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

Trust Your Professional

Hi Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 5/30/2013. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.

First, find a professional you can trust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uhh, nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that wasn’t good enough.

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

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

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

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

Ugh.

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

Sure. Yes, you do.

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

Seriously, think about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

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

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

On Seeking Constructive Criticism (or “Shall I Be Wistful, or Shall I Progress?”)

Hi Folks,

Note: I ran this originally in September 2014, but it was so much fun to write I thought I’d share it again. So here it is. Other than some reparagraphing to make it more lisible, it appears as it was written originally.

I sometimes experience an exchange of emails with a writer who asks for a critique of some writing with the proviso that I understand he or she is highly sensitive. Others ask for a critique with the proviso that I don’t tear their writing “to shreds.”

Okay. That’s fine with me.

First, I don’t tear anyone else’s writing to shreds. I just read it and report on what I find. As for whether a writer is “highly sensitive,” that’s really neither here nor there.

I’m a professional fiction writer and instructor. I will never go out of my way to hurt anyone’s feelings. That isn’t my job, it’s a waste of my time and it isn’t productive.

But neither will I lie to a writer about her writing just to spare her feelings. That isn’t my job either. It’s not only a waste of my time, but it’s counter productive rather than helpful. In fact, it actually harms the writer.

If you come to me with a piece of writing and tell me up front, “Hey, I just wanted to share this with you,” chances are I’ll say “Thank you.” Then I’ll read it when I get time.

After I’ve read it, I’ll thank you again for sharing it with me and probably say something like “Good story.” I won’t say that unless I mean it, but neither will I go into full critique mode and tell you what I believe would upgrade it from good to excellent.

If you approach me with a piece of writing and ask for a sample edit or a critique or my honest opinion, that’s what you’ll get.

I won’t try to tell you what you “have to” do, but I will tell you honestly what I believe would improve your writing and why. (That “why” is what’s missing from most amateur or unprofessional critiques.)

At such times, I automatically assume you asked for a critique so you can take my suggestions under consideration. I don’t expect you to accept them automatically. But I do expect you to decide rationally whether applying them will improve your work.

But what if you approach me with a piece of writing and ask for a critique AFTER pointing out that you’re “highly sensitive” or that you “have very thin skin” and ask me to “please be gentle” or “please don’t rip it to shreds”?

Well, then I will assume what you want is praise, empty or otherwise, and I won’t waste my time offering an actual critique. I’ll still accept your work. Then I’ll glance over it and say something like “Ahh, what a story (or essay or poem)!” You will then take that statement as you like it.

If I offer an honest critique and it’s negative in the slightest, I will have hurt your feelings. If I offer a less-than-honest critique, I’ve wasted my time and yours, plus I’ve given you false encouragement.

The point is, none of this has as much to do with developing a thick skin against criticism as it does with getting over yourself. You aren’t all that special, Pookie.

Look around. Most writers are highly sensitive, which is to say, we’re human. We ALL enjoy hearing praise, and we ALL dislike hearing criticism of our work.

The difference between the amateur writer and the professional writer, as with the difference between the amateur and the professional ANYthing, is that the amateur focuses on the emotional drama, and the professional focuses on deciding whether applying the criticism will improve the work.

In my own version of the perfect world, we would all place a higher value on honest constructive criticism than on empty praise.

I mean, we’re all adults here. If you want unbridled, unmitigated, unconditional praise, you should show your work to someone who would rather lie to you than hurt your feelings. (This is the role of your mother or that nice aunt or the siblings you get along with.)

If you want to improve your work, I recommend you eschew empty praise, acknowledge and then dismiss as a fluke any honest praise, and seek out criticism as something that at least has the potential to be a learning experience.

What I recommend you DON’T do, under any circumstance, is fling one forearm across your brow, grow wistful to the point of melting into the floor, and throw a do-it-yourself pity party to indulge the unrelenting psychological and emotional pain of having received what you requested.

That really isn’t a good look on anyone, and least of all on an aspiring professional.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

To a World Free of Cliché

Hey Folks,

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

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

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

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

Did you ever read something that actually made you recoil?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strive (attempt with all the power of your will)

never (not even once)

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

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

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

to create (cause to occur, bring into being)

a certain (premeditated, planned, intentional, particular)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So get on with it!

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

Harvey

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

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

Why Do You Write?

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

Hi Folks,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Group One consists of hobby writers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shrug. Stretch. Yawn. Okay. Whatever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, all done?

Good. Now, here’s what you do.

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

Stop reading this and go find something fun to do.

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

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

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

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

That about right?

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

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

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

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

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

Harvey

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

Top 10 Proofreading Tips

Hi Folks,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Be careful of words that contain double vowels.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Til next time, Happy Writing!

Harvey

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

 

Distractions

Hi Folks,

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

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

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

If you’re a writer, same thing.

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

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

How?

Distractions happened.

I gave them the attention they deserved.

Then I went back to work.

I hope that works for you too.

Happy writing,

Harvey

Quieting the Critical Mind

Hi Folks,

Following on the tail of Trusting Your Subconscious Mind, this suits.

I’ve talked before about writing off into the dark. In fact, my whole Daily Journal is based on that method of writing, piggybacked on the writer’s determination to follow Heinlein’s Rules. I even teach an Audio Course on Writing Off Into the Dark. Click the link and scroll down to Course 12.

But one subtopic is sorely lacking any direct instruction that I can find, even my own. Possibly because it’s a highly personal problem that must be solved by each writer for himself or herself: How to Quiet the Conscious, Critical Mind.

I could tell you how I do it, but that might or might not work for you. At least sometimes I tell my critical, conscious mind (yes, aloud) to get away from me, leave me alone, go sit in that corner over there until I’m finished writing.

And once you’ve sent your grownup, responsible, control-freak conscious mind packing? Be a two year old, for goodness’ sake! Just tell a story! Run and play and enjoy yourself!

Now, writing off into the dark merely means writing without an outline. But a big part of that (and the reason practitioners don’t use an outline) is learning to trust your subconscious. Learning to let go and turn off your English teacher’s voice in your head.

I call it the Golden Bradbury Rule, and I’m paraphrasing: If you don’t surprise yourself, how can you possibly hope to surprise the reader?

A correspondent emailedme to ask how to shut off the critical voice. I suppose I could have just said something like, “The same way you did before” (grin) but I didn’t want to be flip.

The thing is, I don’t think I’ve ever heard any direct instruction regarding HOW to turn off critical voice, but there are a lot of hints at how to do so in all the other advice. Here are some of those hints:

  • Just let go of control and trust your subconscious. Don’t consciously construct sentences etc. You know how to do that without thinking about it, so Just Write.
  • Don’t “direct” your characters as the almighty writer on high. Get down in the trenches and run through the story with them. Be the recorder. Describe the setting(s) they’re running through and write down what they say and do.
  • Don’t Think. Just write. Again, if you don’t surprise yourself as a writer, how can you hope to surprise the reader?

When he was asked how he wrote Dandelion Wine, Bradbury responded that he wrote it the same way he wrote pretty much all of his stories and novels. He sat down at the keyboard, put his fingers on the keys, and just wrote whatever came.

And that is perhaps the best advice on how to quiet the critical mind. Put your fingers on the keyboard and just write what comes. When you get stuck, just write the next sentence. Then write the next sentence. Then write the next sentence.

Now, how do YOU relinquish control and just enjoy the story as you’re writing it? How do YOU quiet your critical mind?

Happy writing,

Harvey

Trust Your Subconscious Creative Mind

Hi Folks,

Every writer I know at one time or another has said (to me or to others while I was eavesdropping) that they want to develop their own unique voice.

“I have to say it my way,” they’ll say. “I don’t want it to sound like anyone else.”

I’ve even known writers who refuse to read works by other writers in the chosen genre because they’re afraid the other writers’ “style” will taint their own.

It won’t taint anything. I will inform and improve, but it won’t taint.

And weirdly, then those same writers will think nothing of rewriting a story, sometimes several times, to “polish” it. To make it sound exactly like someone else’s work. Amazing.

They don’t understand. What a writer starts with the first time she writes a story is her own, unique voice. What she ends up with after all that so-called polishing is a bit of tripe that reads exactly like everything else in the genre, only not good.

Know why it isn’t as good? Because most of those professional writers didn’t rewrite their work to death.

That’s right. They didn’t polish their unique voice off of it.

Again, if you want to find your unique voice, Trust Your Subconscious. It’s been making up stories and telling them since long before you even knew the alphabet.

But wait. I know. Your voice sounds boring to you, doesn’t it?

Know what? That’s because it’s with you 24/7/365.

To other people, your voice sounds unique. Think about that. You know it’s right.

So trust it. Your subconscious knows a great deal more about telling a good story than your conscious mind does.

Your conscious mind is a guard. You use it to learn, and you use it to keep you from doing stupid things like swimming with sharks and leaning your palm on a hot burner and stepping off a 1,000 foot drop.

Even Bradbury said “Nobody’s ever thought their way to anything in literature.”

Your conscious mind exists solely to safeguard you. It won’t allow you to do or say (or write) things that are outside accepted norms. If that’s all right with you, fine.

But think about that for a moment.

You already have nothing to say that hasn’t be said before, and if you are ruled by your conscious, critical mind, you can’t even say it in an original way.

Good luck with that. Frankly, if it were me, I’d throw away my writing stuff and go sell Earth shoes or something.

Happy writing,

Harvey

On Specificity and Clarity in Writing

Hey Folks,

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

What pet peeve?

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

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

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

If you don’t believe me, ask them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I being nitpicky?

Yes. But only where my own sensibilities are concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Til next time, happy writing.

Harvey

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