Sunday, 11 February 2018

Five Writing Mistakes You Shouldn't Fix

If you're writing for a scientific journal, then your English should be perfect. But if you're writing a novel, there's such a thing as being too perfect. Here are five rules of perfect English that you should usually break when you're writing fiction or casual nonfiction:

  1. Don't use contractions. Contractions are perfectly acceptable in creative work, and it's your choice as the author whether to use them or not. As we write, each of us settles into a unique voice, and if yours is rich and musical, your readers will look forward to hearing it in their minds as they read each of your books in turn. For most of us, forcing the contractions out of our prose gives it all the grace of a love song full of hiccups.
  2. Don't start a sentence with a conjunction. This is an old rule that's obsolete now. If you pick up a book written in Victorian times, you'll find a lot of very long sentences, their many clauses often joined together by conjunctions, and unless the book uses incorrect grammar on purpose (Huckleberry Finn comes to mind.), you won't find any sentences that begin with conjunctions. And there was no need for it: the thinking was that if you needed a conjunction, then the new clause related somehow to the clause before it, and therefore they both belonged in the same sentence. Modern English values shorter, more concise sentences, and tacking on clause after clause just because their concepts are all related is no longer considered good writing. But a conjunction can still be useful to show how a new clause relates to the one before, even though we no longer stuff them both into the same sentence.
  3. Don't split your infinitives. This rule never did make much sense in English, as Steven Pinker explains:  
  4. Don't dangle your prepositions. The concept behind this rule is that since every preposition has an object, we may as well place each preposition neatly in front of its object to avoid confusion. That sounds good in theory, but in practice it tends to produce a lot of awkward
    Real people don't speak with
    perfect English, so your
    characters shouldn't either
    ... unless they're this guy.
    sentences and may even cause as much confusion as it prevents. But if you want your stories to be full of to whiches and for whats, then have at it.
  5. Make every sentence perfect, even in dialogue. There's just about no more sure way to mark yourself as a dilettante - and provoke your readers to put your book down - than to follow this rule. A good writer creates characters who feel real, and yours won't feel real if their speech sounds pompous or recited. It has been my experience that even most well-educated people make mistakes frequently in speech, even linguistics professors at prestigious universities. But there are a few rules you should be careful to follow in dialogue: the ones that help the reader clearly see what the speaker said. Be diligent with your use of quotation marks, keep your punctuation as it should be and be careful with your spelling. But don't correct your characters' grammar. How they speak is an important part of who they are.

But whether we are following them or breaking them, rules are not what's important. When our stories finally make it in front of our readers' eyes, all that will matter is whether we have communicated.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

How to Plot a Novel

A novel without a plot isn't a novel. At best, it could be a series of interesting vignettes. More likely, though, it will just be a bunch of meandering thoughts written down. Even if you're a pantser (you just write by the seat of your pants instead of planning first), your novel will still need a plot. But just how do you plot a novel?

Your novel needs a hook to grab readers' interest, not a cliche to turn them away.
Start your book by grabbing the reader's interest. This opening
line works only for comedic works such as fairy-tale parodies.
First, you'll need a hook. The bar has been raised since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got away with "Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table" (The Hound of the Baskervilles). 

Give people a reason to bother reading. Better yet, make it so they've just got to know what happens next. If the book weren't already famous, then a story about a guy who suffers from insomnia and eats breakfast wouldn't seem worth my time.

Two openings I do like: "In ninety minutes, Wilkie would die" (Ray Flynt: Unforgiving Shadows) and "This time there would be no witnesses" (Douglas Adams: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency).

Next, establish motivation and conflict. As early as you can, you'll want to answer these questions:
  • Who is the main character?
  • What do they want?
  • Why can't they get it?
Together, the answers to these three questions form the premise of your novel.  Don't confuse premise with plot. The plot builds on the premise and keeps the reader engaged all the way to the final page.

Your story, of course, will proceed with the main character's attempts to get what they want in spite of whatever stands in their way. It's important for your main character to take an active role. Passive characters who just watch things happen aren't nearly as exciting or fulfilling to read about as the ones who struggle to overcome their circumstances.

Then you'll want to complicate the problem. This usually happens about one-third of the way through. In many books, the main character's problem seems about to be solved at this point, but then the bottom falls out and the stakes are raised.

This middle part is where most beginners fail. Without good plotting, the story sags and the reader is obliged to slog through the muck until things become interesting again near the end. Or more likely, they'll just abandon the book and tell their friends, "It was interesting at first, but then it got boring."

About two-thirds through, your character will start to make progress in overcoming all that trouble you've thrown at them.

At the end of the book, they'll get what they've been wanting all along. Or maybe they'll discover that what they wanted doesn't exist or they don't want it after all. In any case, the story should give the reader a satisfying sense of closure.

One more thing: unless you're writing a novella, you're going to need some subplots. These are story threads that run alongside your main plot and make the book feel richer and more real. They follow the same pattern as the main plot (blocked goal, complication, resolution) and play a supporting role. In the end, the main plot and all the subplots will come together into one great resolution.

If you're getting ready to write your book, or if you're stuck in the middle of one that has lost all its energy, try using this time-tested method for how to plot a novel.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Is Writers' Block Real?

You open your manuscript file, you navigate to where you left off last time... then you just sit there and stare at the white space.
Writer's block: you've finally sat down to write, but all you can do is stare at the page.
Sitting there staring at the white space.

You go back and read what you've already got, hoping that will get the creative juices flowing. Nada.

You look at your outline. You look at your notes. You turn on your favorite writing music. You try to get back the feeling you had when you first imagined the story. Still nothing.

So you decide go online to see what other writers do when this happens to them. And somebody tells you that the last hour of your life didn't happen. "Writer's block isn't real. Therefore, you don't have writer's block. Therefore, just get back to writing."

I don't know about you, but articles like that don't help me. Telling me I'm not experiencing what I'm experiencing has never made the problem magically go away. If it did, I'd start telling everyone I met that there's no such thing as sickness or pain. "It's all in your head. Or maybe you're lazy or looking for attention. Just get back to feeling good."

Writer's block is as real as a sunset. It could be argued that a sunset is only a combination of conditions (moisture in the atmosphere and the viewer's position relative to the sun) but that doesn't make it any less of a real experience for billions of people every day. If you're experiencing writer's block, then writer's block exists. It's a real problem for you that requires a real solution. "Just get back to writing" doesn't cut it. You already tried that.

When I was in school I had trouble with math. If I didn't know the solution to a problem, my strategy was usually to sit there at my desk and "try hard." Trying hard involved staring at the page and tightening my facial muscles until they hurt. It was exhausting. It made me hate math. And it didn't work. To make matters worse, I felt guilty because the fact that I hadn't come up with an answer obviously meant that I wasn't trying hard enough. Now I save myself all that trouble by simply analyzing the problem and figuring it out.

The same strategy works when I don't know what to write. I take a good look at the problem, and once I understand it, the solution is usually easy to find. Sometimes the story doesn't work, and I need to go back and do some revisions. Sometimes I'm distracted or not feeling well. The reasons for my writer's block vary, but once I figure out what's keeping me from writing this time, it's just a matter of taking whatever steps are necessary to eliminate the cause.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

How to Work with Your Editor

I see it all the time. A potential client contacts me. "I've written a book! I'm so excited! How much would you charge to edit it?" After a little investigation I learn that she hasn't written a book; she's written the first draft of a book--or maybe just extensive notes. And now she wants me to turn it into a masterpiece that will make her rich and famous.

Unfortunately, that's not how editing works. And it's not how writing works. For an indie-published novelist, the reality is more like this:

Before you even start the actual writing, you do all the groundwork, which will include:
  • Coming up with the premise
  • Creating and developing characters
  • Working out a plot
And possibly:
  • Doing research
  • Writing backstories
  • Creating an outline
  • Writing notes

Now you're finally ready to start writing. You write the first draft.
You read your first draft and use the benefit of hindsight to create a much better second draft. You repeat this process until you have a story you're proud of, and which you don't think you can improve any more on your own.
Now you can hire an editor if you'd like. The kind you're looking for at this point is a content editor. Your editor will point out plot holes and confusing passages and make suggestions to improve character development, tighten suspense and so forth. When you get your marked-up manuscript back from your editor, it's time for another rewrite!

(If you're tight on money, you may want to consider using beta readers instead. Beta readers are book lovers who will read your fledgling book just for the chance to get in on the ground floor and be part of the process. Show them lots of love. Bake them cookies or something, because they're doing you a huge favor. Then weigh their advice and rewrite accordingly. If you do choose the beta reader option, you'll need to be doubly sure that your plot is well constructed. Watch here for a post on how to plot a novel.)

Once you and your content editor are satisfied that your manuscript is in its final draft, check it over once more for typos, format it the way it will appear as a published book (if you haven't already) and send it off to your line editor. When you get it back, you'll know what to do! Don't forget to make any formatting adjustments that may be necessary after you've entered all the corrections you agree with and dismissed those you don't.

Finally, it's time for the proofreader, who is another kind of editor. The proofreader's job is to make sure the book is error-free, but she won't be able to do that unless you supply her with a clean, professional book that's virtually free of errors to start with. On a messy copy full of mistakes, it's just about impossible to find them all.

Once you've entered the proofreader's corrections, it's time to publish. And if you still want to be rich and famous, try buying a lottery ticket and inviting a royal out on a date.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Pronouns: Who Is Doing What?

Have you ever read a story and wondered who was doing what? Have you ever wondered if your own stories might be just as confusing? Then you could be having trouble with your pronouns.

Pronouns (words like he, him, she, her, that, who and which) stand in for names and other nouns so we don't have to keep repeating them. Take this sentence, for example:

Hazel eased her car into her grandmother's garage and hurried into the house with a freshly baked gingerbread cake--her little cousin's favorite.

Without pronouns, it would look like this:

Hazel eased Hazel's car into Hazel's grandmother's garage and hurried into the house with a freshly baked gingerbread cake--Hazel's little cousin's favorite.

There's no question that pronouns are important. I would hate to have to put up with that kind of repetition all the time.

In our example, the pronouns all stand in for Hazel. In technical terms, Hazel is the antecedent. But what if there's more than one noun and it's not clear which one is the antecedent? It's reminiscent of the classic story of the little bird who doesn't know which creature is its mother. We might have something like this:

Hazel hugged Vicky, kissed her grandmother, then took Amelia's gingerbread cake out of her car.

Whose grandmother did Hazel kiss, Vicky's or her own? From whose car did Hazel take the cake, Amelia's or her own?

There's a simple rule that lets us answer these questions. More importantly, it lets us write so that our readers will not have any trouble knowing who is doing what.

A pronoun's antecedent is always the last matching noun mentioned. 

"Matching" means that it has the same gender and number (singular or plural). 

So now we know that Hazel kissed Vicky's grandmother and took the cake out of Amelia's car. But I would still recommend rewriting the sentence. Sure, now that we know the key we can decode it, but we can do much better. 

Most of our readers, of course, won't know this rule. They won't have the key. So our job as writers is to use the rule to make the antecedent so obvious our readers don't even have to think about it. They can just lose themselves in the story.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Why Spaces Matter in Your Writing

Did you know that "everyday" has a different meaning than "every day?" That's right: if you type up a one-sentence sign and hang it in your workplace, your coworkers could be reading one thing when you meant to write something totally different, and all because of one little space. Write a whole book that way, and ... well, I'm sure you can imagine.

Same goes for:
anytime/any time
backroom/back room

Here's why:

In our examples, the words day, time and room refer to things (in a very broad sense of the term). The words every, any and back tell us something about those things. In fact, they change, or modify, the meanings of the words day, time and room a little bit, so we call them modifiers.

But let's look at these sentences:

The traffic has become so bad here that car accidents are now an everyday occurrence.
Cashews make a great anytime snack.
We need to crack down on corruption and backroom deals

Now everyday, anytime and backroom have become modifiers to the "thing-words" (Grammar nerds call them nouns) occurrence, snack and deals.

So that's the difference:

"Every day" is a modifier followed by a noun. It means all the days in whatever portion of the calendar we're talking about. "Everyday" is just a modifier. It means that whatever we're about to mention next is commonplace, usual, run-of-the-mill. 

"Any time" is a modifier followed by a noun. It means that no time is better or worse than any other. "Anytime" is just a modifier. It means that whatever we're about to mention next isn't pinned down to a particular time. 

"Back room" is a modifier followed by a noun. It means a room at the back of a building or behind some other room. "Backroom" is just a modifier. It means that whatever we're about to mention next is sneaky, underhanded, illegitimate. 

Notice how this sentence changes meaning when we take away a space:

Every day, dishes are broken in this house. (Not a day goes by when dishes are not broken here.)
Everyday dishes are broken in this house. (The dishes that are broken here are ordinary ones.)

I found this ad in the wanted section of the classifieds:

ISO Farm Hand Job

 I'm looking for a part time paid position on a farm. I have much experience with cleaning stalls, turning in horses, feeding, etc. 
 I'm pretty sure the poster meant to say "farmhand."

Spaces matter.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Writers as Social Activists

While some may argue about whether or not writers should engage in activism, I believe that whether we want to or not, we already do.

Jane Goodall put it beautifully: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” What we write to entertain people probably has a greater impact than most people's daily lives, so our responsibility to decide "what kind of difference [we] want to make" is greater.

Sometimes it can be very difficult to choose a cause. We have starving children, tortured dogs, mass shootings, police shootings, child brides, genital mutilation, honor killings, slavery, suicide bombings and a dozen other horrific situations, each of which is bad enough to make any decent human being want to drop everything and go rescue the victims.

If we choose a cause that is already well-publicized, then our job as activist-writers is to cut through the paralyzing "there's nothing I can do" mentality that pervades our culture. We can emphasize practical, reasonable, sustainable ways that everyday readers can help.

In other cases, public awareness is a worthy goal. Most grocery shoppers had no idea how dangerous the meatpacking industry was before Upton Sinclair's The Jungle came out in 1905. I personally became aware that slavery is still a problem in America through Peter C. Bradbury's 2013 novel The Innocent Children.

I think the greatest challenge comes when a cause is well-publicized but the real-life villains creating the suffering have managed to capture public sympathy. For example, if you could write a book and go back in time and publish it in Germany, how would you attempt to prevent Kristallnacht? Similar problems abound in our own time, so the question of how to open the eyes of everyday readers is an important one.

I think it's useless to try to change people's minds. People who are easily swayed are not the ones we want to reach, because they'll change their minds back again as soon as they turn on the TV. Here are some tips I've picked up from reading some effective--and not so effective--activist fiction:
  • Don't preach. If your novel is a soapbox, then it's not a novel. Wayne Dyer's Gifts from Eykis may make some excellent points, but it's an entertainment flop. It sells because he already had a following from his nonfiction books, which means he's preaching to the choir.
  • Educate. Use your fiction to introduce readers to new situations and perspectives or ones they may not otherwise think about. Show them what life is like for those affected. But don't be melodramatic or exaggerate. Do your research and create an accurate portrayal, or your efforts could backfire. If there's more than one side to an issue (and there almost always is), use subplots to show them fairly.
  • Your book can be about the cause. Next by Michael Crichton is about gene-related ethics. It's a gripping novel and a powerful argument for his position on the issue. Harriet Beecher Stowe set out to write about losing a child, but Uncle Tom's Cabin influenced her and many others to make a stand against slavery.
  • But it doesn't have to be. M. Joseph Murphy's books fight anti-LGBT stereotypes simply by
    including very relatable non-straight characters in a genre where, even now, that just isn't done. Four or five books about what it's like to be gay probably wouldn't have the same impact.
  • Ask questions. In my opinion, the highest compliment a reader can give me is "Your writing made me think." Change, as the Buddhists so eloquently remind us, must come from within. No matter how much we want to, we cannot make the world better by changing even one person's mind. But we can start a dialogue. We can bring up questions that inspire people to think.