Author, Editor, Publisher, Coach

Tag: Eloquent Prose (Page 2 of 3)

A Question for Readers: How much does quality, professional writing matter; or is the story ALL that matters?

I’ve jumped into a discussion at The Passive Voice blog, and I’d like to expand on it here. I’m really gearing this question towards readers, but I welcome comments from writers too, provided you first put on your reader’s cap.

We all love great stories. That’s a given. However, is that all that matters to you? What if it’s poorly written, laden with grammatical errors and poor structure? Does that matter to you? How much? Where do you draw the line and forgive an author for poor writing?

Does moving, eloquent prose move you as a reader? If so, how much will you forgive a less-than-thrilling story?

Okay, so that’s more than one question… sort of two sides (or ten) of the same coin.

Please, I’d love to know your opinion on this.

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How Much Should I Study the Art and Craft of Writing?

Folks have asked me that question (the title of this post) more often than I can recount—mostly editing clients past and present, and members of writing groups I’ve participated in over the years. My answer is always this simple: As professionals, we never stop learning.

Learning comes in many forms, of course, but one of the important methods is the basic act of self-education, taking advantage of the ever-expanding library of books on the subject. I’ve read somewhere in the neighborhood of 70-80 of those over the past 30 years, many of them twice. I refer to a few of them repeatedly as reference guides.

Hey, there’s a lot to soak up.

The inevitable follow-up question has been this: “Hey, Diamond, if you had to pick just a few, which books would you recommend I start with?”

Everyone has their favorites, and many could, and surely would, offer alternatives to these, but here are my recommendations: Scroll down the page on the left, until you come to a section of book covers under the heading, “On WRITING: I Recommend these Books (Amazon).”

Each of those 8 books informed heavily my approach to both writing and editing. How strong has their influence been over the other 62-72 books? Or the thousands of articles I’ve read? I think the fact that I return to them regularly is all the answer I need give.

You would do well to absorb all eight of those books. Even if you can only start with one… start! Those covers are simple links to Amazon, if that helps. Or get them on eBay, or Barnes & Noble, or your local bookstore… but get them.

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard. To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

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Under the Heading of SHOW, DON’T TELL: With Words as Paint and the Page as Canvas, Paint Us a Picture.

This is a continuation of my last post, though I focus on a slightly different element of SHOW, DON’T TELL.”  Those three little words constitute one of the High Commandments of effective writing.  It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?  Yet it requires commitment, determination, vigilance and inexhaustible effort.

We writers tend to get lazy with our prose as we rush through the first draft of a story.  We so focus on the plot, the characters, the setting, the central conflict and eventual resolution—a proper focus, of course—that we pay too little attention to the words.  If I may revisit a metaphor I use often: we so focus on the forest that we forget to enjoy the trees.

This, my fellow writer, is why the writing gods created self-editing, lest we fail to honor our covenant.  We have much to address in the self-editing process, but for the purposes of this blog entry, I’ll focus on that one commandment: SHOW, DON’T TELL.”

We most engage a reader when we create for him a scene he can visualize, when we fire-up the film projector in his mind.  The longer our piece drags on without affording him the opportunity to exercise his mind’s eye, the likelier he is to set our story aside out of boredom.  Put another way, the reader should see not our words, but the images those words create.  Think of words as your paint and the keyboard as your brush, and paint a picture to compel the reader forward.

Simile and metaphor function as effective tools in this artistic pursuit, as they force the reader—if you’ve done your job well—to visualize your image and translate it to, or associate it with, the underlying, true meaning of your scene.  Symbols will also enhance this experience for the reader.  As a simple example, a gray, overcast day mired in a constant drizzle might highlight and heighten your character’s depression.

As is true of so many writers’ tools, you must use these to maximum effect, which not only means using them in the proper places, but also that you must not overuse them.  Too much of a good thing can be… well, not so good.  Give the reader a slice of chocolate cake as dessert, but don’t skip the meat and vegetables and force him to eat the entire cake at one sitting.  We writers mustn’t make our readers sick.

As a rule, the shorter your similes and metaphors, the more frequently you can employ them.  If you pop a quick, one-sentence simile into your story, you needn’t wait several pages to offer another.  On the other hand, if you just completed a three-page metaphor, you don’t want to jump into another metaphor on the next page.  Like all artists, you must apply a deft hand.  Let your instincts guide you initially, and let your editor, your writers’ group, or your trusted reviewer help you refine and polish it. I offer now a series of examples from pieces I’ve edited or reviewed.  As always, I shall keep confidential the authors’ names and story titles to protect the not-so-innocent.

TELL: He was by far the tallest person in the meeting room.  >>>>>  Note: First, the author started with the weak state-of-being verb.  Second, the author provided nothing to stretch the reader’s imagination, to engage his mind’s eye.  >>>>>  SHOW: He towered above the others in the meeting room as if they’d all skipped over from the local chapter of the Lollipop Guild.  >>>>>  Note: Did you just see that moment after Dorothy landed in Oz?  Perhaps you even heard their song.  In the end, you should have concluded that the character “was by far the tallest person in the meeting room.”

TELL: He walked slowly and without enthusiasm toward the door.  >>>>>  Note: The author fell into a typical lazy trap here.  Few adverbs are duller than slowly, quickly, loudly or quietly.  Remember the value of body language to express a character’s mood and mental state.  >>>>>  SHOW: His shoulders slumped and his face drooped, as he dragged his feet toward the door.

TELL: “What are you doing with these jokers?” asked Little Butch. <P> Rosemary said, “Partying.  What else?”  She was sloshed.  “You still going with Jennifer?”  >>>>>  Note: At issue is the simple description: She was sloshed.  Sometimes simple is fine, and you don’t want to paint with too heavy a hand, but consider these types of sequences opportunities to paint a picture for the reader.  >>>>>  SHOW: “What are you doing with these jokers?” asked Little Butch. <P> “Partying.  What else?”  Rosemary’s words mixed in an alcoholic slur as she leaned against the car to prevent herself from falling over, and her eyelids bobbed in time with her head, as if they weighed a hundred pounds each.  “You still going with Jennifer?”

TELL: The sky was a brilliant blue with a few white wisps scattered here and there.  Her long smooth legs were warm from the sun.  >>>>>  Note: The key here is to replace the weak state-of-being verbs with more active verbs that bring the image to life for the reader.  This typically requires some simple restructuring.  >>>>>  SHOW: Sunlight, broken occasionally by scattered white wisps, radiated through a brilliant blue sky and bronzed her long, smooth legs.

TELL: He knelt by the gravestone, completely exhausted and desperately needing sleep.  He’d never been so sad and lonely.  He couldn’t imagine what life would be like without Karen, the only woman he’d ever loved.  >>>>>  Note: It’s important to remember that readers hear you telling them that something happened, or merely that something was, when you pile on the adverbs and adjectives.  Conversely, they envision the scene (see what happened) when you utilize active verbs and descriptive nouns.  >>>>>  SHOW: He collapsed to his knees alongside the gravestone, and expelled his last ounce of energy in a sputtering, tearful gasp.  Silence shrouded the cemetery, broken only by his heavy breathing and the uncertainty that pounded like war drums in his mind.  The love of his life, the object of his greatest dreams and desires, lay six feet beneath him, beyond his reach for all time.  How would he survive without Karen?

Remember: The reader must see more than your words; he must see the images those words create.  When you write, live within the scene, and paint a picture of everything that happens around you.  Don’t tell the reader what happened; let him see what you see, hear what you hear, feel what you feel, as though he’s standing beside you inside the scene, witnessing and experiencing it right along with you and your characters.

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

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Under the Heading of SHOW, DON’T TELL: Make Your Characters Blind, Deaf and Dumb

No, I’m not suggesting you write a story where the only characters are Ray Charles, Helen Keller and Marlee Matlin.  Although, now that I think of it, that would be quite the writing exercise, wouldn’t it, to create a scene in which the three of them interact?

I’m merely suggesting that a reader doesn’t really care what characters see, hear, feel, etc, in the most direct sense.  In other words, she doesn’t want you, Dear Author, to TELL her THAT the character saw something.  She wants you to SHOW her WHAT the character sees, right along with him, at the very moment he sees it.  She wants to experience it as the character does.  She doesn’t want to hear from the author, after the fact, that the character saw it.

This is truly the essence of storytelling.  Perhaps we should coin a new, more appropriate term: Storyshowing.

The first step in eliminating excessive telling from your story is to find all instances such as those I list as “triggers” below, and to replace them with sequences that show instead.

SAMPLE TRIGGERS:  She heard, he saw, I thought, we listened, they noticed, she felt, he looked, I peered, we smelled, they anticipated, she observed, he imagined, I wondered, I knew, etc.

NOTE: Like all “rules” of writing, this is not a 100%-er.  You may have occasion to use appropriately these phrases in your story.  However, these should be the exceptions, not the rules.  These phrases should trigger a self-review.  How can you better show what happened rather than tell that something happened? I offer now a series of examples from pieces I’ve edited or reviewed.  As always, I shall keep confidential the authors’ names and story titles to protect the not-so-innocent.

BAD: I could feel the intense heat radiating from the smoldering hulk.  >>>>>  Note: In a first-person narrative like this one, the author is clearly in the character-narrator’s POV.  Thus, when he mentions “heat radiating,” the reader already knows it’s because the character “feels” it.  Not only should the author not tell us (show us instead); Author doesn’t need to tell us.  >>>>>  GOOD (Simple): Intense heat radiated from the smoldering hulk.

BAD: She heard the crashing waves of an incoming tide and she saw the gleam of whitecaps under the stars.  >>>>>  Note: Not only does the author tell us that the character heard and saw, he does so in a wordy way.  Note how, in the show-us-what alternative below, I cut the word count from the original 19 to a more concise 11.  >>>>>  GOOD (Simple): Waves crashed on the shore and whitecaps gleamed under the stars.

BAD: She saw a wound at his hairline, deep and ragged.  She peered closer and didn’t feel the horror she expected.  She saw a portion of the white skull.  >>>>>  Note: First are the various triggers: saw, peered, feel, and saw again.  Second, “white” is unnecessary in “white skull”—everyone knows the color of human skulls.  Third, although the scene teases at an intense, gruesome image, its weak construction fails to deliver.  >>>>>  GOOD (Detailed): A deep and ragged wound pierced his hairline, and a portion of his skull protruded from his scalp, laced by tattered skin and tissue.  Horror lingered at the edge of her mind, yet the grisly scene compelled her to investigate closer.

BAD: I knew then that there would be no more looking back to the future.  My destiny lay ahead of me in the past.  >>>>>  Note: The author almost—almost—creates a compelling paragraph here.  The first problem is the telling trigger: I knew.  Please, it’s a first-person narrative—if the narrator is relaying events, of course he knew the events.  The second problem is that it’s wordy and awkward.  Some simple tightening, along with showing rather than telling, makes all the difference.  >>>>>  GOOD (Simple): There would be no looking back to the future.  My destiny lay ahead of me in the past

BAD: He felt the wolf pack curl around him and his grandmother, and when he looked up, he saw his mother and his baby brother sleeping peacefully among them.  >>>>>  Note: We have the usual triggers here: felt, looked and saw.  We also have redundancy: “he looked up” before “he saw.”  Finally, we can trim back on the word count, from 28 to a more concise 19.  >>>>>  GOOD (Simple): The wolf pack curled around him and his grandmother, and his mother and baby brother slept peacefully among them.

BAD: “Come Fire,” he murmured before each life breath he blew.  “Wake Fire,” he whispered as if into a lover’s ear and a timid crackle he heard.  >>>>>  Note: Set-up: The author uses “Fire” as a character, and thus capitalizes it as a name.  The first thing that struck me was the length of the dialogue tags, which feel forced and awkward.  By combining the tags into a single dialogue lead, the reader will better hear the tone of voice and emotion.  Finally, the author ends with a classic telling trigger: he heard.  >>>>>  GOOD (Detailed): He murmured before each life breath he blew, as if whispering into a lover’s ear.  “Come, Fire, and wake.”  A timid crackle provided his first reward.

BAD: John looked at the sack with uncertainty.  “I thought we would be attempting another animal first.”  >>>>>  Note: The first sentence, the dialogue lead, is a perfect example of where we writers must earn our keep.  Most writers, and a fair share of editors, would think nothing of that sentence, and the author might be fine leaving it be.  However, it is all telling.  Now, let me make clear that some telling is fine, but you should always consider a situation like this an opportunity to engage the reader.  The keys here are “looked at” and “with uncertainty.”  The author could have run him through one or two brief mannerisms here—I’m talking about body language—that clearly shows John’s uncertainty to the reader.  The telling is… well, dull; a little in the story is fine, but every reader has his own boredom threshold, so it’s always risky.  When you show the reader, you pull her into the scene, you engage her, and that’s interesting for her.  This author needed to stretch a bit.  >>>>>  GOOD (Simple): “I thought we would be attempting another animal first.”  >>>>>  Note: Yep, the author decided (rightly so) that the dialogue flowing between the two characters of the scene—their actual words—said all that needed to be said.  The dialogue lead was unnecessary, and it interfered with the scene, so the author simply cut it—a good choice.  However, for the sake of illustration here, let’s assume that he still needed to paint the scene and show John’s uncertainty.  >>>>>  GOOD (Detailed): John bounced his leg up and down and nibbled on his lip.  “I thought we would be attempting another animal first.”

BAD: The lighting was dim and the only sound he heard was the piped in elevator music that played in a seemingly endless loop.  He could hear Karen Carpenter’s “Close to You” over the relentless rain tapping on the ceiling of his cell.  >>>>>  Note: Note the weak word choices (was [2], seemingly, could) and the usual triggers: heard and could hear.  Once again, the author should trust in the character’s (“he”) POV and just show the reader—paint the scene.  >>>>>  GOOD (Simple): Dim lighting deepened the sullen mood as piped-in elevator music played in an endless loop.  Karen Carpenter’s Close to You accompanied the relentless rain that tapped on the roof of his cell.

When you allow the reader to experience your story at the instant your characters do, you make it possible for her to share in the emotion and impact of the moment.  This mechanism, more than any other, draws a reader right into the story as though she’s a spectator at the scene.  The difference may be subtle at times, the reaction hidden in the reader’s subconscious.  Yet it’s often the key to making a reader say, even for reasons of which she’s not consciously aware, “I liked this story.”  If you fail, she might instead say, “Eh, this story didn’t really do it for me.”

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

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Under the Heading of SHOW, DON’T TELL: Readers Can’t See What Something Is “Not,” They Can Only See What Something “Is”

If you’re a writer, you’ve already heard this primary commandment of effective writing: Show, Don’t Tell.  Yet most writers say at some point, “Great!  And just how do I do that?”  Ah… if only one could offer a single, simple answer to that.

One example of violating this commandment is the placing of statements in negative form.  E.g. John was not big.  When you read that sentence, and you try to visualize John, what do you see?  Right.  Nothing.  The words “not big” are vague and meaningless, and thus evoke no mental image.  You must first decide what “big” even means, and then you must decide, by contrast, what “not big” means.  That’s too roundabout—never takes you to a clear image.

In my well-worn copy of The Elements of Style (Third Edition, Macmillan, 1979), by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, the authors state definitively on page 19, “Put statements in positive form.”

Now, many people revolt against The Elements of Style because the authors take such a dictatorial approach to their lessons: you must do this, and you must not do that.  Okay, so there’s no such thing as a 100%-er; after all, writing is art, not science.  Nonetheless, if you apply a dollop of common sense and a dash of critical thinking, and pay attention to how the human mind works, I believe you’ll come to agree with most of what Strunk & White command.

In the case of negative versus positive statements, at least, they’re dead on.

Reading is a visual experience.  Now before you say, “Well duh, Diamond,” let me clarify.  Reading is more than just seeing words on the page, it’s seeing the images those words represent.  Your aim as a writer is to evoke those vivid images through the power of your words.

When you tell a reader what something is not, you’ve only told her what not to visualize.  If you want to evoke that image, and tell the reader what she should see, you must tell her what something is.  Let’s revisit my simple example above: John was not big, which contributed to his lack of confidence.  >>>>>  As discussed, this is meaningless.  We know what you’re trying to say, but we can’t see it.  >>>>>  John was small, and rather self-conscious about it.  >>>>>  This is better, but still lacking.  Five different readers will likely have five different ideas of what the vague “small” means.  The good news is that they may visualize John in some way; the bad news is that they won’t necessarily see him as you intended.  >>>>>  At 5’4″ tall and 132 pounds, John fought constantly to embrace and project his masculinity.  >>>>>  See the difference?

You might be saying, “Wait just a minute, Diamond.  It’s not about negative versus positive, but rather vague versus specific.”  Actually, it’s both.  Imagine if I had said this: John was not exactly a 6’2″ strapping hulk, and thus fought constantly to embrace and project his masculinity.  >>>>> Once again, we have nothing to see.  Indeed, it is impossible to say only what something is notand be specific… at the same time.  Specificity requires that you place the statement in positive form. I’ll leave you with this silly example to cement the point:

“Harry, what was it that broke through your front door and ripped your living room to shreds?”

Harry just stared at Tom.

“Please, Harry, I simply must know what the heck happened here!”  Tom fidgeted on the edge of hyperventilation.  “What was it?  What did all that damage?”

“Well, it was not an aardvark.”

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

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Infinite-Verb Phrases Give Readers an “Act without an Actor”

Too many writers use infinite-verb phrases to open sentences.  Way too often.  Yes, that’s a strong statement, but I’ll stand by it, because I believe we writers harm our cause when we attempt to rationalize bad writing.  The old excuse, “Well, lots of writers do it,” is no excuse.  Lots of people do lots of bad things; that’s never proper justification for us to do them too.

We see stories through a series of visual images, and when a writer creates a disconnect in any given image, he reduces the effectiveness of his story.  When an act occurs, and thenthe actor appears in the scene, we have that disconnect.  Imagine going to a Broadway play, and you hear crying behind the curtain, but there’s no actor on stage.  Then the actor appears, no longer crying.  Disconnect.

Some people think that just because a participial phrase ties, at some point later in the sentence, to a subject committing the act, that it’s okay.  Wrong.  A participial phrase needn’t be left dangling to qualify as poor writing.  All acts require an actor, yes; but in the proper sequence, please.

I once saw a post online that indicated this dangling participle was bad: Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly.  Why is that a dangling participle?  Because the subject who committed the act of hiking never appeared in the sentence.  That point is correct, as far as it goes.

The problem arises when the author suggests this “fix”: Hiking the trail, Squiggly and Aardvark heard birds chirping loudly.  Never mind the other terrible parts of that sentence—the telling (heard) in lieu of showing, or the weak adverb.  The author suggests that because of the addition of subjects, the sentence is now okay.  Not.

Let us just focus on the infinite-verb phrase to start the sentence.  An act occurs (hiking the trail), and then the actors show up (Squiggly and Aardvark).  Disconnect.  The visual image is out of sequence—broken.  That, Dear Writer, is bad prose.  Great prose unfolds like a film reel; at no point in a film would we see hiking, even for a moment, without hikers.  Disconnect.

When we deny the intricacies of human psychology, of the way our minds work, in order to rationalize bad writing, we’ve defeated ourselves.  If you place the cart before the horse, how in the world can you expect the horse to pull you to your destination? Here’s a more effective sentence: Squiggly and Aardvark hiked the trail beneath a cacophony of chirping birds.  As I’ve said so many times, Dear Writer, please keep it strong and direct.  Your readers will love you for it.

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The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers – John Gardner (Vintage Books Edition, June 1991 — excerpted, in applicable segments, from pages 100-101)

Sentences beginning with infinite-verb phrases are so common in bad writing that one is wise to treat them as guilty until proven innocent—sentences, that is, that begin with such phrases as “Looking up slowly from her sewing, Martha said…” or “Carrying the duck in his left hand, Henry…”

In really bad writing, such introductory phrases regularly lead to shifts in temporal focus or to plain illogic.  The bad writer tells us, for instance: “Firing the hired man and burning down his shack, Eloise drove into town.”  (The sentence implies that the action of firing the hired man and burning down his shack and the action of driving into town are simultaneous.)

Or the bad writer tells us, “Quickly turning from the bulkhead, Captain Figg spoke slowly and carefully.”  (Illogical; that is, impossible.)

But even if no illogic or confusion or temporal focus is involved, the too frequent or inappropriate use of infinite-verb phrases makes bad writing.  Generally, it comes about because the writer cannot think of a way to vary the length of his sentences.  The writer looks at the terrible thing he’s written: “She slipped off the garter.  She turned to John.  She smiled at his embarrassment,” and in a desperate attempt to get rid of the dully thudding subjects and verbs he revises to “She slipped off the garter.  Turning to John, she smiled at his embarrassment.”

The goal, sentence variety, may be admirable, but there are better ways.  One can get rid of the thudding subjects and verbs by using compound predicates: “She slipped off the garter and turned to John”; by introducing qualifiers and appositional phrases: “She slipped—or, rather, yanked—off the garter, a frayed, mournful pink one long past its prime, gray elastic peeking out past the ruffles, indifferently obscene” (etc.); or by finding some appropriate subordinate clause, perhaps: “When she had slipped off the garter, she turned to John”—a solution that gets rid of the thudding by lowering (hastening) the stress of the first “she.”

…Used indiscriminately, the introductory infinite-verb phrase chops the action into fits and starts and loses what effectiveness it might have had, properly set.

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‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

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Favorite Authors

A recent blog post explaining why some of my favorite books were… well, some of my favorite books—“Compelling Characters – Great Books Are All About the People”—started me thinking about my favorite authors.  This is particularly important to me as I prepare to launch my debut novel, Forgive Me, Alex.  After all, I hope to have the same impact on my readers that my favorite authors have had on me.

What brings me back to an author time and again?  The simplest answer, of course, is that I so enjoyed one of his books, I naturally assumed his next book would offer an equally pleasant experience.  (That’s usually the case, but not always.)  Something in the author’s work grabs me, but what that is, precisely, varies greatly from one author to another.

For some, it’s the rapid-fire, grab-your-socks-and-hold-on pace of the story.  In some such cases, it needn’t even be well written—and often isn’t.  Sometimes, it’s nice just to escape in a quick, simple story, the kind you can read in a night without sacrificing any sleep time.  I don’t often read these anymore, but every once in a while, it’s just what the doctor ordered.

However, authors who engage in this approach—fast story, lousy writing—take a big gamble.  I’ve abandoned a few authors, even after reading several of their books, and even after considering them amongst my favorite authors, because they’ve clearly adopted this attitude: “Hey, you bought my last 8 books, so of course you’ll buy this next one, even if it is a sloppy mess my eighth-grade kid could have written.”  The moment that attitude, the author’s utter disrespect for me as a reader and book buyer, becomes evident, I’m gone.

I’ve realized that I’m much more likely to forgive a plain vanilla plot if both the characters and the writing itself compel me forward.  On the flipside, I’m unlikely to forgive weak, unrealized characters and lazy, sloppy writing, no matter how fast the plot zips along.

Let’s face it: every story has been told, most of them a thousand times.  So what makes a book stand out?  First is a unique set of characters—like meeting new and interesting people.  Second is a unique setting, perhaps an exotic location you’ve always dreamed of, or an idyllic one that reminds you of your best days, real or imagined.  Third is the author’s unique voice, a style that captures your attention early and holds on throughout—might be seamless and almost unnoticeable, or might be thrilling, offering you plenty of those man-I-wish-I’d-written-that moments.

There seems to be an attitude these days, ensconced in the world of self-published eBooks, that the story is all that matters, that good writing is not that important.  Good heavens!  I like a good story as much as the next guy, of course, but I have to be able to see past the words to actually find the story.  If it’s terrible, sloppy writing, that will not happen.

Look, Dear Aspiring Writer, your every word needn’t be something channeled through the spirit of William Shakespeare.  Really.  But please… don’t give me paragraph after paragraph with the following averages: 3 lines per paragraph, with 5 sentences, 5 words per sentence, 0.6 verbs per sentence.  I had the hiccups for 4 hours once, and guess what?  I didn’t like it.  I don’t want to feel as if I’m experiencing that again when I read your book.

Take a chance.  Offer readers something that 5 million self-published authors aren’t already giving them.  First, offer them considerate, strong, well written prose.  Be a writer!  Second, bring your characters to life; let them breathe and speak, sing and dance, suffer and rejoice, love and hate on the page.

If you provide those two elements, and use them to support a good story—even one that’s been told a thousand times—you’ll have a much better chance of long-term success.  Do not sacrifice quality on the altar of quantity, because if you have 12 bad books out there, that will just be 12 bad books that I won’t buy.  And I’m not alone in that.

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

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Grammar

Okay, be honest.  When you saw the title of this post, you thought, “Ah geez, do I even want to read that?”

Unless you’re a word geek, you hate grammar—as a subject; as a list of rules you must learn, and to which you must adhere; as an 80-lb ball and chain tied around your ankle and preventing you from sprinting to the finish line.

Yet language is little more than a recognizable set of rules by which we communicate.  No rules?  No language.

Can we ever break the rules?  Of course, but be careful.  Pick your spots, make sure they lend your prose a nice punch, and keep them to a minimum.

You’ll find the rest of this discussion here: When Is Good Grammar Required?

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

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Wordiness Is Not a Style – Part 3

This article continues two earlier posts: Wordiness Is Not a Style – Part 1, and Wordiness Is Not a Style – Part 2.  If you haven’t yet read those preliminary articles, please do so before continuing here.

Okay, so here’s the part a few people have been anxiously awaiting: practical examples.

Triggers: Specific Phrases that Often Lead to Wordiness

These seven items are some of the most common Wordiness Triggers I see when I edit.

  1. There were / There was
    1. Bad: There were stars shining….
    2. Good: Stars shined….
  2. Gave a/an
    1. Bad: John gave a short laugh….
    2. Good: John laughed….
  3. It was [blank] that
    1. Bad: It was the dog that ate it….
    2. Good: The dog ate it….
  4. There was a [blank] that
    1. Bad: There was a cat that scratched….
    2. Good: A cat scratched….
  5. Found himself / To find himself / Found that
    1. Bad: He found himself lying in a ditch….
    2. Good: He lay in a ditch….
    3. Bad: He awoke to find himself soaked in sweat….
    4. Good: He awoke soaked in sweat….
    5. Bad: He found that he’d been sleeping….
    6. Good: He’d been sleeping….
  6. In what they were / Of what they were
    1. Bad: The humor in what they were singing was….
    2. Good: The humor of their song was….
  7. I’ve got / He’s got / They’ve got / Etc
    1. Bad: I’ve got a terrible headache….
    2. Good: I have a terrible headache….

EXAMPLES:

Now, let’s review a series of specific examples from pieces I’ve edited or reviewed.  As always, I shall keep confidential the authors’ names and story titles to protect the not-so-innocent.  

BAD: There was screaming, and it pierced my ears like needles of ice.  NOTE: “There was” is one of our classic triggers.  GOOD (Simple): Screams pierced my ears like needles of ice.

BAD: There were men attacking the village, and through their actions of burning cottages, the forest itself began to flame.  NOTE: First, “There were” is one of our classic triggers.  Second, a phrase such as “through their actions of” is a major red flag.  Third, why say “the forest itself” when a simple “the forest” will suffice?  Fourth, don’t provide an action that only “began to” do anything, unless you intend to interrupt that action before it’s complete.  GOOD (Simple): Men attacked the village and burned cottages, and the surrounding forest soon flamed.  GOOD (Detailed): Men attacked the village and burned cottages, and the flames leapt from cottage to stable, from stable to field, from field to trees, until they cast the surrounding forest ablaze.

BAD: I’m hopeful that I’ll find something.  NOTE: The red flag here is “hopeful that.”  GOOD (Simple): I hope I’ll find something.

BAD: The few remaining cars are nothing more than burned out shells sitting on bare steel rims where tires once were.  NOTE: First, the phrase “are nothing more than” raises a red flag.  Second, the final four words are utterly redundant.  After all, everyone knows what purpose the steel rims serve.  This is no less intrusive and insulting than telling a reader “water is wet.”  GOOD (Simple): The few remaining cars, mere burned-out shells, sat on bare steel rims.

BAD: As in all wars, each nation involved believes that the fight will bring improvement in some way; each combatant seeks to gain something, or at least keep all or some of what it already has.  NOTE: The first nine words drag out the start of that sentence.  Second, I’m always suspicious of phrases like “in some way.”  Third, consider the phrase “all or some of.”  Yikes!  Why even mention it?  After all, what else is there?  GOOD (Simple): All nations involved in war believe the fight will bring some improvement; each combatant seeks to gain something, or at least to keep what is already theirs.  GOOD (Detailed): All nations involved in war believe the fight will bring some improvement; each combatant seeks to gain something, or at least to preserve their treasure, their families, their way of life.

BAD: His tone became less harsh as he spoke to the child.  NOTE: Beware of anyone that “becomes” anything.  Slap the writer’s wrench around that thing and tighten it up.  GOOD (Simple): His tone softened as he spoke to the child.  GOOD (Simple): He spoke to the child in soft tones.

BAD: With an open hand, he pushed Steve backward toward the sunlit stream from which the people of Centerville obtained their water.  Steve found himself setting among the summer brambles that grew there.  NOTE: Hmmm… is “with an open hand” truly necessary?  Does it add anything?  What of the word “sunlit” in this case—how is it germane to the fact they get their water from that stream?  Details are great, provided they’re also relevant.  If this detail supplements others, then fine; if not, kill it.  As for the second sentence, beware characters who “find themselves” doing anything.  The Nike marketing folks had it right.  “Just do it!”  They didn’t say, “Just find yourself doing it!”  Finally, if the summer brambles didn’t grow there, how would they have gotten there?  Please don’t state the ridiculously obvious.  GOOD (Simple): He pushed Steve backward toward the stream from which the people of Centerville obtained their water.  Steve fell into a patch of summer brambles.

BAD: Their eyes and minds work furiously as they attempt to discern her purpose.  NOTE: Why else would they “work furiously,” except to “attempt” to do something?  GOOD (Simple): Their eyes and minds work furiously to discern her purpose.

BAD: From where he stood, he saw her fog-colored hair that moved with the breeze.  NOTE: All right, now those first four words are just silly.  Would that be as opposed to some sort of out of body experience—from where he didn’t stand?  Also, “that moved” is too much here.  NOT SO GOOD (Simple): He saw her fog-colored hair move with the breeze.  GOOD (Show; Don’t Tell.): Her fog-colored hair bounced with the breeze and assaulted her head in a gray swarm.

BAD: He should have a place to rest through eternity where she might visit him often while she lived, and she would bring flowers.  NOTE: We’re getting silly again.  First, would that be as opposed to having NO PLACE to rest, WHERE she might VISIT him often?  Second, would that be as opposed to her visiting him while she’s dead?  GOOD (Simple): He should rest through eternity where she might visit him often, and she would bring flowers.

BAD: A blanket of mist clung to the ground as Mary and John found their way.  They threaded the rows of graves.  NOTE: First, “found their way” raises a red flag.  Second, the two short sentences provide a choppy feel.  GOOD (Simple): A blanket of mist clung to the ground as Mary and John threaded the rows of graves.

BAD: When his controlling progressed to violence, and he started hitting her, she hid it from everyone.  NOTE: To first say, “his controlling progressed to violence,” and then to say, “and he started hitting her,” is to say the same thing twice, in two different ways.  GOOD (Simple): When his controlling progressed to violence, she hid it from everyone.  GOOD (Detailed): When he moved beyond simple controlling and started pushing her, slapping her, punching her, she hid it from everyone.

Well, that should be enough for now—plenty to think about as you don the self-editing cap and return to your manuscript.  Remember: Pith is not your enemy; it is your friend.  Pith will not preclude you from writing high prose; indeed, it will aid you in that endeavor.

Always adhere to this High Commandment of professional writing: Make Every Word Count.

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

———-

Wordiness Is Not a Style – Part 2

This article continues an earlier post entitled, Wordiness Is Not a Style – Part 1.  If you haven’t yet read the first article, please do so before continuing here.

I focus this post on one of the High Commandments of writing: Make Every Word Count.  If you’ve been studying this craft, through creative writing courses or any of the hundreds of books on writing, you’ve already seen this admonition many times.  Indeed, ghosts of Writing Instructors Past probably sound the drumbeat in your subconscious every night whilst you dream of cannibals stalking you through the jungle.

Yet for most writers, wordiness remains an anchor on the ship of prose.

Why is “Make Every Word Count” such a critical commandment?  It’s simple: words are money.  For print publishers, a higher word count equals more printing.  For electronic publishers, a higher word count means more server space and/or bandwidth.  For readers, a higher word count means more of their precious time is required to complete the piece.  Please, Dear Writer, show a little respect for those who support your business.

On top of everything else, wordiness is just plain bad, lazy, dull writing.  It typically revolves around what I call “The 3 R’s of Wordiness.”

Redundancy: Not only is this boring and unnecessary, it’s rather insulting.  When you tell a reader the exact same thing in two or three different ways, she may respond by saying, “Geez, what is it with this author?  Does he think I’m an idiot?  I get it, already.”

Repetition: This signals the reader that you’re running out of things to say, so you just say the same thing over and over.  Gee whiz, that makes for an exciting read.

Rambling: When you run on and on and on, the reader knows that you’re lazy, at best, disrespectful of her time and energy, or that, at worst… well, that you shouldn’t quit your day job.

We writers often fail to recognize wordiness when we see it.  We so focus on this sentence, this word, that we’ve already forgotten the last sentence.  Is it any wonder, then, that we fall victim to The 3 R’s?  Additionally, our writing tracks with our speech mannerisms.  Yikes!  When’s the last time you heard someone utter a gem such as this: “Like, have you guys like seen that like totally amazing movie about like androids and robots and stuff?  It’s like, you know, so totally awesome that like, whatever, it’s just cool and like totally awesome.”

Okay, so maybe you’re not that bad.  The point is that our speech leans heavily toward the lazy, improper, garbled, repetitive and disjointed.  Your writing must not.  Even if you speak as though you stayed awake in high school English, and you have an IQ over 73, you still allow nagging “errors” to creep into your speech.  We all do.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the default voice with which you write is the one with which you speak.  To break those chains, you must self-edit at the deepest possible level—every sentence, every word.  More than that, you must turn off that natural conversational voice in your head.  A funny thing will happen as your writing tightens-up and improves: so will your speech.  You will find that happy, comfortable medium.  It just takes time.

Finally, you must rely on your editor to bring objectivity and a fresh perspective, to catch what your subconscious mind allows to slip past your blinded self.

HIGH PRAISE for HIGH PROSE

Our quest for this often leads us down the path of wordiness.  Writers often seek to elevate their prose, to foment literary bliss, and I applaud the inclination; however, too many confuse quantity for quality.  Elevated prose consists not of more words, but of better words better formed.  The pithiest way of saying something may well be the most elegant, whereas the complex bag of wind can be absolute torture.

I offer this example from a piece I edited long ago.  I shall change the character names and keep confidential the author and title.  —  The inner glow of warmth and compassion Fred initially believed to live behind Barney’s gray eyes, blazed fiercely with an entirely different meaning for Betty, or so it seemed to Fred, and in Betty’s attachment to Barney, she lost the capability to manifest emotion toward anyone else.  —  Oh brother!  That bogged me down several times, but I found the final segment the most amusing—and by amusing, of course, I mean terrible.  That one 47-word sentence should be two sentences totaling 25-30 words.  I offer no alternatives because—Good grief!—the writer just needs to go back to the drawing board.  “…the capability to manifest emotion toward….”  Seriously?

Dear Writer, pith is not your enemy.  Pith is your friend.  It will not preclude you from writing high prose; indeed, it will aid you in that endeavor.  Do not confuse “pith” with “simple.”  Use moving, compelling, evocative words and phrases, of course.  But get to the point!

I believe examples offer the best method for learning to recognize and destroy wordiness—simple, repetitive exercises.  Therefore, I shall focus an upcoming article on actual examples and their preferred alternatives, providing a series of “before” (read “bad”) and “after” (read “better”).  It won’t be long—a couple of days, a week at most—so tune in again soon.

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

———-

 

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