Common Sense Writing
Common Sense Writing
Every author, editor, English teacher and weekend writer has a page of writing tips, so I might as well jump into the fray. Before I proceed to provide them, it's necessary for me to ask you what sort of writing you are involved in. There are two main types, fiction and non-fiction. Those break down into multiple subcategories.
Fiction is anything which isn't real. It either didn't happen, or it isn't happening right now, in quite the way you are describing it. Fiction can take place on Earth, or any where else. Settings involving a future date are always fiction. Fictional works are almost always stories, with the exceptions being things like shady stock market scams and the latest weather predictions for tomorrow and the rest of the week. Fiction can be found every where. In the newspaper, where some journalist 'spun' the facts to suit his or her private agenda. In the school history books, where the facts concerning different events or people are changed on accident, or on purpose. Coming out of the mouth of a small (or not so small) child who is trying not to get in trouble for something. In the libraries, book stores and floating around in the mind of every living person. Usually we consider only stories published in books or magazines to be fiction, however fiction is all of the above.
Non-fiction is anything which is real. Either it did happen, or it's happening right now. Non-fiction is found in all of the same places that fiction is found. Non-fiction covers both the relating of events, and such dry subjects as math, geography, cooking, and other subjects usually associated with school. 1+1=2 is a fact and non-fictional. Water gets hot if you put it in a pan over fire for a while is a fact, and non-fictional. Use an umbrella because it's pouring down rain, or you'll get wet is a fact, and non-fictional.
It's important to know what you are going to be writing, because the tools you'll need to use, the style you'll need to follow and the audience you'll be reaching require different approaches. If you are writing a middle school math book, you'll be dealing with a large number of students who probably don't want to read it, much less be interested in it. You have to find a way not only to grab their attention, but force facts into minds which probably don't want them there. If you are intending to write a novel about space travel and giant, bug-eyed monsters however, your audience might be the same people but they will be in a completely different mind set. You still have to grab their attention, but instead of making them hold still while you insert facts into small brain cells, you must transport them from where they are sitting to where your bug-eyed monsters are. If your book just spouts of dry facts about the size of the monsters, where they live, how long it takes to get there and what they eat, your audience is likely to put it back on the shelf and leave it there.
With that defined, we shall proceed to the tips.
The libraries are packed, the book stores over flow and the Internet is being buried beneath reams of these things. All the experts get up on their soap boxes and pontificate about what is 'right' and what is 'wrong'. A new writer is in serious danger of curling up into a ball under his desk and refusing to come out after reading a large number of them. It's never expressly stated that 'the world will end in a Nuclear Holocaust if you break these rules', but it's implied. It is, however, stated over and over that 'no one will publish you' if you break these rules. Unfortunately for those experts, their own writing, sometimes even on the page of rules they are presenting, breaks various rules. Sometimes they break their own, and sometimes they break other peoples rules. It's sad, it's laughable and it's annoying. What you will not find in the sections below such things as the discussion of the parts of language and how to use them. If you don't know what an adjective is, or how to apply an adverb, go to a used textbook store and buy an English course book. What you will find are common sense discussions of several things.
Read them, think about them and ignore them if you wish. You're welcome to email me if you want to talk about anything here or if you have comments you'd like me to consider adding. Don't bother to write me and flame me however. I'm fireproof. I'll just delete your mail and ignore your existence.
Should it be said?
I ran across an article the other day, written by someone who was supposed to be a well known writer for magazines and other literary pieces. I slogged through it in the hope that there would be something interesting, but all I can remember is one admonition he made. He was discussing dialog and made the statement that a writer should never use anything but the word said and never modify said with an adverb.
My first reaction was anger, my second was to close the page I'd been reading and my third was to wonder if he insisted that the only necessary veggies anyone should ever eat were potatoes, peas and corn.
While I agree that the word said is nice, and that of course if someone has uttered words, they've said them, the problem is that 'said' is bland. Let me give you an example
Take this sentence:
"The dog just ran off with my pants!" the man said.
Notice that ! after pants? The man isn't standing there, just calmly uttering his sentence. He's excited. He might not be jumping up and down physically, but his voice almost certainly is. Does the word said as used in that sentence convey that to you? Did I paint you a good picture of how the man is acting, what he's thinking, how he feels about what just happened?
Now try these sentences:
"The dog just ran off with my pants!" the man fumed.
"The dog just ran off with my pants!" the man shrieked hysterically.
"The dog just ran off with my pants!" the man laughed, tears of mirth running down his cheeks.
Now what kind of image have I painted for you with each of those sentences?
The sad, unfortunate thing that is currently happening to writing and being spouted by all the experts, is that it is becoming bland. boring. Writers are being urged to use a toolbox that contains only one #2 pencil and a pink eraser. Anything else is unnecessary.
Remember one simple fact while you are writing. You are not just communicating, you are painting a picture. If you really want to paint one using only the primary colors of red, blue and green, that's your choice. Go right ahead. But if you want to paint a striking masterpiece with subtle shades and flowing lines, then my advise is to ignore the experts. The writers toolbox should be filled with various items, such as adjectives, adverbs, nouns, pronouns and so on. The writer should feel free to use any of them, in any way and at any time that he or she wishes to in order to paint the picture he or she can see. Take into consideration your audience and make sure you don't paint a picture they can't understand, but don't make it bland just become some "expert" doesn't like the user of a particular tool.
Fad Editing. Have you heard the term before? Probably not, since I believe I'm the one that coined it.
What do I mean by Fad Editing? First, lets define what a Fad is.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary: A fashion that is taken up with great enthusiasm for a brief period of time; a craze.
According to dictionary.com: a temporary fashion, notion, manner of conduct, etc., esp. one followed enthusiastically by a group.
So a fad isn't something that sticks around, stands the test of time or has much reason for being other than everybody and their dog is doing it right now.
Most people know what editing is, but for the few that don't, dictionary.com defines editing this way:
1. To prepare (written material) for publication or presentation, as by correcting, revising, or adapting.
2. To prepare an edition of for publication: edit a collection of short stories.
3. To modify or adapt so as to make suitable or acceptable: edited her remarks for presentation to a younger audience.
4. To supervise the publication of (a newspaper or magazine, for example).
5. To assemble the components of (a film or soundtrack, for example), as by cutting and splicing.
6. To eliminate; delete: edited the best scene out.
That should be enough for most people to understand what I mean by Fad Editing. Everyone who fancies them self an editor spouts off a rule. That rule is an absolute, must not be broken... for a few months, maybe a few years. Then suddenly its no longer considered valid and some other rule takes its place.
I suppose that isn't such a bad thing, language evolves and the rules concerning its usage do as well. However I am very tired of being the recipient of some of the current Fad Editing rules.
The first rule is do NOT use adverbs or if you must use adverbs, use very few. The reason given is that adverbs weaken the writing.
Unfortunately for the Fad Editors, adverbs are specifically designed to strengthen a piece of work. They provide color, texture and richness.
I recently had someone read this sentence:
Stumbling to the window of his tower, every fiber of his being aching from the battle, he stood gazing silently out at the smoke rising from what remained of his city.
After they read the sentence, they informed me that I needed to delete the word silently because it weakened the sentence. Instead I should use strong descriptions. They also informed me that by adding that word to the sentence I contributed to it being wordy.
I'm at a loss for how it weakens the sentence and I cant imagine what I could say to get across the point that the person in question is standing at the window, staring out of it without making a sound without using the word silently. That's what it means after all. Well no, I suppose I could have said standing at the window, gazing out of it without making a sound, but that adds a good deal more words than just using silently.
A search for the word Adverb on Google turns up a wealth of excellent sites, all explaining what adverbs are, how to use them in sentences, WHY they should be used in sentences and so on.
Hopefully this piece of Fad Editing will burn out and blow away before too much longer.
Another example of Fad Editing is the current mantra of Tighten up the piece!" Evidently there's a fee being charged for the number of words a writer uses. The earth will rock, the sky will fall and all babies will be born without their arms and legs if any piece of writing has the least bit of extra fluff to it.
I'm seriously tired of that little rule as well. Granted, extremely long descriptions can put me to sleep. I refuse to read The Fall of the House of Usher because the author rambles for three solid pages just describing the scene. That was, however, the Fad Editing style of his day. It was consider cheap and unprofessional to write something that didn't ramble on. A good author was one that filled the pages with long descriptions about everything.
There are many other Fad Editing rules which are perpetrated by the unaware. Very few people that offer advice on how to write have done any real research. Most just pick up what someone else has told them and pass it along. My suggestion to anyone reading this piece is:
Regardless of who you are, what you know, whether you taught English or not or even whether you work as an editor for a living or not; before you start making editorial comments, make sure that you aren't just passing along the latest Fad Editing rule.
How to lose your audience
This section primarily pertains to those of use that are engaged in writing fictional stories. Have you ever found a book with an interesting cover. The blurb on the back got your attention, the first few pages of the book snagged your imagination and you just had to have it? Most of us have run across those and in fact, that's what all authors want. It ensures you'll buy their book. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, after you get the book home and settle down to read it you discover that the author put most of the effort into the first chapter. Maybe the first couple chapters. Long before the end of the book however, you found yourself finding other things to do. The book sat, unfinished, on your bookshelf for a while and then probably made it's way to a second-hand bookstore. The author never noticed, since you already paid for that book, but did you buy another one of his books? Or did you start to, then think 'oh that first one was horrible, no I don't think I want to read any more from this guy.'
Whether an author is churning out entries on a blog, dropping articles into magazines or publishing books, it's very important not only to capture new readers, but retain the ones already acquired. There are many ways to do this, from marketing hype (which is expensive even if your first initials are J. K.) to cliffhangers at the end of every story. The best way to accomplish this however, is to give your readers a story so engrossing that they find themselves living some where else for a while and wanting more once they have finished reading.
There are several methods of transporting your audience some where else, the tricky part is getting them to subconsciously tie into the alternate reality. For that, you need a character. The character might be anything. A magical bird, a crazy monkey, the poor milkman. That character becomes your transport vehicle. That character is what gets your reader out of their chair, off the couch, and into your world. That character is also what's going to keep them there and make them want to come back. If your reader doesn't identify well with that character, they are never going to become participants in the story. At best they will be friendly observers. They might buy another one of your books, but chances are good that they won't. However if they are participants, they will not only buy every book you release, they'll get their friends to pick them up too.
I read a story not long ago which was published many years back. A sci-fi story, it was obviously in the category of pulp-fiction. Which was fine, that's what I wanted. It started off wonderfully with a nicely detailed setting, believable characters and action that immediately sucked me in. However just as I really got attached to the main character, the author removed him from play. Oh he came back much later in the story, but by that time I didn't care about him any more. The author repeated this travesty several times. A main character would be introduced, I'd get interested in it, I'd start to identify with it and thus want to see what happened to it and then the author would remove it from the action. I made it half-way through a 200 page paper back then threw the book in the trash.
It's fine to have a number of characters which all become main at one point or another. It's fine to bounce your reader back and forth between them but don't completely remove them from the action.
An example of where this is done is J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. There are many characters in the story who at one time or another occupy the position of Main Character. Point of view switches between all of them as this happens. However because of the way he weaves his tale, none of the characters is ever totally removed from the story. At one point the company breaks completely up, they go off into different directions. A member gets killed. However every characters presence continues to be felt. If they are not physically present, then they are being remembered, or mentioned or in some why still woven in. You never reach a point in the story where you forget about Gandalf, even after you are positive he's dead. He's gone, but his previous actions are very much in front of you, influencing what is happening. Frodo is missing from a large part of the books. He's off slogging through Mordor not running around on the battlefield outside Gondor, yet you never reach a point where Frodo appears to have vanished from the world. There's never any danger that the reader will form an attraction with one of the characters, then toss the book in the trash because that character has been removed. It doesn't much matter if he or she comes back later if the book hits the trash before they reappear.
Another thing that can cause a reader not only to dump your story into the recycle bin, but also to post nasty things about you in their blogs, is cardboard characters. Too many writers make the mistake of painting a wonderful picture of their character, then forgetting to give them a personality. They turn out to be like those life-sized cardboard cutouts you see in movie theaters. From the front they almost look real. Walk around to the back though and you can see there's no substance.
Your character(s) are people. They live in the world that your reader is visiting. They need to act, think and behave like people. If at all possible every character, even the ones that just have bit parts for a page or two, or maybe just a paragraph, should be a real person. As you introduce new characters to your story, stop what you are doing and write a character sketch. Put down what the character looks like. Give it a name. List what he/she/it likes and doesn't like. write out it's history so you know where it came from and why it's there. Put as much detail into it as you can. Then when you use the character in the book, you'll know how to use it correctly. You won't have the street-smart detective walking into a trap that a first-grader can see. You might WANT to have him do that for plot reasons, but he's quite likely to look at you, cross his arms and say something like 'are you crazy? I'm not going in there!' Which is exactly what he should do. You might have to change your plot, but the story will be stronger for it.
One of the most devastating mistakes a writer can make is not to do research. If you are going to write a story about an ocean voyage, and you've never traveled over the ocean, you're going to make some mistakes. You won't realize that they're mistakes but those readers who have traveled over the ocean will. And they will tell you about it. A classic example of lack of research can be found in the original Star Wars movie. When Han Solo is first introduced, he has to brag about his ship. He expresses surprise that Obi-Wan's never heard of his ship and states 'It's the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs." Obviously the script writer didn't have a clue about astronomy. Neither did anyone else apparently. A parsec isn't a measure of speed or time, it's distance. Instead of Han saying something like 'It's the ship that made the Kessel run in less that 12 seconds' what he actually said was 'it's the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 feet.' (Historical note: Years after the mistake was made, an “official” statement was released. The statement was full of double talk and attempted to explain why 12 parsecs was correct. Everyone is well aware that the entire reason such a statement was made was simply to try and fix the gaff that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Unfortunately, it fixed nothing.)
I remember sitting in the audience, hearing him saying that and suddenly I wasn't in the movie any more. That was so blatantly wrong, and stupid, that I stopped identifying with any of the characters, with the action and with the plot as a whole. I eventually got back into the movie but my respect for Lucas and his story telling ability has never recovered to the point it was when the movie started. Go out to Google and search on "it's the ship" "Kessel run”. You'll find a lot of other people still laughing at him for that mistake, and that was 30 years ago.
Research is important. Your readers must suspend their belief in order to enter your world and if you make a blunder like Han did, they will suddenly remember that they're just reading a story, not living another life. You don't want that. Once that happens, your transport vehicle is damaged and may never recover.
Rejection is a fact of life
There are only a couple of absolute guarantees in life. One is that you will eventually die, another is that not everyone is going to like what you do. While it would be really nice if they did, it just isn't possible. We humans are diverse in our tastes, and that means some people will like what others do not. Rejection can hurt, if you take it as a personal attack on yourself, but it doesn't have to. The fear of rejection affects too many writers however, and it prevents some who might be excellent story tellers from even trying.
A scene from Back to the Future illustrates this point. Marty sees George writing and asks what he's doing. George admits that he's writing stories. Marty expresses surprise and wants to read what George has written. George's response is typical of someone who allows the fear of failure to keep them from trying. He says 'oh no. I never let anyone read my stories. What if they don't like them? I don't think I could take that."
Rejection is going to happen and it's nothing to be afraid of. It's not possible to please everyone with everything we do. Look at yourself for a moment and think about your own tastes. How often every day do you personally reject something that someone else has done? Did you decide not to buy a pair of shoes for some reason? Then you rejected those shoes. Was that a personal attack on the man or woman who made them? No, you just didn't choose to buy them. Did you go to out for a bite in the last week? How many restaurants did you eat at? Likely only one. You rejected all the others in favor of the one. Were you giving a personal attack on the owners of the other restaurants? no, you just decided that you didn't feel like eating what they had.
For a writer, there are two reasons their work is rejected:
Sometimes a rejection is the result of both bad writing and wrong audience, but for anyone with a little writing experience under their belt it will usually be only one of the two.
I sent in a story to a fantasy magazine once and it was promptly rejected. The reason given? It had a dragon in it. Well of course it had a dragon in it. The entire story was about a dragon. What crime had I committed? I neglected to read their submission guidelines carefully. If I had, I would have seen the statement that they were 'sick of stories with dragons' and wouldn't have submitted it. Good story, wrong audience.
Rejections are going to happen if you write regardless of the method you are publishing your work in. It will happen if you are trying to use a traditional publishing house, you are self publishing, you are posting to other people's blogs, you are posting to your own blog, or you are just turning in an assignment to the teacher. Rejections aren't a problem. Failure isn't a problem. Those are learning experiences from which we grow. The problem will be strictly in how you choose to react to it.
For a new writer, the most likely scenario is this. The writer has spent hours working on a piece. They've edited it, looked it over and sent it into someone. As the time ticks by and days pass, they build up a fantasy of what sort of fantastic reaction their piece evoked in the editor that read it. They begin to imagine that they will suddenly become the next literary superstar and might even make the mistake of telling friends that they are going to be a 'published author'. Then the day comes that their work is returned and they get a short little note thanking them and informing them that it hasn't been accepted. Suddenly their fantasy world crashes into ruins. Their life is over! All of their friends are going to laugh at them. Instead of occupying center stage in front of a mass of adoring fans, they are now mentally slinking down a dark alley while the entire world points and laughs.
Ok, melodrama over. While such a reaction is common, especially with a new writer, it's not necessary. Rejection slips sometimes carry a reason why, frequently they do not. If they don't have any helpful comments, toss them in the trash and get on with life. If they do, unwind yourself from your work long enough to look at it objectively. Maybe it's a case of wrong audience. You sent the piece to someone who absolutely hates cats, is publishing a magazine about dogs and your entire story is about a cat. However it might be a case of bad writing. No one's perfect. No matter how many times you edit your work, there are still going to be flaws in it. Do not react to the suggestion that it could be improved by screaming 'Why those XXXXX! How dare they insult me! Don't they know I'm a genius!". Maybe you are a genius. But even if that is the cause, it's doubtful your writing is perfect. No one's is. Pull out any of the great literary classics you care to name and you will find mistakes, goofs, blunders and examples of bad writing. Take a deep breath, put your ego back onto the shelf and set about polishing your work.
It used to be difficult for a writer to get good feedback. Friends and relatives got into the habit of hiding, or being too busy, when asked to read over the latest literary offering. That isn't the case any more however. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of writing groups on the net. There are mailing lists, in fact there are whole web sites just devoted to the craft. These things are populated with plenty of people that write and are only too willing to read what you wrote and comment on it. Like anything else, some will comment because they want to help you and some will have ulterior motives. Do several things: Set up accounts on those sites, join those groups and those lists, comment on other's work and put your work up for others to comment on. Then take everything that's said with a large grain of salt. Listen to it, think about it, make the changes if they really are necessary but don't go crazy and make every suggested change just become someone else said to.
You will accomplish two things by doing this. You'll find out ways to polish your work which will help you grow, and you'll get a feel for what kind of audience is right for the piece in question.
I wrote a children's story not long ago as an entry for a contest. The person holding the contest was delighted and told me that it was one of the best they'd read in a long time. Directly on the heels of their glowing words was a second comment. The second comment was negative about every element of the story. Why? The second person was the wrong audience. They weren't a small child, they weren't a children's author and they were trying to read the story from the perspective of an adult. Wrong audience. I did write back and politely explained what their problem was, then I deleted their email and went on with life. I don't know if they paid any attention to me. I couldn't care less if they did. I certainly didn't pay much attention to their comments.
Twenty-year-old Marisa discovers her life is all a lie:
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Twisty mind candy:
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