Tag Archives: prose

What exactly are “unnecessary” words?

Never hire a Dalek to edit your manuscript. They don't understand nuance.

Never hire a Dalek to edit your manuscript. They don’t understand nuance.

One of the problems with writing rules is that writing deals in words, and we, as writers and readers, experience words differently.

The term “rule” implies (to me) a black-or-white statement with no nuance. Do not drink bleach is a pretty good rule. Get rid of words that do not add meaning, however, is more complicated. Applying that rule without nuance may not leave you with the best-possible finished work.

Look at my post title as an example. On a mechanical level, the word “exactly” is unnecessary. Without it, “What are unnecessary words?” is still an easy-to-understand construction. But on a subtextural level, is does not at all mean the same thing as “What exactly are unnecessary words?” The addition of that single word says, Eric is skeptical about something, and this post is going to challenge the status quo. Not bad for one of those crappy old adverbs everyone hates.

If writing served the solitary, utilitarian purpose of conveying information, banishing words that do not add literal meaning would be a sound objective. But writing isn’t solely function; it’s also art. Art has style, rhythm, form, and flow. In the previous paragraph I wrote that “What are unnecessary words” does not at all mean the same thing as “What exactly are unnecessary words?” At all does not add surface-level meaning. A robot would not glean additional information from it.

However, I’m not writing for robots, I’m writing for humans. I added at all because I like the rhythm of the sentence that way, and I like how it flows with the rhythm of the sentences before and after. You may look at that sentence and say, “I would not have written it that way,” which is fine, but, see, it’s my sentence. Write your own blog post. Damn it.

Danger, Will Robinson. You are forgetting why you started writing in the first place.

Danger, Will Robinson. You are forgetting why you started writing in the first place.

If you have taken a writing course or read books on said subject, you’ve likely been presented with an essay showing the power of lean, simple, crisp writing from which all unnecessary words have been excised. No doubt the essay was at once like a cool breeze blowing off the ocean and a bright blue sky with life-renewing sunlight washing over your body. You were suitably impressed by the writer’s (and editor’s) expertise.

Of course, those essays are great lessons for the rest of us. Learn how to be a lean, mean writing machine! But what if you are going for gothic dread or satire or noir? Sometimes you need those “unnecessary” words to lend weight or make people laugh or perfect the timing associated with stylized storytelling.

I do not suggest that when writing teachers talk about “words that do not add meaning” they lack the insights presented in this post. I do think, however, that the nuance of this message gets lost by the time it filters out to inexperienced writers and novices, leading some of them to obsess over rules and, in the process, lose the unique character of their writing.

Most times, extraneous words are exactly that: Clutter that must be cut away to reveal your voice and bring your story to life.

Sometimes, though, a word that adds no meaning can change everything.

♦♦♦

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I Wish I’d Written That #1

Jacques-Louis David "Patroclus"

“Patroclus” (1780) by Neoclassicism’s most revered painter, Jacques-Louis David

I scarcely need to ask: Have you ever come across a sentence or phrase so exquisitely capturing an idea or feeling that you were compelled to shout, “Why didn’t I write that!”

Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde might be popping into your head about now.

It happens to me all the time, but I then I forget because I’m a flake. Well, guess what. I’m going to keep track now.

Today’s entry belongs to art historian Hugh Honour and appears in his book Neo-Classicism, which was published in 1968 but not discovered and bought by me until two weeks ago at the Princeton Public Library’s used book section for $1.

Honour was talking about conventions so familiar to writers and artists that we master their use but no longer think about what they mean on a cultural or philosophical level.

He called such conventions “Furniture of the Mind.”

You have achieved total victory, Hugh Honour.*

*unless someone else thought of it first and I’m too much of a Philistine to realize that Honour was simply borrowing it.

Please share a thought or phrase below that made you go, “Why didn’t I think of that?”


As if the world needs another post about Adverbs.

horse

Standing in a circle, we face each other, panting and glazed with sweat. Blood-smeared clubs dangle from our hands, heavy now from all the blows. On the ground before us lies a mass of pulverized meat, guts, bone, and hair.

It’s the Adverbs Suck horse, and we have killed him across all the known universes of the cosmic alliance. He is ready for the glue factory, little in the way of processing needed.

Then Baker says, “Can I just make one more comment about adverbs?”

The rest of us groan.

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

Never Use Adverbs 98% of the Time

So I happened upon a dude’s blog the other day in which he discussed the “ly” thing. I got the feeling he didn’t think they were the worst thing ever, but also that they weren’t great and should generally be avoided.

Generally.

Yeah, I used an adverb.

I’ve long maintained here that writing rules aren’t rules but firm guidelines. When you begin to view rules as absolute, you lose sight of the story. Would you wreck a sentence that works to ensure it conforms to rules?

I agree that adverbs can be indicators of lazy writing and that they tell instead of showing, the main knocks against them. I don’t agree that they are absolutely unacceptable under any circumstances.  See, I just used another one, absolutely. It works for the sentence. It lends dramatic emphasis to “unacceptable.” I could find another way to write that sentence, but the sentence would be equal, not better, and it might even be longer.

Adverbs can make a point in an economical manner. Or, they can do it “economically,” which is more economical. Ready for some blasphemy? Sometimes telling is OK, like when it’s necessary to connect the interesting bits of the story with a line of exposition so quick you won’t even notice it’s exposition. Every writer uses exposition, and everyone who freaks out over one line of it is too worried about rules and not enough about enjoying the story. Dickens’ “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” what some may argue is (AKA arguably) the most famous line in all of fiction, is exposition.

I’ve digressed. Adverbs are 98% bad for the reasons often cited. Here are my guidelines for when not to use them:

horse21. When integrated into the action. This is the lazy part people mention.

He struck the horse angrily, as if somehow killing something already dead would make people realize that JJ Abrams ruined Star Trek, despite the movies being pretty good, winning acclaim, and being successful.

A better choice: He struck the horse until his palm stung…

2. When integrated into a dialog tag. This is the telling part people mention.

“I’m going to keep hitting this dead horse until you admit I’m right,” Pinky said passionately yet frustratedly.

A better choice: Pinky’s face knotted and he challenged Mina with a glare. “I’m going to keep hitting this horse until you admit I’m right.”

3. When it makes you cringe.

You know, this is a pretty good guideline for any component of writing. If it sounds awkward, it is.

The moral of the story: Adverbs are not great, but neither is unbending compliance to and enforcement of any single writing “rule.”

Thoughts? Comments? Abuse?

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

Bonus content!

Gender stereotypes are silly, and few are more silly to me than the notion that a woman carries a purse and a man does not.  I’ve got a wallet, a big wad of car keys with two remotes and a bunch of store cards, a Samsung Galaxy phone, lip balm, nail clippers, minty sugarless gum, and sometimes a CD or two to carry around. You think all that junk is going to fit in the pocket of my jeans?

So here it is, as requested by my blogging buddy Janna Noelle, a picture of me with my brand new man purse. No, it’s not a “messenger bag.” It’s a purse. I grew a beard and scowled just to accentuate my manliness. That is, if this Chuck Norris-like bucket of testosterone can carry a purse, so can you, fellas.

Baker and his man purse. You gotta prollem widdat?

Baker and his man purse. You gotta prollem widdat?


Eleven Rules for Freelance Editing

eleven car

Have you ever thought of taking up freelance editing? It’s a good gig for writers because you put your language skills to work and get paid for it, often earning more money than your client will as the author. And with the abundance of folks self-publishing their projects, opportunities are plentiful. After all, every writer needs an editor.

The bad news: Editing is skilled labor, not something you can pick up over a weekend. Before you spill a drop of red ink over anyone’s precious manuscript, you must know these eleven rules of freelance editing:

1. Write. Write some more. Write until knowledgeable people say you are a good writer. You have to understand the rhythm of language to edit.

2. Read. Read some more. Read all kinds of stuff, because it will help you understand the rhythm of language even better.

3. Know language mechanics and grammar rules (but don’t let them rule you).

4. Think expansively. You’re not simply editing words. You are editing words in a format within a genre using a language that serves a culture containing multiple sub-cultures. A book about the history of hip-hop in Los Angeles requires a different application of language than does a guide to refinishing antiques or a historical romance novel. In other words, “get” the material.

matt smith25. Respect your client’s voice. If your author styles herself after William Faulkner and you emulate Tom Clancy, you edit with William Faulkner in mind. Your job as an editor is not to make the story sound as if you (or Tom Clancy) wrote it. Write your own book.

6. Respect your author’s story. If you think chapter one is dull and needs an action scene to grab the reader, suggest that to your client. If you think your author’s inner-city drama about a middle-aged, married, white woman falling in love her 25-year-old gay, black, male parole officer would work better as a medieval-era papal conspiracy thriller about a robot triceratops discovered under the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, shut up and write your own book.

7. Understand that editing is a multi-stage process. Shaping the document involves reading the entire manuscript and identifying the parts that don’t work or the parts that drag or the sequences that confuse, and then suggest rewrites. In the line-editing stage, you will go line by line, eliminating redundancies and tightening prose until you have successfully removed that which blocked the full expression of your client’s voice. Proofing is the final pass, during which typos, grammar missteps, and punctuation mistakes are fixed.

8. Develop an eye for unnecessary words. Read:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 different teams make the playoffs at the end of the season each year, though only one of them will be able to skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly over their heads.”

Editing that, you can cut at least 15 words and up to 20, depending on the audience and the tone you seek. I hope your client writes less clunky constructions than the one above, but not all writers are equal.

Here’s the minus-15 version:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 different teams make the playoffs at the end of the season each year, though only one of them will be able to skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly over their heads.”

“In the National Hockey League, 16 teams make the playoffs each year, though only one will skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly.”

With 20 words removed, slicker but with less emotion:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 teams make the playoffs, though only one skates away with the Stanley Cup.”

9. Be consistent. If a movie title is italicized in Chapter One, it shouldn’t be placed in quotes in Chapter Four and bolded in Chapter Nine. You may not be ultimately responsible for formatting, but don’t set bear traps for the printer or publisher.

Lloyd10. Be prepared to fact check. Editing isn’t all limos and invitations to party with Justin Timberlake. Sometimes you have to make sure your author gets dates right, attributes the right quotes to the right real-life serial killers, and so on, whether you’re editing fiction or non-fiction. I recall reading a novel that mentioned a J.S. Bach symphony. I happen to know something about classical music, and I know that Bach did not compose symphonies; he composed concertos (there’s a difference). I can’t remember much about that book, such as its name for example, but that flub is still vivid.

Note that in my entry for rule #6 above, I joked about a robot triceratops found in medieval times under the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Thing is, St. Peter’s was not finished until the Baroque era. How embarrassing! Keep your flub radar on at all times when editing.

11. You have to be on, all the time. You can’t zone out halfway down the page. You must read every single damn word in the entire manuscript and look at every last comma. You have to look at them hard and interrogate them. You must outlast the text. If you have a short attention span, editing is probably not your gig.

For real meaty editing talk, visit Candace Johnson’s blog Change it Up Editing, the top of the food chain for such things. And feel free to tell me what I missed in the comments!


Writing Dialog, Part II

My darling Anastasia

My darling Anastasia

“Eric, are you giving more advice about dialog writing?”

“Yes I am, Anastasia. Don’t judge me!”

“No, Eric, please. I’m not judging you, Eric! I just wonder… ”

“What do you wonder, Anastasia?”

“Well, Eric. I wonder what you love more, me or giving writing advice. My love for you is so deep, Eric, yet I feel like you are shutting me out.”

“Don’t, Anastasia. Don’t say it.”

“But Eric!”

“Anastasia!”

___________________

You’re probably thinking, now that’s a fine example of dialog. I’m so glad I clicked in here today. The sad truth is, you’re wrong. That is not good dialog at all.

Seriously, I can’t believe how of often I see name swapping in books. I read a novel last year written by a professor of writing at a posh private college in New York, and I only got 10 pages in before I started banging my head against the metaphorical wall of irritation and frustration. Every stinkin’ line of dialog included the recipient character’s name.

“Seth, don’t you think it’s time you came home?”

“I’ll come home when you quit drinking, Brad.”

“Seth, don’t you dare bring up my drinking when it was you who killed Mary in that accident.”

“Don’t, Brad. How dare you!”

How could a professor of writing think it’s acceptable to name swap? How did he get that job when he does not recognize such a basic flaw?

Knight? Or...

Knight? Or…

Think about the conversations you have with family, friends, co-workers, medieval knights, male strippers, and other people you run into every day. Better yet, listen to your conversations as you conduct them. How often do you say your counterpart’s name? Not very.

Here are the times we say the name of the person with whom are interacting: When we pass them in the hall at work, sometimes when we greet them for the first time that day, and when they are our children and they piss us off. That’s about it.

Here’s a much more realistic version of the exchange at the top. Let’s assume I set up the narrative so that we know it is Anastasia talking to Eric:

“Are you doing another post about dialog?”

“Yeah. Is that a problem?”

“What the hell? I was just wondering.”

“You were wondering what?”

“Well, since you’re being such a bitch about it, I was wondering if you even give a shit about me anymore. You pay way more attention to your stupid blog than you do to me.”

“Oh, I’m sure that’s what’s happening.”

“It is! I’m a blog widow.”

“Knock it off. I’ll be done in five minutes. What’s with the drama-queen act?”

I wouldn’t leave eight consecutive lines of dialog untagged in an actual story, but I did here to emphasize the point of today’s post. Read the first version aloud, and I dare you not to imagine it’s from a soap opera. Then read the bottom version aloud, and you’ll start inflecting and adding emotion, because the pretense is stripped away and you can focus on the meat of the exchange.

If your manuscript doesn’t feel quite like a pro wrote it (or like a certain professor of writing in NY wrote it), strip out all the name swaps between characters. You’ll notice an instant, marked improvement in the realism of your dialog.

_______________________

Please pardon me as I shamelessly plug my eBay auctions for the week.

Fans of ‘80s horror unite in bidding for the 11 horror-related collectibles I’ve made available, including the rare Fangoria postcard magazine, issues of Gore Shriek, a Japanese Godzilla book, out-of-print books about Tom Savini and Lucio Fulci, and a special Fangoria issue autographed by Alice Cooper. The auctions end between Sunday and Thursday. Hope to see you there!

Auction1


A Real-Life Editing Demonstration

A few days ago I threw out a challenge: Who was brave enough submit a short piece of writing for me to publicly edit? Many quickly volunteered… to buy popcorn and watch.

One fearless soul sent me an e-mail with an attachment.

That fearless – and talented – soul is Aisha of Aisha’s Writings, who has permitted me to do a line edit on her roughly 200-word story below. It’s just what I was hoping for… a well-written piece that only needs what every good story or essay needs. A once-over by an editor.

A line edit is what it sounds like: The editor goes line by line through a body of text to eliminate extraneous words and tighten prose. Maybe flip a sentence or two. It happens after you complete the revisions your beta readers or agent suggested but before a copy editor scrubs for typos and punctuation.  A good line editor not only preserves the writer’s voice and message but removes obstacles to finding them. We are an invisible liaison between writer and reader.

Below is Aisha’s original piece, a moving and poignant narrative essay about humans’ innate ability to connect with other humans, no matter the barriers, followed by the edit demonstration.

Aisha’s story:

It was in Year 7, my first day at The Westminster School. I walked with slow steps towards my class. Searching my name in every class list, I was feeling nervous and shy. Talking to people instantly wasn’t my nature. I finally found my class and as I entered I saw new faces everywhere. There were Lebanese, Indian, Syrian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Philippines, Japanese, Turkish, Egyptian, Moroccan, and so on. I felt my stomach ache with tension because I knew it won’t be easy making friends.

As time flew I had not one or two but a whole bunch of friends. To name a few very close and good ones, Saba, Fajr, Maryam, Raeya, Hifza, Saba, Bushra, Arwa, Fatima, Amna, Ayesha, Samima, Faiza, Naima, and I could just go on writing down the names till forever. Years passed and my family of friends kept growing. There was no question of leaving anyone behind but rather walking side by side. We were truly a ‘One Big Family’.

And then the day came, it was the last day of our examination and it was time to say good bye. With a heavy heart and tears in my tears I hugged each one of the people I had ever met in TWS and left to face another challenging world all by myself.

With edits visible:

It was in Year 7., < It was my first day at The Westminster School. <<I walked with slow steps towards my class with hesitant steps. Searching my name in every class list, I was feeling felt nervous and shy. Talking to strangers people instantly wasn’t my nature. I finally found my class and, as I entered, I saw new faces everywhere. There were Lebanese, Indian, Syrian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Philippines Filipino, Japanese, Turkish, Egyptian, Moroccan, and so on. I felt m My stomach ached with tension. because I knew I It won’t wouldn’t be easy making friends.

As t Time flew, and soon I had not one or two but a whole bunch of friends. To name a few very close and good ones:, Saba, Fajr, Maryam, Raeya, Hifza, Saba, Bushra, Arwa, Fatima, Amna, Ayesha, Samima, Faiza, Naima, . and I could just go on writing down the names till ‘til forever. Years passed and my family of friends kept growing. There was n No question of leaving anyone one was left behind but, rather, we all walked ing side by side. We were truly a ‘One Big Family.

And then the day came., it was t The last day of our examinations, and it was time to say goodbye. With a heavy heart and tears in my tears eyes, I hugged each one of them people I had ever met in TWS and left to face another challenging world all by myself.

Edited version:

I walked toward class with hesitant steps. It was my first day at The Westminster School. Year 7. Searching my name in every class list, I felt nervous and shy. Talking to strangers wasn’t my nature. I finally found my class and, as I entered, I saw new faces everywhere. Lebanese, Indian, Syrian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Filipino, Japanese, Turkish, Egyptian, Moroccan. My stomach ached with tension. It wouldn’t be easy making friends.

Time flew, and soon I had not one or two but a whole bunch of friends. To name a few very close and good ones: Saba, Fajr, Maryam, Raeya, Hifza, Saba, Bushra, Arwa, Fatima, Amna, Ayesha, Samima, Faiza, Naima. I could go on writing names ‘til forever. Years passed and my family of friends kept growing. No one was left behind but, rather, we walked side by side. We were truly One Big Family.

And then the day came. The last day of examinations, and it was time to say good-bye. With heavy heart and tears in my eyes, I hugged each of them and left to face another challenging world by myself.

***

Outside of a demonstration like this one, I would only recommend these changes to Aisha, not implement them. You’ll note I did not make much effort to correct grammar. In fact, I introduced “errors” in spots, because doing so sharpened the emotional edge. In prose and narrative non-fiction, grammar is subservient to art. It’s not a textbook, so I didn’t edit as such.

Let’s give a big round of applause to Aisha for volunteering and for donating her talents to this exercise!

Image source: I can't remember. Sorry.

Image source: I can’t remember. Sorry.


Don’t Write Boring – Part II

Overzealous editing?

Overzealous editing?

Last week (before my anti-virus software went rogue and hijacked my laptop), I wrote about chopping the boring parts out of a story to make it better. I meant your own story! The managers at Barnes and Noble are very cross that you smuggled in a pair of scissors and attempted to edit their inventory manually. If you do that again, I shan’t post anymore! Got it?

So anyway…

Writers are known post the beginnings of their manuscripts on online writing forums for critique and feedback. I’ve seen ‘em do it! Many times the opening goes something like, “There were five of us living in the little ranch house on Maple Street. It was my Mom and dad, my brother Jimmy, who was a year older than me, my twin sister Mary, and me, Lisa. Even though the house was small and we didn’t have a lot of room, we were pretty happy. Then, in the summer of ’92, when we went to Mexico for vacation, everything changed forever.”

Writers have many intriguing options for starting a story. What I just wrote is not one of them, but developing writers do it all the time. They begin by explaining.  Just as movie making is so much more than pointing a camera toward pretty people and saying action, writing a good story is so much more than explaining what happened to the characters. For starters, writers have to decide what parts are worth telling.

In the example above, we have five family members, not wealthy, who go to Mexico for vacation, where something happens that changes their lives. With only that information to go on, each of us would take the tale in a different direction. Some of you would write a poignant tale of love and loss. Others would build a mystery. At least a couple of you would turn out an epic saga, and still more would unnerve readers with biological or psychological horror.

I haven’t figured out what type of fiction I’m good at yet, but  I’m not a poet who composes lyrical prose or a worldbuilder gifted at setting up a 10-volume series. I try to skip the exposition and reveal my characters and their lives through action and dialog. I’d start my version of this story with Lisa and clan already on their way to Mexico, flying into a sudden storm, and about to experience a hair-raising landing.

Why? One, because nobody cares about Lisa’s ranch house or how long she’s lived there or what shoes she packed or what brand of dental floss she prefers. We’ll find about her life as we go, through little details and bits of dialog that give clues. Two, because “Lisa’s fingernails clawed helplessly across the stainless steel armrest as the jet bumped and plunged its way through the giant black cloud that came from nowhere” is a much better opening line than the bland drivel I wrote 5 paragraphs ago. And, three, because her frightening descent foreshadows the fact that she will later get sucked into a sandpit in the Yucatan and discover an underground kingdom of mole people who intend to sacrifice her twin sister in honor of their giant black insect god, Garfoobel, at midnight.

Hey, this is my story and I want mole people in it. You gotta pro’lem widdat?

Not everyone writes action-packed commercial fiction, so I’m not suggesting all novels have to begin with a thrill ride. I am suggesting they start with something other than banality. What is your strength as a writer? Emotion? Imagery? Elegant prose? Start there.

Writing Rule #1: All stories are better with Mole People in them.

Writing Rule #1: All stories are better with Mole People in them.