On Pacing and Paragraphing

Hey Folks,

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bare bones of pacing is this:

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

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

And all of those move the action along.

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

Especially if they’re used in their own paragraph.

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

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

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

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

That goes to pacing too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So do characters. Describe the setting accordingly.

Pace the scene accordingly.

‘Til next time, happy writing.
Harvey

“Building” Characters?

Hey Folks,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, the characters thought that would be fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I directed them.

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

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

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

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

I could no longer see an overview. Oh oh.

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

I began to hyperventilate.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I know. But I wanna be.”

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

“Uh, yeah. But see, I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that tells me the readers will be surprised too.

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

‘Til next time, happy writing.
Harvey

Write. What. You. Mean.

Hey Folks,

For many years I’ve kept a running list of awkward expressions, misplaced modifiers, and other syntactical anomalies that run the risk of distracting a reader. And by “distracting the reader” I mean jerking the reader out of the story.

Most often, this is a result of inserting unintentional humor into a serious scene. If the scene is also meant to invoke feelings of sadness or despair or tension, the inadvertent insertion has an even stronger effect.

One of my favorite authors once wrote that a character “kicked her horse up a hill.”

Of course, she meant to write that the character “spurred” her horse up the hill. But she caught that before it was published.

That instance was truly unique, too. Aside from the occasional “her legs raced down the road” or “his nose pressed itself against the window” or “her hip leaned casually against the railing,” these anomalies more often have to do with eyes than with any other human attribute.

Writers routinely have eyes performing all sorts of stupid eye tricks.

I’ve seen eyes popping out of heads, eyes flying around the room, eyes lighting on lapels, and eyes wandering dreamily along a garden path, among many other actions that eyes generally won’t take on their own.

Now just for the record, I don’t go looking for these things unless I’m being paid to copyedit a work. Otherwise I’m just another reader, reading (or trying to) for pleasure.

But when I’m jerked out of the story by some inane word or phrase, that’s strictly the responsibility of the writer.

I made the latest addition to my list this morning. And I took it from a passage an author used in a pull-quote on a website to advertise the book. Seriously.

II won’t mention the author’s name or website or gender or the name of the book. Here’s the sentence:

The baron shifted in his seat and raked his eyes across everyone at the table.

My first reaction was a grin. He did what now?

The second was a snarky, “Wow, dude, that must’a hurt.”

Of course, any tension the writer hoped to create with the excerpt was gone.

Seriously, can you imagine what pain the poor baron must have gone through in “raking his eyes” across those folks?

And they must have been thoroughly grossed out, as evidenced by the very next sentence in the pull quote:

Several members began to protest….

I actually laughed out loud. And for me, just like that, the passage the author used to entice me to buy the book had the opposite effect. The book was a definite no-buy.

Now understand, this occurred in a serious, tension-filled passage in a serious, tension-filled book.

Of course, I know the author meant the baron raked his “gaze” across those at the table. Or that he “glared” at them. Or something. Something that didn’t involve trying to make me (the reader) grin or laugh.

When I mentioned this sort of thing during a presentation at a writers’ conference, a writer in the audience said, “But the reader will know what I mean.”

Yes. The reader will know what you mean. The reader will figure it out. And it takes only a second or two for the reader to go through that process. That’s much less time than it would take you to actually learn the craft, eh?

But figuring out what you meant is not the reader’s job. The reader’s job is to relax and be entertained.

And that second or two might well be all it takes for the reader to put down your book and find something enjoyable to read.

Reader annoyance is cumulative, and chances are if you distract the reader with some inane phrase or formatting once, you’ll repeat it through the book.

Still, as a reader I’ll used to give a story a chance. I would “figure out” what the writer meant and fight to stay down in the story a few times. But the fifth or sixth or tenth time I was pulled out of the story, I stayed out.

These days? Not so much. I have a Kindle and I love finding new (to me) authors. Almost every night I lie back and start a book. I don’t “look for” anything. I just read the story, or try to.

But I no longer force it, because I don’t owe the writer anything. I spent the money on the book; the  writer owes ME something. So the first time the writer puts his or her ignorance of the language on display, I get the same feeling I’d get if a mechanic held up a fan belt and said, “What’s this thingy?”

Then I delete the book from my Kindle and open another one.

Will “most” readers go to that extreme? Probably not. But if they have to fight to get through your book as they “figure out” what you mean, how soon do you suppose they’ll buy another of your books?

‘Til next time, happy writing.

Harvey

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

Using Italic Attribute in Fiction

Hi Folks,

This is a bit of an embarrassment for me.

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

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

At any rate, I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean WOW.

And an epiphany hit:

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

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

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

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

Then it happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I seriously hope this helps.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

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

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

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

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.