not, many subsidy publishers are also rights grabbers. One subsidy publisher whom I used to recommend includes in their contract a “no-compete” clause.

Let’s say you’ve submitted your work to a subsidy publisher and they’ve “accepted” it (BTW, they accept everything).

And let’s say later you become unhappy with your contract and are unwilling to pay the exorbitant fee for return of your rights (the fee is in the contract).

If there is a no-compete clause in the contract (and there usually is), you also can’t simply slap another title on the work and publish it as a new book on your own. Nor can you go through the manuscript and change all the character names. Nor can you even write another book based in the same fictional world. Nor can you write another book that resembles, in any way, the book you placed with that subsidy publisher.

If you do any of the above, they will sue your backside off. And they will win.

How to avoid such pitfalls?

Easy. Don’t submit your work ANYWHERE without reading the submission guidelines, rules of the contest, etc. And if there’s a contract involved, read it thoroughly. Better yet, have a copyright attorney read it.

‘Til next time, be careful out there. And happy writing!

Harvey

I am a professional fiction writer. For more writing tips, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up. In the alternative, you can also click The Daily Journal link in the header on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.

HarveyStanbrough.com — A New Look

Hey folks,

Some of you might have noticed the website has a new look. If you haven’t, check it out at http://harveystanbrough.com.

I’m slowly transitioning the website. Well, expanding might be a better term.

The site will continue to be a valuable source for writers. I’ll continue the weekly posts each Tuesday on topics of interest to writers, and the Writers’ Resources listed in the left sidebar will remain. I’ll also continue to offer writer services like copyediting and occasionally add to the items available at no cost on the Free Stuff tab.

But I’m a professional writer, and this is also a writer’s website.

To that end, for the foreseeable future, the website will open on a new homepage, one that showcases the various bundles from BundleRabbit in which my works are included.

When you purchase a bundle, you pay approximately what you would normally pay for a single ebook. But you get several additional books by various writers at no additional cost. It’s a great bargain, both as an entertainment venue and to purchase fictions by authors whose work you want to study and emulate.

If you’re a writer, I strongly recommend you get your work listed at BundleRabbit.com. It’s a great way to expand your audience. Readers purchase a bundle to read my novel or the novel of a best-selling writer like Dean Wesley Smith or Kristine Kathryn Rusch or Kevin J. Anderson and they also get to read your work, all for one low price. It’s one of the best discoverability tools out there.

If you’re a reader, BundleRabbit is an invaluable way to find new authors and maybe even new genres you’ve never considered before. Again, all at a very low price.

BundleRabbit also gives you the option of donating part of your payment to charity, and you always have the option of purchasing the bundle through your favorite electronic retailer. It truly is a win-win situation.

As part of the expansion of this website, I’ll also occasionally post news about my own fiction and nonfiction writing. That will include news concerning upcoming and new releases, news about my writing personas and characters, and occasional special surprises that will be available only to readers of this blog.

To keep them separate of the professional writing advice posts (on Tuesday each week), these new posts will publish less frequently and always on a Friday. They will always contain news of potential interest to readers.

For example, did you know that in addition to the Magic Realism stories from my persona Gervasio Arrancado, I have also written a 10-volume Western saga? It’s the story of Wes Crowley, a Texas Ranger in 1870s in the Texas Panhandle. It ends some 50 years later in a small fishing village along the Pacific coast in the Mexican state of Guerrero.

Did you know I also write both “we went there” and “they came here” science fiction? And apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels? And novels that take place during the Spanish Civil War? And Mystery novels? And Noir-PI Detective novels? And Crime novels?

About the only genre I haven’t tackled to date is Contemporary Romance, but trust me, there’s plenty of romance in my other works. (grin)

And if you enjoy reading Mystery, I’m excited to announce I’ve recently stumbled across a series PI character named Stern Richards. In fact, my current novel is the third that features him. It’s all very exciting and a great deal of fun.

Whether you’re here as a writer hoping to polish your craft or a reader seeking entertainment, please stay tuned. And either way, thank you for your continued loyalty to this blog.

Best,

Harvey Stanbrough

 

Trust Your Professional

Hi Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 5/30/2013. 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.

First, find a professional you can trust.

For example, 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.

Thomas D. Morrow wrote that “Advertising may be the only business in the world where the clients with the most money can make demands until they get the agency’s worst product, while the small client with little to spend must meekly accept the agency’s best.”

So if a guy walks into an ad agency with his hat in his hand, a small budget and the willingness to listen that usually accompanies a small budget, he will walk out with a much better product than the Know It All who barges in, perfectly willing to pay extra to force the professionals to do it his way.

But Mr. Morrow was wrong. It isn’t just advertising. The same holds true for other artistic endeavors.

Let’s read the important part of the statement again: “The clients with the most money can make demands until they get the agency’s worst product.” (Did’ya get that?) “While the small client with little to spend must meekly accept the agency’s best.”

Here are a few examples of wrong thinking on the client side:

Cover design clients often believe the cover must reflect the main characters or the storyline or both.

Uhh, nope.

That isn’t the cover’s job, and most of the time it will render a cover that’s far too busy. Reflecting the main character(s) and the story line is the writer’s job in the story.

The cover’s job is to attract the prospective reader’s attention and convey the theme or concept of the story. The cover’s job is to entice the reader into buying your book or at least sampling it.

When I was designing covers for others, I charged a low rate to design a cover based on the client’s ideas but on my preferences. I charged a lot more to design a cover over which the client demanded full artistic control.

And when I was designing websites, those clients often expected me to explain each nuance of web design as I was progressing. For example, if I told them I would host their website, free of charge, so I could more easily access it and work on it, they immediately became suspicious. The conversation usually went something like this:

“What do you get out of hosting my website free?”

“I get the ability to provide you with better, faster service than I would if I had to jump through hoops at your hosting service.”

“Yeah, but how much do you charge for hosting?”

“Umm, free hosting is, you know, free. What part of ‘it costs you nothing’ do you not understand?”

But that wasn’t good enough.

They expected me to spend a few hours explaining why it’s easier for me to access their site when I’m hosting it. So before I learned better and got out of the business, I would explain what I have to do—the actual process—to upload a particular premium theme framework and then access and change the permissions on certain folders and files through an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) client.

Eventually, finally, they saw the benefit. Or more likely, they tired of the explanation. Then they’d say something I knew all along was coming: “Ahh, well I didn’t know it was that involved.” At that point, they would usually giggle and say, “Oh, okay. Well go ahead then!”

That really sent me over the top with frustration. Why couldn’t they just believe up front that I know what I’m talking about instead of making me explain it all before assenting? I mean it isn’t like they learn anything they can use.

And then, having gobbled up two or three hours of my work day, they say something radically uncool like, “Well, I’m off to an evening on the town (or off to boating on Lake Havasu or off to board a plane for Hawaii or off to take a nap). You just have a really great evening!” Giggle giggle.

Ugh.

Right now, some of you are thinking But don’t we have a right to ask questions?

Sure. Yes, you do.

But why would you want to cost your professional service provider a lot of time that he could be spending on your project?

Seriously, think about it.

When you put new tires on your vehicle, if the guy at the tire store says he’s going to balance and mount them on your vehicle at no cost to you, do you grill him for a few hours about WHY he wants to balance them and mount them on the vehicle?

Do you then question him about the process of mounting the tires on the rims, balancing them, and finally putting them on your car?

Or do you just say, “Thank You” and let him do his job?

Finally, amazing as it sounds, Morrow’s statement about advertisiting also holds true for freelance editing.

A couple of years ago, I spent two precious hours (my fault… won’t happen again) explaining to a writer why most of the changes I made to his manuscript were very light nuances. After all of that, in his best the-reader-will-know-what-I-mean tone he said, “It makes a difference, sure, but not much.”

I said, “That’s specifically because I don’t want to change your voice. I just want to smooth out the reading experience for the reader. The reader won’t even realize the work has been copyedited. He’ll just know it reads like polished glass.”

Folks, it isn’t the presence of something good that the reader notices; it’s the absence of anything bad. In other words,  the reader will never notice that something’s written well; he will only notice if it’s written poorly.

The client said that was fine, but insisted that I never replace (for example) “he said to himself” with “he said quietly” because “all ly adverbs are bad.” Sigh. And he laid some more pretty strenuous requirements on me regarding his edit.

He responded by saying that three published authors had read his manuscript and “gave it a passing grade.”

I know, I know. The customer is always right. Blah blah blah.

Except that if he were always right, he’d be providing the service instead of purchasing it.

But I digress.

What I should have said is this: “Y’know, you’re absolutely right. You’re paying for this, so it should be your decision whether to pay me to actually do my job or subsidize me for not doing my job. Tell you what. I’ll charge you 1 cent per word to draw on my expertise and edit your manuscript the way I want to, or I’ll charge you 5 cents per word to edit it the way you want me to. I mean, it’ll read like crap but hey, it’s your call.”

But I didn’t do that. Instead, since he’d mentioned those “published authors” giving it a passing grade, I reminded him that a D is a passing grade.

Yeah, it all went pretty much downhill from there. Now he’s back in chasing-an-agent land wondering what happened. Well, he was back then. Today he’s in “whatever happened to” land.

Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind at all when other writers ask me questions in an attempt to learn something, but it bugs me to no end when they ask with an inflection that implies they believe I’m trying to put something over on them.

I’m too busy to waste my time trying to con anyone, and I’m too busy to spend time convincing them that I’m not trying to con them. Eventually I got to the point where I would sigh, shake my head and say, “Remind me again, why did you hire me to edit your manuscript?”

Here’s some friendly, completely free advice: if you’re going to insist on doing everything your way, save your money and do it yourself. Remember, the reader will never notice that something’s written well; he will only notice if it’s written poorly.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

(Thanks to my friend Dan Baldwin for bringing the Morrow quote to my attention in his weekly Business Communications Tip of the Week. You may subscribe by emailing Dan at baldco@msn.com.)

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.

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

On Challenges, Part 2

Hi Folks,

Note: This follows on a topic I wrote for The Daily Journal. If you haven’t read it, you can find it at http://hestanbrough.com/the-journal-friday-915/.

At the beginning of the calendar year, I challenged myself to write 15 novels during the year.

Later, after an intended novel fell short and ended as a novella, I adjusted the goal to 16 novels or novellas. That should have clued me I was in trouble.

It didn’t. I plunged merrily ahead but conveniently forgot the whole purpose of a challenge: productivity.

In my desire to write a certain number of novels, I allowed myself to be overwhelmed. In short, I lost sight of the little picture: the word count.

Grandpa always said you can’t build a house, but you can drive a nail. (Or you can’t write a novel, but you can write a scene.)

If you drive enough nails, you’ll look up one day through the clearing smoke and see that you have a new house.

Now just for fun, let’s slip a bit afield.

Productivity isn’t finishing a certain number of novels or novellas or even short stories.

In its initial, base form, productivity is putting words on the page. Like it or not, it all boils back down to the basic act: word count is what produces short stories, novellas and novels. You can’t escape that fact.

I find it particularly telling (and humorous, actually) that so many writers wrinkle up their nose and eschew word count as if it were gross and even distasteful. Pedestrian, even. Like sex.

Well, it might be. But it’s still a necessary (if ugly, depending on your POV) act in which the writer must allow his conscious and subconscious mind to engage if he is to birth a new novel.

It occurs to me that the metaphor extends when you realize word count generally isn’t talked about in polite circles.

Get it?

And it’s something all writers engage in whether or not they want to admit it.

After all, if such things really were only for us peasants, Great Britain’s royal line would be really short. In fact, it would have ended abruptly on the other side of a pair of crossed arms and a head shaking side to side eons ago. (Somebody stop me!)

Okay. Okay (deep breaths). Enough on the metaphor.

Now I don’t push productivity for its own sake. I push productivity as a matter of business.

The more works a writer has “out there” the greater the chance readers will stumble on something he’s written, like it, and buy more.

This is common sense, even given that what was once common for most seems to have become a luxury for many. But I digress.

Noting word count, whether it’s done publicly (as here) or in private (all the better people only do it in private) is what drives the writer to produce more literary children.

And when our word-count drive begins to weaken, there’s no better way to enhance it than to give ourselves a challenge.

Try it. You’ll like it. And you don’t have to tell anybody.

‘Til next time, keep 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.