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)

 

Top 10 Proofreading Tips

Hi Folks,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Be careful of words that contain double vowels.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Til next time, Happy Writing!

Harvey

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

 

Safeguard Your Credibility

Note: This post was originally scheduled for sometime in 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.

For anyone who’s interested, The Professional Fiction Writer: A Year in the Life is available for preorder in all electronic venues. It will ship on January 15.

Also, while I’m pushing help for writers here, I can’t do better than recommend you read Dean Wesley Smith’s recent post titled “Once More… For the New Year… Pulp Speed.” This one is massively important for anyone who wants to be a professional fiction writer. To see it, click this link: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/once-more-for-the-new-year-pulp-speed/.

Hi Folks,

A long time ago, those who made their living with the written or spoken word obeyed two self-imposed rules:

  1. they knew the language intimately, and
  2. they applied that knowledge skillfully.

It seems that level of commitment has become the exception rather than the rule.

Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Edwin Newman, Mark Twain, Papa Hemingway, Dorothy Parker and countless other professional writers studied the language and knew the meanings (both denotation and connotation in all its delightful intimacies) and spellings of the words they used.

They also knew and applied the rules of grammar and syntax, not because they had to, but because they knew it would enhance reader understanding. And they themselves wouldn’t look like blithering morons.

Those news professionals and writers took no chances that their readers might misunderstand, and they took no chances that their readers or listeners might think them ignorant. And yet the battlecry of contemporary so-called professionals seems to be “Well, it’s close enough. The readers will know what I was trying to say.”

I mention Murrow, Cronkite and Newman because they were news professionals who wrote and read the news on radio and television. I mention them because today’s news professionals apparently don’t know that “likely” is an adjective that is synonymous with “probable,” not “probably.”

They don’t understand that a “weapons cache” (pronounced “cash”) is a store of weapons and that “weapons cachet” makes no sense at all to a thinking person. Why? Because a “cachet” (pronounced “cashay”) is an aroma, not a stored collection of weapons or anything else.

And worst of all, at least to me, they don’t understand that such errors DO matter. In fact, they are grievous affronts to our language and to the writing profession as a whole.

A recent correspondent mentioned that in a Michael Crichton novel she repeatedly saw statements like “I better be going” instead of “I’d better be going”  (this would be okay in dialogue, but not in narrative) or  “would of” and “could of” in place of “would’ve” and “could’ve” (this would not be all right in dialogue or narrative). And this is an author whose works regularly populate the bestseller lists.

So what’s going on? Are these usages simply considered acceptable now?

Sadly, the answer is yes.

They are considered acceptable because it’s much easier to simply accept something as “good enough” than to expend the effort to teach students the correct way to spell and the rules of grammar and syntax.

Consider, the word “acceptable” doesn’t even mean “adequate.” It simply means “good enough.” If it were a letter grade, “acceptable” would be a D, and “adequate” would be a C.

In other words, it’s a soup sandwich, sloppy at best.

“The Reader Will Know What I Mean”

Umm, no, Sparky. Bad writer. It isn’t the reader’s responsibility to figure out what you mean.

That responsibility belongs to the person who puts the words on the page, and um, that would be You.

Unfortunately, it’s too late to simply ask the teachers in public schools to begin (please) teaching their students proper grammar and syntax. Many of today’s teachers can’t do so because they don’t know it themselves.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen in written works that a room was “void” of furniture. Of course, the writer meant “devoid.”

In the manuscript I’m currently working on (back when I wrote this) a character “embarked from” a train. Yes, I changed it to “disembarked.”

The writer or speaker can “imply” something; only the reader or listener can “infer,” yet increasing numbers of writers treat those terms as if they’re interchangeable.

  • Would you want your next surgery to be conducted by a guy who barely made it through med school?
  • Would you want the guy who’s adjusting your heater to get it ready for the winter to do a job that’s just passable?
  • Would you want a contractor whose buildings routinely barely pass inspection?

The fact that increasing numbers of writers accept “good enough” as a standard is an abomination that contributes more every day to the dumbing down of America.

And to any writer who’s worth his or her salt, “good enough” is never good enough. You’re an artisan, one who strives constantly to perfect your craft. And that, my friends, is “good enough.”

Next up, more on safeguarding your credibility as a writer.

‘Til next time, happy writing.

Harvey

THIS JUST IN FROM KRISTINE KATHRYN RUSCH: If you have ANY books with All Romance Ebooks/OmniLit, read Kris’ post here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/business-musings-7624150. This is an advance look at her post from later this week.

Two other links that might help are these:

All Romance Ebooks Closing

All Romance Ebooks Suddenly Closing

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.

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.

For Purveyors of the Soup Sandwich

Hi Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 8/20/2013. 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.

I started to call this “Dueling Respondents” but that wouldn’t have been quite accurate. After all, as far as I know, the two writers who served as the catalyst for this post don’t even know each other.

One of those writers, upon reading my “Top 10 Mistakes Writers Make” argued, albeit lightly, that he had used many of the “mistakes” I argued against and that none of his readers seemed to care.

Point taken. Far be it from me to attempt to teach an old dog (I can talk because I’m an old dog too) new tricks, even if those tricks will help him retain readers.

The actual truth of the matter is that none of his readers seemed to care As Far As He Knows. That’s very different and more realistic than just assuming they didn’t care.

Most readers won’t bother to contact a writer to say “Hey, your book stinks.” Generally, I’ve found that most lay readers (those who are not also writers) have a dog’s outlook on life: if they can’t eat it or read it, they’ll tinkle on it and get on with their life.

Okay, to be absolutely fair, I should also mention that this particular author is a very strong writer and well-enough established that he probably can get away with some things that most of us wouldn’t be able to get away with. But that wasn’t the point.

The point was, having more readers is better than having fewer. Successful writers with bad habits also have a bad effect on writers who are younger in the craft.

Novices, while citing the success of other writers, often say silly things like “Well, Famous Author doesn’t use quotation marks around dialogue, so why should I?” or “Famous Writer’s work is replete with misplaced modifiers, so what’s wrong with them?” or “Famous Writer says adverbs are bad so I will never use an adverb.”

Or my personal-favorite avoidance clause: “The reader will know what I mean.” That, frankly, is a p-poor excuse for not learning and applying the craft. And no, when I wrote p-poor I wasn’t st-stammering. The reader will know what I mean.

The fact, plainly stated, is precisely this: Every single solitary time you write something that interrupts the reader, you’re running the risk of the reader having reached the point where he’s had enough. At that point, he’ll close your book and find something more enjoyable and less maddening to do.

I preach this constantly, even working it into seminars and classes and conversations and email exchanges that have nothing to do, directly, with the writer-reader interaction that occurs through your work. Yet some folks believe they’re immune, that “the reader will know what I meant.”

Of course, I’m a bit conflicted. As a writing instructor, I want what’s best for other writers. But I’m also a writer, and as more and more writers bow to mediocrity, the fewer I will have to compete against.

Okay, so if you honestly believe letting your narrator say the character “sat looking out the window” when she was already sitting or “gave his hand a shake” instead of saying “shook his hand” is a good idea, hey go for it.

If you believe it’s all right to let the narrator say in a tag line that your character “snickered” (or “laughed” or “cut in” or “gave back” or “returned” or “sentenced” or “tumbled out”) a line of dialogue instead of “said” a line of dialogue, that’s fine.

As an instructor, I have to shake my head in disbelief. But as a writer? Hey, I’m with you all the way!

If you believe the narrator saying the character “moved to the couch’s edge and pushed her glasses up her nose’s bridge” is as effective and clean as saying she “moved to the edge of the couch and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose,” that’s okay too.

If you believe it’s fine to let the narrator say “Bob’s nose pressed against the window” instead of “Bob pressed his nose against the window” or “Sharon’s legs raced wildly down the street” instead of “Sharon raced wildly down the street” or (Heaven forbid) “John’s eyes shot across the room” instead of “John quickly looked across the room,” PLEASE go ahead and write it that way.

If you think you should write “When he walked into the room several men sat at tables and others walked up or down the stairs” instead of saving reader confusion by writing “When he walked into the room several men were sitting at tables and others were walking up or down the stairs,” have at it.

And by all means, please, if you believe it doesn’t sound at all redundant and ludicrous to write “he thought to himself,” go right ahead.

At this point, I’m actually grinning, greedily and anxiously, and cheering for all those writers who know “the reader will know what I mean.” You betcha.

Oh, and the other respondent I mentioned at the beginning of this? She sent me an email recently. Here’s an excerpt:

I read only one chapter of a book I downloaded. That was as far as I could go.

“They both laughed. She nodded her head yes and they went in two opposite directions.”

And then there were words used incorrectly. For example, one guy was “nauseous” instead of “nauseated.” Then again, maybe he was. I never saw him. That was all I could take.

Do you suppose this reader (who also happens to be a very good writer) will contact the author of that book and tell him about these problems? Of course not. That isn’t her job.

The reader’s job is to suspend her sense of disbelief.

The writer’s job is to not buy it back.

‘Til next time, happy 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.

Deep POV?

Hi Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 7/30/2013. 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.

There’s been a great deal of talk in the past few months (when I wrote this) about a “new” technique called “deep point of view.” The truth is, deep POV is nothing new.

Most sources define it as a way to enable the reader to experience the scene as the character experiences it. In other words, don’t allow your narrator to keep the reader at arm’s distance by telling the reader what the character experienced. Instead, the narrator should simply describe the scene (that’s the narrator’s only job anyway) and then step out of the way so the reader can see, hear, taste, smell and feel the scene for himself.

In still other words, Show, Don’t Tell.

Yep, that’s right. Deep POV is precisely the same thing as Show, Don’t Tell.

Both of them mean “don’t tell the reader what’s going on; describe the scene and then get out of the way; let the reader experience it right along with the character.”

I hear your next question: Well, Mr. Man, how might one accomplish such a thing?

As you well know, I’m up to here with writing instructors who, when asked to explain “Show, don’t tell,” say something like “Well, I can’t really explain it, but I know it when I see it.” If you ever hear that from any writing instructor in response to a question about something he’s trying to teach you, run. And for goodness’ sake, stop giving him your money!

Okay, if you really want your stories to be more interesting and more engaging for the reader (for you practical types, this translates directly to more sales), use deep point of view or show, don’t tell or whatever other label you want to slap on it.

To accomplish that, first

Don’t allow your narrator to use the sense verbs: saw, could see; smelled, could smell; tasted, could taste; heard, could hear; and felt, could feel.

Are there exceptions? Times when it would be better to allow your narrator to use a sense verb?

Probably, but most of the time, no. You should be able to recast a sentence so you get rid of the sense verb. (Again, this is only for the narrator. Characters can say and do pretty much whatever they want.)

Again, just describe the scene. Here are some examples:

  • She felt the ground tremble. (The ground trembled.)
  • She heard an explosion rock the city. (An explosion rocked the city.)
  • Second, don’t allow the narrator to tell the reader how a character feels about something or what the character “knew.” Instead, trust your reader. Let him infer from the character’s own dialogue or unspoken thought how the reader feels and what he knows:
  • John felt an uneasiness growing inside him. (An uneasy feeling grew inside John or An uneasiness grew inside John.)
  • John knew the sense of unease should be setting off alarms in his brain. (Just delete this pig of a sentence. Or get on with it: A sense of unease set off alarms in John’s brain.)

Third, when the characters are talking, don’t allow your narrator to step in and tell the reader what they’re saying:

Red walked into the room. “Hey, John. You wanna go to the movies later?”

John looked up. “Sure! What’s playing?”

Red told John Gone with the Wind was playing on the first screen and that Barbarosa was playing on the second screen. At that point, John reconsidered his options and told Red he’d rather not go because he had a lot of work to do.

Okay, this wasn’t a truly engaging conversation in the first place, but do you see how the narrator just stepped in between you and the characters and took over? That will tick off even the most loyal reader.

Using deep POV (or Show, Don’t Tell or whatever) really is just good manners. Just remember that every time your narrator speaks, he’s stepping between the reader and your story, the reader and your characters, the reader and whatever tension is going on. Therefore, when the narrator speaks it should be absolutely necessary.

For much more on this and other narrative tips, consider picking up my ebook, Narrative in Fiction: Whispers from the Background. I even more strongly recommend Notes from Writing the World. It contains the full text of the narrative book and five more writing how-tos from my writing seminars.

By the way, I’ve decided to revive my copyediting service. For details, or just to learn what comprises a good copy edit, please visit Copyediting.

‘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 Daily Journal tab on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.

The Saga of the Adverb-Finder Thingy

Hey Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 5/20/2013. 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.

A correspondent on a ListServ I used to attend regularly wrote that she was searching for the name of “a bit of editing software that would highlight all adverbs if you typed search adverbs or all verbs if you typed search verbs.”

Hackles rose on my neck. Here we are, back to the topic that won’t die: the dumbing down of America.

This is a writer’s slippery slope.

Searching for, finding, installing and using software that highlights all adverbs put the writer a tempting single click away from deleting all adverbs. And that’s just plain silly. I strongly advise against such software, even if you can find it.

If you believe perhaps you’re using too many adverbs, follow these two simple guidelines. The third point is a tidbit of important parenthetical information (and no, parenthetical information doesn’t have to be enclosed in parentheses):

  1. Never use an adverb in a tag line (the bit of he said, she said narrative that doesn’t make sense by itself and is most often attached to the dialogue with a comma). If the narrator has described the scene well enough, you won’t need adverbs in tag lines.
  2. Use only strong action verbs in your narrative sentences. This will cause all unnecessary adverbs and adjectives to fall away of their own accord. If you use only strong action verbs, you will consciously select only necessary adverbs and adjectives to modify the picture you’re placing in the reader’s mind. Again, this will occur naturally. It’s as easy as falling off a stack of platitudes.
  3. Despite what some folks say, not every word that ends in “ly” is an adverb. For example, the widely misused “likely” is an adjective that is synonymous with “probable,” not an adverb that’s synonymous with “probably.”

English just isn’t a one-rule-fits-all language. DESPITE Mark Twain, who once wrote that when you find an adverb you should kill it, and DESPITE the felonious intent of wannabe writing instructors who tell their charges to use no more than three (or five or some other arbitrary number) of exclamation points per page.

I’ve heard similar advice concerning the use of em dashes (long dashes) and colons and semicolons. And of course we’ve all been taught that hunting season never closes on state-of-being verbs or “had” or gerunds (many alleged writing instructors call gerunds “ing words”) because those three word-types cause passive voice.

Uhh, no, they don’t, Grasshopper.

State-of-being verbs by themselves do not cause passive voice, and neither the word “had” nor those pesky “ing words” are within a thousand mles of having anything to do with passive voice.

Although it’s true that adverbs can clutter up your writing, some adverbs in some situations are necessary. And “necessary” is the key word. See item 3 above.

The secret to good usage is not to get rid of “all” adverbs, state-of-being verbs, instances of “had,” adjectives, or anything else, but to get rid of any unnecessary adverbs, state-of-being verbs, adjectives, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, narrative, and dialogue.

It is the Human Mind (yours) that should determine which words and sentences and paragraphs remain and in what sequence.

Okay, here are a few guidelines (flexible, not “rules”) you can apply to your own writing:

  1. The state-of-being verbs are am, is, are, was, were, be, being and been. When one of these is used in conjunction with a “by phrase” (e.g., The pizza was delivered by Harvey) you’ve written a passive construction (or passive voice). Passive constructions, unless you’re writing a service manual for a vacuum cleaner, are bad.
  2. Some state-of-being verbs are necessary. To describe the size or relative size (the state of being) of a city, you have to use a state-of-being verb.  But don’t allow your narrator to describe the state of being of a character. (Don’t let him say “John was angry” or “John was livid” or “Joaquin was frightened” etc.)
  3. Use Your Mind. Despite what your  father said, it’s a wonderful thing. The human mind is the original spell checker, the original grammar checker, and the original verb and adverb-finder thingy.
  4. As part of using your mind, Read Your Work Aloud. If it sounds good to you, it will sound good in the reader’s mind. If you hit a spot that sounds awkward or rough, that’s because it’s, you know, awkward or rough. Fix it.

Remember that you’re only in charge until the reader gets hold of your work. Only You can decide what to leave in or omit from your writing, but only the reader gets to determine whether it’s necessary or distracting.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

Note: 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.

The Infamous Gave

Hi Folks,

Note: Many  beginning writers still believe they can publish a novel and make a living. Nope. Not even through traditional publishing. One of the best quotes I’ve ever seen on the topic is from Dean Wesley Smith: “Here is the thinking if you expect to make a living from one book. Put $2,500 in the bank and then wonder why you are not living off the payment from the interest.” Think about that. Okay, here’s the scheduled post.

You know I used to be a freelance copyeditor. Often, I happened across the inappropriate use of the verb “gave” in a manuscript.

Anytime that happened, I immediately conducted a global search to find each instance all the way through so I could repair those sentences up front. It was a task, because most often, when I found one such instance, a lot more of them were lurking later in the manuscript.

The fact is, folks who misuse this infamous verb usually misuse it a lot.

Using “gave” inappropriately creates the same kind of diversion as saying “umm” a lot during the course of a speech.

After a while, audience members stop listening to the speech and start counting occurrences of “umm.” Likewise, readers find themselves wondering when you’re going to quit “giving” things that can’t be given.

A writer once asked, “Which sentence is correct, or are they both correct?”

 “I gave a quick look at Nick Campbell, and he gave me a subtle nod for me to continue.”

 “I gave a quick look at Nick Campell, and he gave me a subtle nod to continue.”

 Well, I didn’t care for either of them. Here’s why:

“Give” is most often a transitive verb, meaning you actually give (or hand or grant) something to someone. Using it as the writer used it in those sentences is all right occasionally, if it isn’t overused.

And of course, anytime a character uses it this way in dialogue, that’s fine. It’s wrong, but most people misuse various words and constructions when they speak. So that’s good.

What is written in narrative should be correct so it doesn’t call attention to itself and away from the story. And no, most of the time it doesn’t matter whether the narrator is also a character.

In the examples the writer provided, “nod to continue” was also awkward.

To fix both problems (verb and phrase), I recommended he write, “I glanced at Nick Campbell and he nodded, indicating I should continue.” (Nick didn’t indicate the speaker should continue. Nick’s NOD indicated he should continue.)

When you “give” someone a nod or a smile or a look or a glance, that indicates to the reader that the recipient has something now that she didn’t have before, as if you “gave” her a dollar or ring or a house.

So if you’re one of those writers who bathes in “gave,” stop it. (grin)

If you look at the third or fourth word after “gave,” most often it will be a noun (smile, wave, shake) that you can turn into a past-tense verb (smiled, waved, shook) and use in place of gave.

So don’t writeI gave him a smile.” Write “I smiled (at him).”

Don’t write “I gave her a wave” (unless you work in a hair salon). Write “I waved (to her).”

Don’t write “I gave his hand a shake” (unless you work at Sonic). Write “I shook his hand.”

However, PLEASE write “I gave him a dollar.” Not “I dollared him.”

Please write “I gave her a ring.” Not “I ringed her.”

Yeah, I know you didn’t need the last two, but a little fun never hurt anyone. Probably.

Using “gave” inappropriately is a habit. It’s akin to using the unnecessary “what it was that” phrase as in “I forgot what it was that I wanted to tell you” instead of just saying “I forgot what I wanted to tell you.”

So if you have the habit of using “gave” inappropriately, you’ll have to pay attention to your writing for a little while, maybe even consciously looking for instances of “gave.” But very soon you’ll develop a new habit: writing leaner, cleaner, more active prose.

‘Til next time,

Harvey

 

Defining “A Huge Amount of Time”

Hi Folks,

Well, here we are with another post that isn’t part of the usual series. Still, even with these that are not part of the normal series, I try to pass along what I’ve learned as a writer.

This post is the result of an email I received in response to a recent short story of the week. The respondent (also a writer) writes,

[H]ow do you manage to get all these  stories edited?  Congratulations on your many stories…wow, one a week- sort of takes a huge amount of time.

I didn’t respond to him as thoroughly as I wanted to or probably should have, but I’ve grown a bit gun shy recently.

What I did tell him is that I send the stories to a first reader and then publish them. I told him I follow Heinlein’s Rules and that I follow a process called Writing Into the Dark. I said like Bradbury, I believe “plot” is what the characters leave behind as they run through the story. And finally I said I write about 1000 words per hour so writing a short story per week really doesn’t take up all that much time.

Then I got to thinking, I kind of enjoy writing these little interim posts, the ones that appear between the posts in the normal ten-day rotation, so why not write one about this and expand on my answer to him? After all, if even one writer out there gets an aha moment from it, that will be great for that one writer.

For the majority, who will think this is all hooey or that Heinlein’s Rules can’t possibly work for anyone but SF writers or whatever, well, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything to help them anyway. They’ll have to just keep doing what they’re doing, and that’s fine with me.

But for that one guy, that one woman, for whom the little light might come on, here’s what I should have written in response to the gentleman’s email:

I don’t have the stories edited, per se. I do have a first reader (and copy editor) read over them and look for inconsistencies, wrong words (e.g. waist vs. waste), etc. but nothing else. The cost of the copy edit, like the cost of the cover and the time involved in writing the story, is an investment. Whatever that total cost is, that’s all I’m ever going to put into it. Yet the story will earn income for me and my heirs from the time I publish it until 70 years after I die.

If it costs you $150 (time writing plus cover plus edit) to publish a story, and you make only $15 per year on that story from all sales venues, that’s a ten percent Return On Investment. Not too shabby. And if you’re smart you publish every short story on its own plus in a five-story collection plus in a ten-story collection. So for every story I write, I have three streams of revenue.

So here’s what I do. Per Heinlein’s Rules,

  1. You must write. (I write.)
  2. You must finish what you write. (I finish what I write.)
  3. You must not rewrite except to editorial order, and then only if you agree. (I don’t rewrite.)
  4. You must put your work on the market. (I publish what I write so readers can buy it.)
  5. You must keep your work on the market. (I keep it published so more writers can buy it.)

Writing a short story per week isn’t a problem for me because I’m a writer. It’s what I do. Does it take some time? Yes. About one hour per 1000 words plus an hour to design a cover and publish it. But what else am I gonna do? I’m a writer. Writers write.

Would you say to a mechanic, “Man, you put in one carburetor per week? That must sort of take a huge amount of time.” If he’s a mechanic, what else is he gonna do?

As I also told my respondent, writing a story per week isn’t a problem. The problem is having to stop working on the current novel to write the story. Over the first 15 days of March 2015, I wrote 30,852 new words of fiction. That’s only a little over 2000 words per day, so right at 2 hours per day.

From January 1, 2015 through March 15, 2015 (so 74 days), I’ve written 172,354 words of new fiction. Still, that’s only 2329 words per day. That’s less than 3 hours per day. I’m currently working on two novels. For those of you who have read the Wes Crowley series (Leaving Amarillo, Longing for Mexico, and South to Mexico), I’m currently writing a prequel to Leaving Amarillo and a sequel to South to Mexico. It’s absolutely the greatest fun I’ve ever had.

I mentioned earlier I write about 1000 words per hour. If that seems like a lot, divide it by 60. You’ll find that 1000 words per hour is only 17 words per minute. Can you write 17 words in a minute?

Now, my respondent was impressed that I write a short story per week. He said it “sort of takes a huge amount of time.” But I’m a writer. Why do folks—and especially other writers—find it unusual that I want to (or can) Just Do My Job (write) three or four or five hours per day? Is that really “a huge amount of time”? Not if you’re a writer.

Life is all about priorities, and we each set our own. I mean, if you have other things in your life that are more important to you than writing, then spending three hours per day writing probably would seem like a lot of time to you. But to me, walking along the beach for three hours would seem a horrible waste of time. Watching TV for more than about an hour per day would be excruciating.

I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else than writing, because I’m a writer and writing is my priority.

Ray Bradbury once wrote, “I love to write. It’s all I do.” I can relate. At one point during his career, Bradbury was writing a short story every day.

More than one time during his long career, Harlan Ellison set up a small desk and a chair and typewriter in the display window of a department store and wrote stories “live.” As he rolled a completed sheet of paper out of the typewriter, he’d tape it to the window so people outside could read the story as he was writing it.

Writers write. That’s all. Writers write.

If you want to be a prolific writer (if you want to make your living as a writer) you don’t have to write  garbage, and you don’t have to be a “hack” writer. You just have to put the hours in the chair.

What you do have to do is stop rewriting and polishing your original voice off everything you write. Follow Heinlein’s Rules. And instead of being the great Writer God On High directing the little characters, step down off your pedestal and run through the story WITH them. Enjoy.

I promise, it will be the most fun you’ve ever had.

Harvey

PS: If you’d like to learn some of these techniques and you live in or near Tucson, I’m teaching what will probably be the final presentation of Writing the Character Driven Story in Tucson on Saturday, March 28. We’ll begin at 9 a.m. and go all day. If you want in, email me pronto and I’ll send the rest of the info. I have only a couple of slots left.

Note: 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. If you’ve already contributed, Thanks!

Notes on Being a Professional Writer

Hi Folks,

Yeah that's me. The guy with the beard.
Yeah that’s me. The guy with the beard.

When I was first learning to play the guitar at the age of 14, I was frustrated. Even after I learned to chord cleanly, nothing ever sounded quite the way it had when I’d heard it on the radio or when my uncle or others had played it. I checked and double-checked my chording, the progressions and timing between chords, and even how I was holding the guitar. Nothing seemed to make a difference. When I played for others, if anything it actually sounded worse than when I played alone.

I finally I asked my uncle (the guy I’m looking at in the pic), “When will I be able to play like you do?”

He just grinned and pointed at my guitar. “When you stop thinking of that thing as just another toy.”

He was right. When I began to respect my guitar and the discipline, I learned quickly. Like any other craft, it took respect, diligence and practice. Talent doesn’t hurt anything either, as evidenced by the existence of folks like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Duane Allman, Jimmy Page, Chet Atkins, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Eric Clapton and many more. But there are a lot of great guitarists who make money at their craft but have never gotten famous.

Writing is no different. Although some writers are profound enough or prolific enough to achieve fame, many make a living with their craft without ever becoming household names. But “craft” is the key word. Writing is a craft, and to master it, the writer must study and practice, always striving for perfection. The fact is, great writers never stop learning.

The others, those who will never become great writers, fall into two general categories. The first group consists of those who believe the ability to use two long lines and a short one to create a capital letter A renders them able to write. Their motto is The reader will know what I mean, which in my experience as an editor equates to I can’t be bothered to do the actual work. The second group consists of those whose work has been published (self-published or otherwise) and they’ve taken that as a signal that they can learn nothing more. Ten minutes browsing in a bookstore or reading excerpts online will tell you that simply isn’t so.

If you want to be a successful fictionist—by which I mean a writer of short stories, novellas, novels, memoir and creative nonfiction—you need a driving desire to Get It Right. That’s what separates professional writers from those who just “kind’a sort’a think it might be neat to knock out” a few short stories or a novel.

For a professional writer, the first draft is for himself; everything else is for the reader.

Believe me, I understand the frustrations of trying to get a sentence or paragraph or passage Just Right, but the difficulty inherent in creating something brand new is the joy that enables the writer to keep breathing. There’s a great deal more to it than simply putting in the time. As Hemingway wrote, “Writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done.” Most days he wrote only 400 to 600 words, but those words comprised a finished, polished passage. Some writers “just write” then go back and polish later in a second or third draft. But regardless of the individual writer’s ritual or technique, I’ve never known a successful professional writer who would risk anything short of making his or her writing as perfect as possible.

But won’t a really strong story carry weak writing? Generally, no. Consider, even though your overall story might well be wonderful, if any part of it confuses a reader or makes the reader wonder about inconsistencies or stops the reader cold, that story is not ready for publication. The writer should polish endlessly to get those glitches out, not because he can actually achieve perfection but because he should be embarrassed to present such work to the public. In the publishing world more than anywhere else, you truly do get only one chance to make a first impression. “Good enough” simply isn’t.

The point is, it isn’t the reader’s job to decipher your writing. The first time or two that most readers encounter confusing passages or egregious errors, they will simply toss the work aside and vow never to buy anything else by that author. So even though the writing might well improve later, fewer readers will take a chance on it. And why would they buy that author’s work again? The fictionist’s job is to entertain the reader. The reader’s job is to be entertained.

By the way, if you’re interested in becoming a professional writer, I’m offering a free introductory seminar on February 15 entitled “Taking Your Writing to the Next Level.” I’ll conduct the seminar in south Tucson. If you want to earn a regular income from your writing, if you strive for perfection in your craft and want your work to outshine all the other submissions in the publisher’s in box, these seminars are must-have. For information, email me at h_stanbrough@yahoo.com.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

PS: If you’re reading this in an email and you’d like to comment (please do) just visit http://harveystanbrough.com/blog, scroll to the end of the current post and comment.

10 Lesser Mistakes Writers Make

Hi Folks,

First, a kind of news flash: We’ve extended the 50%-off sale on fiction over at StoneThread Publishing through Tuesday, January 14. To take advantage of this excellent sale,

  • Visit StoneThread Publishing to get the coupon codes for the titles you’re interested in, then
  • Click any cover to go to Smashwords.
  • Enter the coupon code for the book you want during checkout, and download your selected title in any ebook format (Kindle, Nook, Apple, Sony, etc.)

Thanks for your patience. 🙂 Now on to the blog post!

I called the mistakes I listed in my previous post, The Top 7 Mistakes Writers Make, labor intensive because there is no easy way for the writer or editor to resolve them. You just have to go through the manuscript bit by bit and repair or delete them as you find them. That’s more than a little difficult because, of course, you’re also looking for problems in sentence and paragraph structure, misspellings, errors or misleading use in punctuation, wrong word usages, inanities, bad simile and metaphor, etc.

With all of that going on, trying to remember to watch for a narrator overstepping his bounds by using sense verbs or using past tense when past-progressive is necessary or using gave, stood, or sat as throw-away verbs is a bit much even for a professional editor. That’s why it’s so important for you, the writer, to learn not to make those mistakes in the first place.

This time I’m listing a few “lesser” mistakes. These too are fairly common and they certainly can keep a manuscript from being accepted for publication. However, as a freelance editor I don’t mind these so much because they’re fairly easy to rectify. I (or you) can use Microsoft Word’s Find & Replace dialogue to repair or delete them quickly. (For an excellent tutorial on the invaluable Find & Replace feature, Click Here.)

He Said (or Thought) to Himself

No, he didn’t. He mumbled or muttered or whispered or said quietly or thought, but he didn’t say to himself. Don’t let the narrator write “to himself,” “to herself,” or “to themselves” in a tag line. It’s inane, redundant, and just plain silly. Allow your narrator to use “to himself,” “to herself,” or “to themselves” only if the narrator is talking about a character having a room “all to herself” or a character is “keeping to himself” etc.

Using “Took and” or “Reached and” or “Reached Out and” or “Reached Over and” or “Reached Across and” (You get the idea.)

Don’t allow your narrator to say a character “took and” something or “reached out and” or “reached over and.” In every case, you can lose the phrase and allow the reader to move to the meat of the action. For example,

If a character’s lying in bed reading and “He turned out the bedside lamp” the reader will see him reach. The narrator doesn’t have to say “He reached over (or out or across) and turned out the bedside lamp.”

She took her daughter’s hand and squeezed it. (Couldn’t she have squeezed it while it was still attached to her daughter? What you want here is She squeezed her daughter’s hand.)

She took a can of air freshener and sprayed the kitchen. (She sprayed the kitchen with air freshener.)

He reached out and picked up the TV remote. (He picked up the TV remote.)

She reached over and smacked him upside the head. (She smacked him upside the head or She did what came naturally.)

To easily and quickly find and correct these, key “took” or “reached” into the Find What block of your Find and Replace dialogue box.

Beginning a Sentence with “Suddenly” or “Instantly” or “Instantaneously”

Beginning a sentence with “instantly” or “suddenly” or anything similar is almost never a good idea. If something happens instantly, have your narrator get to it without delay so the reader can experience it. If you force the reader to read the word “instantly” or “suddenly,” it slows the reading and waters down the immediacy of the action.

Likewise, I advise against using such words even later in the sentence. Please don’t try to get around this one by changing “Suddenly a shot rang out” to “A shot suddenly rang out” or “Instantly her eyes welled with tears” to “Her eyes instantly welled with tears.”

Other Misuses That Are Easy to Fix

Despite its widespread misuse because it sounds cool, “likely” is an adjective, not an adverb, and it is synonymous with “probable,” not “probably.” I cringe every time a weather guy says “It likely will rain tonight.”

Despite its widespread misuse, it’s never “try and.” It’s always “try to.” If you want to correc this one with Find & Replace, be sure to put “ try and ” (with spaces on both sides) in the Find What block and “ try to ” in the Replace With block. Otherwise, chances are you’ll replace things you don’t want to replace.

Try not to let your narrator use the phrase “she (he) knew.” Instead, just omit it and see whether the sentence works just as well. Most of the time it will.

The narrator very seldom (if ever) needs to use the words “now” or “today.” Past tense is the natural voice of narrative, and both of those refer to the present.

Try to avoid phrases like “he admitted” or “she had to admit that” or “he couldn’t deny that.” Such phrases answer a question that hasn’t been asked. Writing “he couldn’t deny that he was jealous” implies that someone asked him whether he was jealous. Likewise, writing “she had to admit that blah blah blah” implies that someone was interrogating her and she finally gave in. This is another example of the narrator over reaching.

Don’t write that a character “nodded her head yes” or “shook his head no.” When a character nods, it always means yes. When he shakes his head, it always means no.

Although it’s often misused, “while” always indicates a simultaneous passage of time. The writer most often wants “although” or “even though.”

‘Til next time, happy writing, and may all of you enjoy a happy and prosperous and free New Year.

Harvey