Monthly Archives: March 2012

Activate your sentences

 

The emotionally powerful climax of "Wuthering Heights."

 

Today I discuss active writing, which means you should use at least three exclamation points at the end each sentence and must type with ‘Caps Lock’ engaged. Also, when you get stuck, blow something up. Active writing has lots of explosions, even if you are doing a period mystery set in the servants’ quarters of a Victorian manor. Don’t worry if they didn’t have plastic explosives back then. The important thing is –

[Editor’s note: Sorry, my cat was walking on the keyboard and accidentally typed that. Since cats know nothing about literature, please ignore him. The real bit about active writing is below]

*** *** *** *** *** ***

There are better ways to arrange this sentence.

I can start by axing “there are” from the beginning. And every other sentence I ever write, since “there are” and “there is” suck the life out of whatever follows. By using them, you’re warning your readers to expect passive constructions the rest of the way.

In my opening sentence above, “there” is a passive placeholder for my subject, ways to arrange. Why bother sticking a dull abstraction in the beginning? Just lead with the subject and type, “Ways to arrange this sentence better there are.”

Wait a minute. That sounds ridiculous! Maybe I need to rethink the whole thing. I’ll start by asking, What am I trying to accomplish? Well, I’m trying to fix that sentence, so I should probably move the word “sentence” forward. And I know from reading my last blog post that fewer words are usually better than more words. Which words do I need?

I need sentence and better, plus some verbs or something. How about:

“This sentence could be better.”

Not bad, but better is relative (better than what?) and could is a wishy washy, like I’m not sure. When a word has more than one meaning and you’re not aiming for a clever play on words, find a more specific term. My goal is to improve the opening sentence, so why don’t I just use improve instead of better? And could is for when you are weighing options (We could follow the 2012 elections, or we could run face-first into a brick wall and get the same experience). Can is more confident, and confidence is convincing to a reader. Thus:

This sentence can be improved.

In an ironic twist, it can’t. Since we have nowhere else to go with this discussion, my cat says I have to blow something up (now is a good time to don your Kaiser helmet).

3…2…1…

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Tighten your writing

Tighten your writing

Dear reader: Instead of launching my 814-part blog series entitled, The Forgotten Needle-Point Artists of Baroque Outer Mongolia, I’ve decided to dish more writing advice. This one is for the post-beginner, pre-intermediate writer, whom scientists call begintermediate. Unless you prefer the archaic form, intermeginner.

Start…

Perhaps you are no longer a novice writer and have figured out compositional mechanics. Commas fall in the right places, and your paragraph breaks are where they should be. You’ve gotten pretty good at developing and presenting your ideas in a logical sequence. Irrelevant tangents are in the past. Your mom has started telling people you write “just like J.K. Rowling.”

Yet you look at the page and wonder why it doesn’t quite sound professional. You went over the damn thing 50 times, for God’s sake.

You show it to a more experienced writer, who says, “This isn’t finished,” and throws it back at you without explanation. Instead of thinking writers are arrogant pricks, you should be realizing you need an editor, not a writer. An editor would say you have too many superfluous words.

Superfluous words are invisible, yet they sit in plain sight. As an example, read this fictional confession to a crime:

Dear Federal Agent,

It was I who committed all those bank robberies! While you ran around like chickens with your heads cut off, I successfully knocked over ten different banks in ten different states, and I did it while I was wearing a Barney costume. It’s hard to believe that you never caught on. After the last score, my colleagues and I went over to the deli next door, ordered some ham sandwiches, and calmly watched while you raced up and down the street with your lights flashing and your sirens wailing. Idiots.

If you have any questions about my claims, you are welcome to visit me here in Switzerland, though I think it’s outside of your jurisdiction.

Best,

Finster

That’s not the most poorly written confession/boast ever, considering that Finster dropped out in the 8th grade, but it can be tightened.

Let’s make some cuts:

 

Dear Federal Agent,

It was I who committed all those bank robberies! While you ran around like >headless< chickens with your heads cut off, I successfully knocked over ten different banks in ten different states, and I did it while I was wearing a Barney costume. It’s hard to believe that you never caught on. After the last score, my colleagues and I went over to the deli next door, ordered some ham sandwiches, and calmly watched while you raced up and down the street with your lights flashing and your sirens wailing. Idiots.

If you have any questions about my claims, you are welcome to visit me here in Switzerland, though I think it’s outside of your jurisdiction.

Best,

Finster

Here’s what it looks like with the cuts. Finster is still a bad guy, but his confession pops off the page now, thanks to some surgical editing:

Dear Federal Agent,

It was I who committed those bank robberies! While you ran around like headless chickens, I knocked over ten banks in ten states, and I did it wearing a Barney costume. It’s hard to believe you never caught on. After the last score, my colleagues and I went to the deli next door, ordered ham sandwiches, and calmly watched while you raced up and down with lights flashing and sirens wailing. Idiots.

If you have questions about my claims, you are welcome to visit me in Switzerland, though I think it’s outside your jurisdiction.

Best,

Finster

You’ve heard professional writers say, “Cut anything that doesn’t add meaning.” I try to avoid such absolutes, as sometimes words can improve rhythm or punctuate humor without being technically necessary. However, some words are frequently extraneous, and the biggies are Any, All, That, and Some. You can often lose these without confusing meaning.

I cut others above for redundancy. Ditch “different” when it follows a quantity, like “I’ve owned seven different cars.” So goes for “successfully” finishing a race, as you either finished the race or didn’t. Similar words that can often be chopped are “completely” and “totally.”  It suffices to say the rebels destroyed the Death Star. Completely destroying the Death Star is just cruel, and, frankly, unbecoming a Jedi.

If you read through your prose and decide it needs more professional sheen, seek and destroy those formerly invisible, needless words, and the ones that remain will pop out. Better yet, totally destroy them.

 

Questions, comments, and insults are welcomed…

 


Finding Your Writing Voice

A message from me: Today I join the already swollen ranks of those who dispense writing advice in the blogosphere. If, through my sage words, you become a bestselling author, you owe me money and will be hearing from my lawyer.

 

Begin…

 

Writers often hear the word “voice” used to describe one’s writing style, but those new to the craft may wonder what that means and where to get one. The wonderful news is that you already have a writing voice! You just have to move some junk out of the way to find it. Like Michelangelo freeing his figures from their marble prisons, the writer has to free her voice.

 

I continue to get at my writing voice four ways, and I think they will work for you. The obvious, ongoing method is practice. Write. Write. Write. I know everyone says that, but they also say, “Don’t run with a knife in your hand.” That is never bad advice, and neither is write, write, write, because you will master the mechanics of writing and allow your voice to show through. Like playing guitar or building life-sized Star Wars vehicles out of Lego bricks, you inevitably get better by doing (though one of these will get you laid and the other typically has the opposite effect). 

 

 

Another facet of finding your voice (besides avoiding weak metaphors like that one) is to be Zen. Since I am too wired to be Zen, I just try to relax. In my days as a performing musician, my best shows happened when I was relaxed, centered, and in the moment. I did not think about what song was next, or who was in the crowd, or the difficult passage I was about to play. In other words, try not to think. Find your inner Malcolm Gladwell and go with your gut.

 

Your gut is where your writing voice is hanging out most of the time. 

 

You also need an editor who knows writing. Maybe the idea of someone rooting around in your gut is unsettling, but you need that person who is willing to say, “This ending sucks,” or “This section belongs in a different story.” I have more than one editor, and my pieces are always better for their suggestions and insults, especially in regard to tonal consistency. A crucial component of “voice” is maintaining the right tone. Michelangelo didn’t give his David a clown nose, did he?

 

As you seek an editor, note that your mother is not a candidate. My mom is a great proofreader, but she’ll never criticize my work, and it usually needs criticism. On this point, I encourage you to edit a fellow writer’s work as well. You may recognize some of the mistakes you are making but have not been able to see.

 

My last suggestion, particularly for new writers, is to avoid trying to sound “writerly.” If you have not yet hammered out the mechanics of composition, keep it simple until you do. If you have to write, “My hamster and I went to the pet store to buy a miniature badminton set for the rodent beach party,” say it just like that. Steinbeck would not have written, “It was thereupon decided that we were to travel to the pet store, from which a miniature badminton set was to be purchased, thus enlivening the rodent beach party.” And neither should you.

 

I edit for a living, and, in doing so, I’ve seen a person’s death described as “his deathly demise,” and I frequently come across constructions like, “he was a person who showed a friendly personality,” instead of, “he seemed friendly.” Avoid affectation. If you read it aloud and it sounds clunky or awkward, it is. When words come naturally, you are using your voice.

 

If you have other ideas for finding the writer’s voice or can improve upon my suggestions, leave a comment.

 

Ciao,

 

EJB