The Use of Italics, Revisited

Hi Folks,

For a very long time, I used italics to indicate unspoken thought and anything that was being read (still unspoken thought) like signs, short notes, etc. (Note: what I accurately call  “uspoken thought” is what others refer to as “internal monologue.”)

One day I sent an assignment in to the instructor in a workshop I was taking online. He enjoyed the story, with one caveat. Each time he encountered italics, he said, it jerked him out of the story.

Well, that’s not good. As a reader, I’ve been interrupted, my suspension of disbelief shattered, by various problems. Often those were formatting issues, usually either ALL CAPS or BOLD CAPS or just bold print. Sometimes, though rarely, it was what I saw as overuse of italics.

Other times it was some technical error that screamed the writer’s inexperience or lack of knowledge, something as simple as Marine being spelled in all lowercase (when talking of a member of the Marine Corps) or the writer using “clip” to mean “magazine.” (They are not the same thing.) As one example, I found mistakes like this regularly in James Patterson’s books; as a result, I no longer even try to read them.

Each time I encountered any of the problems mentioned above, I was shoved out of the story. Understand, this was not my choice. I didn’t go looking for something to annoy me. I was just reading, attempting to be entertained. But when something pops out and shoves you out of the story… well, as I say, this isn’t something the reader chooses.

Sometimes, if the story itself was very good, I muddled through, re-established myself in the depth of the story, and kept reading. Other times, I put the book down and never returned to it. I’m an avid fan of Stephen King, but that even happened with one of his books. The story was very good, but not quite good enough to enable me to ignore the formatting uglies.

Make no mistake: your number one priority as a writer is to not interrupt the reading of your work. Everything you put on the page should advance the story, pull the reader in, and keep him reading.

Of course, you can’t please every reader. No worries. But you’ll please most of them if you remain mindful of things that have jerked you, as a reader, out of a story.

Consequently, I can say without reservation that you should never use ALL CAPS  unless you’re using an acronym (like LAX for Los Angeles Interational Airport) or BOLD CAPS or bold font. Likewise, you should never use exclamation points unless their in dialogue and the character is yelling or screaming. Things like that.

Okay, so back to the use of italics.

After being chastised by my instructor (I’ve read his note several times over the past few months), I unserstood what he was saying. I glanced through several novels by various writers and found that most of them used italics only very sparingly. However, I’ve come to believe he went overboard when he said to “never” use them.

Several months later, I now (again) advocate using italics to indicate unspoken thought, but sparingly.

In my own novels and short stories, I use a combination of methods.

Sparingly, I use italics to indicate unspoken thought when it feels right to allow the reader to “hear” the character’s unspoken thought directly. Of course, that’s always presented in first-person present tense because, well, that’s how it come out when we think. I also sometimes use third-person past tense on occasion, mostly so I don’t overdo it with italics. Look at this example:

   Standing on his porch, he glanced up the street to his left and frowned. No, that isn’t right.

   He looked back to the right. That way. It was only twelve or thirteen blocks—he forgot which, but it wasn’t important—and then a left turn at a particular corner where the main drag sliced through the middle of town. Probably he would pause on that corner, look back and say a final goodbye to his old life. The corner would serve as a final threshold of sorts. He grinned and stepped off the porch.

In this example from my current WIP, No, that isn’t right and That way is his unspoken thought. And notice that I never use “He thought” as a tag line.

Most of the rest of the example is still his unspoken thought, but presented by the narrator:

It was only twelve or thirteen blocks—he forgot which, but it wasn’t important—and then a left turn at a particular corner where the main drag sliced through the middle of town. Probably he would pause on that corner, look back and say a final goodbye to his old life. The corner would serve as a final threshold of sorts.

I could have done it all with italics, but to me that seemed unnecessary and a bit of overkill:

   Standing on his porch, he glanced up the street to his left and frowned. No, that isn’t right.

   He looked back to the right. That way. It’s only twelve or thirteen blocks—I forget which, but it isn’t important—and then a left turn at that corner where the main drag slices through the middle of town. Probably I’ll pause on that corner, look back and say a final goodbye to my old life. The corner will serve as a final threshold of sorts. He grinned and stepped off the porch.

Which version do you like better?

No matter how you present unspoken thought, remember that all description—whether directly from the character or through the narrator—must be filtered through the character’s physical and emotional senses. It is the character’s opinon of the setting that matters, not the narrator’s and not the writer’s.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

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Roberta Jean Bryant’s “Seven Laws of Writing”

Hi Folks,

Recently I pulled a scrap of folded, crumpled, mutilated paper out of my desk. I opened it and found Jean Bryant’s Seven Laws of Writing.

I had actually typed them on a sheet of typing paper, then cut out around them and saved them. I don’t know for sure when that was, but I’m certain it predates the book in which they’re now found (see below).

Anyway, now and then when I look back on this I am amazed it took me so long to learn these incredibly straightforward guidelines.

These “laws” are excerpted (now) from Roberta Jean Bryant’s Anybody Can Write: A Playful Approach (2002). You can find it at https://www.amazon.com/dp/0760731764/. I recommend it. Of course, the book contains a great deal more than these laws.

But for now, here are the Seven Laws of Writing:

1. To write is an active verb. Thinking is not writing. Writing is words on paper.

2. Write passionately. Everyone has loves and hates; even quiet people lead passionate lives. Creativity follows passion.

3. Write honestly. Risk nakedness. Originality equals vulnerability.

4. Write for fun, for personal value. If you don’t enjoy it, why should anyone else? Pleasure precedes profit.

5. Write anyway. Ignore discouraging words, internal and external. Persistence pays off.

6. Write a lot. Use everything. Learning comes from your own struggles with words on paper.

7. Write out of commitment to your ideas, commitment to yourself as a writer. Trust yourself.

There you have it. Writing into the dark, anyone? Add this to Heinlein’s Rules and it’s all you need. Well, that and a keyboard.

Happy writing!

Harvey

Note: This blog is funded only by your gracious contributions. For a one-time donation, click the Donate button at the top of the sidebar. To consider becoming a patron and reap extra rewards, click Become a Patron. If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider sharing this post with your friends. Thanks!

Process

Hi Folks,

This is kind of like schedule or routine, but more focused. When I say process here, I’m talking about the process of writing a particular work.

Before I get into that, I just want to mention that I now have books available in nine different bundles, ranging from SF to action-adventure to romance to westerns. To check out these incredible values (newest at the top) see http://harveystanbrough.com/bundles. Thanks for looking!

This topic of Process came up because (as I write this) I’m in or nearing the end game of my current novel. Now, I’m just writing off into the dark so I don’t know yet what the end will be. It might occur in the next few thousand words or it might take another ten or even fifteen thousand, but I know it’s not far off.

And near the end, I’ll run a little low on petrol. And patience. If you lived here and were within hearing, during the last few days of me writing a novel you’d hear me turn into a three year old. “Aaauuuggghhh! I don’t WANNA finish this stupid book! This is so HARD! I gotta take a day off!”

In the alternative, it will be something like, “No possible WAY am I gonna make my goal today.” (That was yesterday. I was saying that all day at about half-hour intervals, and when I finally stopped, I had made my goal plus some.)

Or it will be something like, “Well, I only was able to dribble out a thousand words today, but I’ll take it. I guess.”

I swear, it’s just like listening to a grouchy three year old. And it’s worse in my head, because I’m the one who could turn it off.

But I can’t. I can only let it work through itself.

What keeps me sane, relatively speaking of course, is that I recognize all the whining as part of the process I’ll go through in finishing this novel. It’s the same process I went through in finishing the first twenty-six novels and four novellas. And I know, right now, it’s the same process I’ll go through in writing and finishing the next novel.

But knowing it isn’t the same as experiencing it. Like physical pain, it isn’t something we can recall into existence. If I could, I probably wouldn’t be a writer.

Because I can’t stand it. Seriously. It’s the sort of nasal, wimpy, whiny stuff that makes me wanna slap both hands over my ears and run in a circle yelling “Lalalalalalala!” so I can’t hear it.

It’s the shrill sort of thing that makes me wanna grab a rifle and hit a tower and shoot the unruly hell out of anyone who wrinkles up their nose and says, “Who thinks like that?”

Seriously. ‘Cause I do, okay? I think like that.

And I whine when I’m nearing the end-game of writing a novel. And I hate it. Ugh.

So one day if this blog just stops coming, you should feel relatively confident that I’ve finally snapped.

In that event, you may be sure I am sitting naked on a beach in Ecuador counting grains of sand. I’ll probably be angry because I lost count at nine hundred and sixty-eight trillion, seven hundred and fifty-three billion, four hundred and twelve million, seven thousand twenty-six because THAT ONE grain of sand just couldn’t keep its stupid hands to itself. No. It just HAD to jump in line ahead of the next grain of sand, which caused me to count it twice. I think. Maybe.

Which of course means I have to start all over again.

Okay, so what’s your process?

Happy writing,

Harvey

Note: This blog is funded only by your gracious contributions. For a one-time donation, click the Donate button at the top of the sidebar. To consider becoming a patron and reap extra rewards, click Become a Patron. If you can’t make a monetary donation, please consider sharing this post with your friends. Thanks!

Setting Writing Goals for 2018

Hey Folks,

This is a special bonus post to all my Pro Writer subscribers out there. Enjoy!

First, let me recommend you read the comments on Dean Wesley Smith’s post from a few days ago. There are some ideas for goal-setting and challenges there that might resonate with you. For your convenience, here’s the link: https://www.deanwesleysmith.com/getting-ready-for-2018.

What follows is the thought process and rationale that helped me set my own goals and challenges for the upcoming year. I’m including it here in case it might help some of you.

I’ve been wrestling with my commitment to writing new fiction.

My word choice here is intentional. A “commitment” is different, to me, than a “resolution.”
Resolutions generally rattle around in my head for awhile, drop an ulcer into my gut, and then flail off into the eternal past like yesterday’s good news.

I’d rather make a commitment, something that isn’t just a fashion-of-the-day fad. Something that requires (from me) a stubborn determination.

Okay, so as I wrestled with this over the past few months and more intensely over the past few days, Critical Mind said, “Hey, go slow, dude. You’ve been off for awhile.” So I thought about setting a goal to write one new short story per week, nothing more.

Seriously? That would probably be wonderful for some folks. After all, that’s 3 – 6 dedicated hours per week of putting new words on the page. As such, it’s certainly nothing to snort at.

But I don’t have children to raise or a day job that consumes my existence. So what in the world would I do with the rest of my time?

I know me. I’d waste it.

Besides, I’m one of those guys who understands if I’ve done something once I can do it again, barring physical limitations. For example, I’ll never run 3 miles in under 18 minutes again, but I did 46 years ago. (grin)

Okay, so it’s time to get real, and nothing is more real than math.

  • Back in 2015, I wrote 686,146 words of fiction, an average of 1880 words per day. (I wrote 719,084 words overall).
  • In 2016, I wrote 702,838 words of fiction, an average of 1926 words per day. (I wrote 976,298 words overall).
  • But this year I wrote only 453,762 words of new fiction. That’s an average of only 1243 words per day. Overall this year I will have written around 640,000 words, less than my fiction-only output in either of the preceding years.

So how can I use this information? Well, I’m setting new writing goals for 2018. Duh. And I like (very much) to better my personal best.

So my subconscious said, “Y’know, we’ve easily hit 3000 and even 4000 words on most days when you let us play.” (We hit more than that on other days, but not so easily.) “So we think our new DAILY goal should be 2500 words.”

“Okay,” said I.

Sensing a trick, my subconscious said, “To be clear, we are not allowed to stop until we’ve written at least 2500 new words of fiction.”

Well, that’s only two to three hours per day. Every day.

Okay, that still sounded reasonable, but with one modification.

I said, “Deal, but I’ll take a day off without guilt when life intervenes or when I just want to.”

My subconscious grumbled a bit, then backed off, its little arms crossed over its chest. “Whatever,” it said.

But that’s all right. My modification was necessary, so that’s that. For example, I have some camping to do (my funny friend says “cramping”) and some family visits coming up. Things like that.

Plus (as I told my subconscious), what matters with this kind of goal is the average. After all, the target word count is a minimum. Any words over 2500 go into the bank and count toward the average.

Folks, I’m establishing goals to drive me to the computer, not to drive me to drink. It’s all about production, not pressure.

If I can manage a little more on average (2740 words per day), I will have hit that elusive goal of 1,000,000 words of fiction in 2018. Wouldn’t that be nice?

And Dean, my unintentional mentor, recommends what he calls a “fall-back goal.” I get that.

So even if I fall short, if I write at least 2055 words per day on average, I will have written 750,000 words of fiction. And that’s not too shabby.

At that point, my subconscious was convinced and fully on board. And my conscious mind shut up and went to sit in her assigned corner. (Yes, she’s female. Do I need to explain?)

Okay, so for calendar year 2018

  • my daily goal is 2500 words of new fiction per day;
  • my stretch goal is 1,000,000 words of new fiction; and
  • my fall-back goal is 750,000 words of new fiction.

And regarding my conscious mind’s nagging admonition to go slow?

Well, note that these are all strictly word-production goals.

Some of those words will go into short stories, some into novelettes and novellas, and some into novels.

But I’m not setting specific goals in that regard. I don’t need them.

I already know I can write a short story in a day or two, a novelette or novella in a few to several days, and a novel in two to four weeks. And that feels plenty fast enough to me.

The challenge will be to write at least 2500 words of new fiction per day, period, and to take a day off without fretting over it when I need to.

This is incredibly freeing. What comes will come. The eventual form the story takes doesn’t matter. All that matters is putting new words on the page.

And, you know, the average. (grin)

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

PS: If you want some great long or short fiction, poetry, or nonfiction books on writing, everything I own is still half-price over at https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/HEStanbrough, but only through tomorrow.

On Pacing and Paragraphing

Hey Folks,

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bare bones of pacing is this:

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

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

And all of those move the action along.

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

Especially if they’re used in their own paragraph.

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

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

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

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

That goes to pacing too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So do characters. Describe the setting accordingly.

Pace the scene accordingly.

‘Til next time, happy writing.
Harvey

“Building” Characters?

Hey Folks,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, the characters thought that would be fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I directed them.

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

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

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

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

I could no longer see an overview. Oh oh.

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

I began to hyperventilate.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I know. But I wanna be.”

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

“Uh, yeah. But see, I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that tells me the readers will be surprised too.

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

‘Til next time, happy writing.
Harvey

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)

 

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.

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