Author, Editor, Publisher, Coach

Tag: Freelance Editor (Page 2 of 3)

Podcaster Timothy C. Ward Interviews Lane Diamond and D.T. Conklin of Evolved Publishing

Podcaster and aspiring author Timothy C. Ward was kind enough to sit down and talk to us about our business, about our authors and books, about why we do what we do.

We sure appreciate Tim’s taking the time give us this opportunity, and I hope you’ll stop by and enjoy our conversation.

AudioTim 24: Lane Diamond and D.T. Conklin of Evolved Publishing

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Another of Lane Diamond’s editing projects is about to be available as an eBook – “Bella World” by Kimberly Kinrade.

The only thing better than releasing one of my own books, is releasing a book I’ve edited. Well, the next one is coming up fast: Bella World, book #2 in the Three Lost Kids trilogy by Kimberly Kinrade.

This is a children’s chapter book series, which includes some terrific and fun color illustrations by artist Josh Evans (Josh also did my cover for Forgive Me, Alex). If you’re a parent of a 4- to 9-year old, you might want to check out book #1 in the trilogy, Lexie World, currently available at Amazon.

Watch for the release of Bella World on Tuesday. Book #3 in the series, Maddie World, will be coming within a few weeks.

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From the Editor’s Desk – Mix Up Your Sentence Structure

Most writers suffer from some level of I’m-stuck-in-a-rut-itis, a debilitating disease unique to writers. It’s particularly hideous because it passes from the writer to the reader, but in a different form: oh-my-God-I’m-so-bored-itis. This, in turn, passes back to the writer in a vicious double loop, and the writer then requires emergency surgery—a please-stop-the-bad-reviews-ectomy.

The root cause of this catastrophic cycle is the tendency of writers to settle on one approach to creating a sentence, and employing that approach over and over and over, ad infinitum:

He did this. He did that. Then he did this again. Right after that, he did this other thing. Then he did that again.

Some call this the “Lullaby Effect,” because it goes a little like this:

Rock-a-bye, reader, with the glazed-over look,

When the page turns, on this most boring book.

Her eyes get all droopy, and soon she does snore,

To heck with that writer, she reads him no more.

I often have wicked flashbacks to my military basic training when I encounter books like this:

Hup, two, three, four! Hup, two, three, four!

We writers must mix up the cadence, the rhythm and flow, the basic structure of our sentences. Additionally, we must stretch our vocabulary a bit, as repetitive words compound the problem. However, when we address this issue, we mustn’t replace one problem with another problem. Sadly, many writers do precisely this.

The Wrong Way to Fix It – #1

Most writers approach this problem in the simplest possible way: they trade one bad string of sentences with a different bad string of sentences.

If the sentences that begin with a simple pronoun/verb combination start piling up one after the other, you don’t fix it by simply changing the pronouns to proper nouns.

He went to the store to pick up some milk. He could not imagine starting a day without his customary bowl of cereal. He thought it might be his only good source of fiber; given the rest of his diet. Yes, he was a typical bachelor.

John went to the store to pick up some milk. John could not imagine starting a day without his customary bowl of cereal. John thought it might be his only good source of fiber; given the rest of John’s diet. Yes, John was a typical bachelor.

You just end up with an equally dull, but even heavier, prose. All you’ve done here is trade one problem for another problem.

The Wrong Way to Fix It – #2

You also don’t fix the problem by converting the past participles (typically an “-ed” verb) to present participles (typically an “-ing” verb), and then creating an infinite verb phrase.

Going to the store to pick up some milk, he could not imagine starting a day without his customary bowl of cereal. Thinking it might be his only good source of fiber, given the rest of his diet, he was a typical bachelor.

(For more on why that’s a problem, see THIS article.)

Right Way to Fix It – #1

Mix up your sentences the right way by focusing on the object of a sentence, and treating it as the subject of your sentence, structurally speaking. In other words, in our sample above, focus on the store, or the milk, or the cereal or fiber or…. You get the idea.

The store sat at the corner of Third and Main. He went there to pick up some milk, because even the thought of starting a day without the customary bowl of cereal—his only good source of fiber—made his colon loosen. The rest of John’s diet sucked. Yes, he was a typical bachelor.

We have plenty of other opportunities here, and were we to play around for a while, we could probably come up with twenty good alternatives. The point is simple: stretch yourself. As a writer, you must challenge yourself to keep it fresh and interesting for the reader. Don’t take the easy way out. Don’t fix one problem for the reader by giving her a whole new problem. Don’t fall into the trap of: if I do “x,” I fix it by doing “y.” It’s not that simple.

However, it’s not that hard, either; just requires a little consideration.

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Lane Diamond is once again hanging his “Freelance Editor” shingle.

Yep, because I love working 24 hours per day, I’m once again making room for a select few clients for my freelance editing service. Now that our initial blast of releases is complete for Evolved Publishing, my shingle, which has been down for several months, will hang once again.

My primary interest is in authors still needing some developmental assistance to bring their books to a level at which they are marketable. Frankly, I find this the most rewarding process – good for my heart and soul. There’s just no better feeling than helping writers get to that point where they can legitimately pursue their dreams of becoming published authors.

For more, just click on my EDITING SERVICE page.

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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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The Bond Between Reader and Writer: How Long Will the Reader Trust the Author in Any Given Story?

Every reader takes a leap of faith when she picks up a book.  She places her trust in the author, expecting the author to hook her early in the story.  She then expects—I might say insists—that the author will hold her level of interest at a steady clip, compelling her ever forward.

Yet no book is Bam!-Bam!-Bam!-Bam!all the way through.  Great books are not 90-minute action movies on paper.  Great books are rich, deep excursions into another time and place, into one or more characters’ most intimate desires or darkest fears.  Ironically enough, great books play out like a movie reel, but the 6- to 12-hour version.

How much exposition might an author engage in?  How long may an author drift away from plot to build character or setting?  Ah, the tightropes we must walk.

The simplest answer is that an author must do what she must.  I would suggest the key word is this: relevance.  Does the extra characterization, or setting, or historical foundation, truly matter to your story, or will it merely make the reader yawn?

Every writer likes to talk about the first step: the opening hook.  Must an author hammer the reader over the head right out of the chute, or can she ease her into the story?  Yes.  No.  Maybe.  Different genres have different rules, which is to say readers have come to expect a specific approach in any given genre.  Every story is both a beneficiary and a victim of its genre conventions.  Authors break with those conventions at significant risk.

I don’t mean to suggest that authors can’t break the rules, merely that they understand the difficulty, and their odds of success, in doing so.  However, and let’s just be honest here, ’tis better to grab the reader by the collar and shake her like a rag doll, than to cradle her in your arms and gently rock her to sleep.  Excitement good.  Snoozing bad.

Many are fond of insisting that authors start in the middle—en media res.  Nonsense.  Start at the beginning.  Or start in the past.  Or start at the end.  Start where it makes sense to start your story.  No two stories are identical.  Well… no two stories should be identical.

I’ve read articles that said, “Never start with a flashback.”  Yet I’ve read many books that did so… and knocked my socks off.

I’ve read articles that said, “You must hook the reader in the first paragraph.”  Yet I’ve read books that took me a few pages to warm up to, and which I then couldn’t put down.  It’s important to note, however, that while those authors did nothing to hook me at the very start, neither did they do anything to turn me off, to cause me to stop reading.

So which rules can you fudge on, and which ones must you follow as though they were the word of God?  First, remember that in writing, no such thing exists as a 100% rule.  Yet some are 99%-ers.  For example: Don’t start with setting; start with action.  That doesn’t mean take-a-deep-breath, grab-onto-your-socks and hang-on-for-dear-life action; it just means something meaningful needs to happen.  Another example: Build the action steadily and finish with a bang.  If you do that, your readers will come back for your next book.  If not….

Other than that, I believe story structure is wide open, a playground where you can kick the ball around and have some fun.  There’s only one requirement: Keep the reader turning those pages. I would be remiss if I failed to mention that all this assumes another critical fact: The author actually knows how to write—no spelling errors, decent grammar, well-structured sentences and paragraphs, no mixed tenses or continual head-hopping—prose that is, if not exceptionally strong, at least not terribly weak.

My personal limit is 5 pages; that’s how long I give an author to make her case.  Again, this assumes the writing is not terrible, in which case I’ll quit after 1-2 paragraphs.  How about you?  What’s your limit?

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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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