Tag Archives: writing for beginners

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.

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Writing Motivated Characters

Prose is a mixture of technique and artfulness. In my previous posts, I’ve felt confident enough to talk about aspects of the writing craft that are, in my view, technique oriented. Creating good characters, on the other hand, seems like an art form to me.  Let’s see if I can take the fun out of it and get technical!

turtle

Each writer has her own way of building characters, but we all share the same goal of making those literary creations authentic and interesting. Where to start? First I want to consider the major components of a character. I’m no expert, so feel free to add your thoughts or tell me what I missed:

1. History

2. Motivation (Today’s topic. I knew it would come up!)

3. Dialog

4. Action

In regard to history or backstory, many writers create bios of each character, especially for stories with complex family trees, royal bloodlines, or a multi-generational timeline. Others are comfortable with a general sense of their characters’ pasts. When it comes to dialog and action, our literary creations must say and do things that are consistent with who they are.

Which brings us to motivation. We, as writers, should ask ourselves what our heroes, villains, and supporting cast members want to accomplish. Although bit players can be purely functional, our stars must have objectives. Why write a story about them if they have nothing to do?

But is an external objective enough on its own to make someone real or interesting? Think about yourself. I’m sure you have goals, but you also have the push and pull of your intrinsic nature, which sometimes helps you and other times holds you back. For example, I know I am motivated to control outcomes, and I don’t like surprises. I relax like a turtle does a back stroke: Very poorly. On the other hand, I’m empathetic and see value in other perspectives. If you put me in a zombie apocalypse story, I’ll be the guy telling all the knuckleheads to calm down so we can make a survival plan in a logical, collaborative manner. I have a goal – to survive the zombie onslaught – and an intrinsic nature, which is to impose order and control while still respecting others’ views.

Here’s my formula for character motivation:

External motivation (goal) + internal motivation (intrinsic nature)

Internally, each of us is a cauldron of motivations that are often invisible to others. However,when the stakes are high, our intrinsic natures come to the fore. Going back to the zombie scenario, I can’t be the controlling guy with the diplomatic personality in one scene and the hysterical guy who loses his temper every five minutes in the next. A more plausible dynamic is for me to be frozen by inaction when I’ve imposed my plan but the zombies manage to breach the fortress anyway, since (warning: theme coming) efforts to control outcomes in life are ultimately futile. As I’m being devoured by the undead, perhaps I can say, “You know, I learned a valuable lesson here about living in the moment!”

Motivation: Find lunch

Motivation: Find lunch

Think about the people you know, dig below the surface, and imagine why they act the way they do. Have you ever met someone who puts people down to make up for her own lack of self-esteem? How about someone who tries too hard to please the boss because she needs validation as a human being and doesn’t know how to find it in herself? Combine those internal qualities, give the character an external goal (getting the heroine fired), and – voilà – you’ve got a secondary villain. The main villain is a serial killer hiding in the air ducts, by the way.

Here is a tiny sampling of intrinsic motivations that can be combined with others and, when coupled with an external goal, make one’s literary offspring more authentic:

Wanting to win at all costs and dreading failure. This character often makes the people around him miserable with all his ups and downs, and the world is all about him.

Striving to win approval and craving attention. This person may seek praise from authority figures and try to make others feel guilty. Passive aggressiveness, in other words.

Seeking variety and distraction. This character can get lost in what he’s doing and let people down who were counting on him.

Avoiding social interaction. No one knows what’s really going on behind her nerd glasses!

Assuming all people see things the way you do. He buys his wife a football. She wanted Sex and the City: Season 1 on DVD.

Trying to get everything done yesterday. She’s so wired, she makes the people around her tired just looking at her.

A character is bland if all he has is an external goal.  He needs dimensions. The next time our hero and his sidekick go on a quest to retrieve a magic sword, let’s make the hero a controlling, pushy type with no concern for others’ feelings, and depict the sidekick as an unassertive people-pleaser who gets walked on. The sidekick shouldn’t exist simply to help the hero find the sword. Give her a reason to overcome her anxieties and stand up for herself… even better if doing so is integral to the plot. While we’re at it, let’s teach the  hero a humbling lesson in empathy as he looks for that stupid sword.

On second thought, don’t make the sword stupid. People won’t want to read that.

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Pretentious, inflated, indulgent writing is bad. Always.

I don’t like to speak in absolutes when it comes to writing, partly because I’m not a fan of rules. For every writing rule I hear, a successful rule-breaker comes to mind.

However, with absolute certainty, I can declare that wordy, pretentious writing is bad. If a sentence has 90 stuffy words when it only needs 25 short ones, it’s bad writing. If a writer is trying to impress us with his expensive-looking vocabulary instead of informing, entertaining, or touching our souls, it’s bad writing.

Wordy, pretentious writing is only acceptable as satire. Or when I use it as an example in a blog post, because everything I do is dripping with cool.

Elmore Leonard: an unpretentious writer who never wastes words.

Elmore Leonard: an unpretentious writer who never wastes words.

In practical terms, I majored in public relations (though that is not what my school called it). On the scale of popular perception, PR people are somewhere above politicians and serial killers, uncomfortably close to used-car salesmen, and looking directly up at the girl from Macy’s who sprays perfume on you without asking (Don’t worry, she’s wearing pants, not a skirt).

But PR people did teach me a lot about writing. If I can boil their writing instruction down to two words (which is exactly the kind of thing that would make them proud), it’s “write tight.”

Meanwhile, in more traditional areas of academic study, where the professors sport bushy beards (even the women) and have been wearing the same moth-eaten suit jackets for 37 years, the writing motto seems to be, “Obfuscate a conflation of explanation, implication, and interpretation through profligate verbosity and wanton clause abuse.”

I once ruffled a professor’s plumage by mocking a rambling, incoherent article we were forced to read. By “read,” I mean stare at the first 900-word paragraph (which also served as the opening sentence) until my eyes glazed over.

When Hitch said, "Always make the audience suffer as much as possible," he wasn't talking to writers.

When Hitch said, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible,” he wasn’t talking to writers.

The professor said, “But this is college-level writing, you must understand.”

And I said, “Indeed. It’s also bad writing. I have the intellectual firepower to understand the article, but I don’t have the patience to read something that is deliberately made obscure by someone more interested in waving her Ph.D. around than she is in conveying meaning.”

My point was not well received.

I bring this up because I just started reading a book on Alfred Hitchcock, the intent of which is to examine how his films reflect a British expatriate’s view of American culture. Now, I know going in that I’m going to get inflated, pretentious writing; film historians cannot help themselves. Still, what is the point of deliberately obscuring one’s point? Here is a quote from the introduction:

“Film offers not only, as critics since Benjamin have been reminding us, a radically new form of apprehension for a radically new kind of audience – one organized by the logic of the mass, in Benjamin’s influential terms – but also a new way of thinking about the powers of visual representation at the moment of modernity.”

Gah! Why is this sentence 55-words long? Why is it composed in such an awkward, impenetrable manner?

Why not say it this way?

“Critics since Benjamin have pointed out that film is the first medium with a mass audience and reflects the apprehension of the time in which it was created – the moment we became a modern society. This is why the power of visual representation is so ripe for analysis.”

I shaved seven words, broke it into two sentences, and, if I may be so bold, made it far easier to digest. Sure, we could all read and, after a couple of passes, understand the other version, but why make me trip over bloated, awkward sentences on my way to finding the meaning? I don’t care what your diploma says; bad syntax is bad syntax.

If you plan to write a scholarly tome on an academic subject, I have two bits of advice.

1. Leave the deconstruction to Picasso.

2. Write tight.

So what are your thoughts? Do you find wordy academic writing to be sentence shrapnel, like I do? Or am I just a simpleton with a low-wattage mind? Maybe you just enjoy free-form word art!

Do tell.

picasso


Irony is not the same thing as coincidence!

No, I said ironEEE.

When did this writing mistake become so ubiquitous? Not a week goes by that I don’t witness a sports reporter, movie reviewer, or political commentator describing something coincidental or incidental as ironic.

“Rimsky-Korsakov missed most of last season with a torn ligament in his left knee but returned at the start of the playoffs. Ironically, he only played three games before injuring his other knee.”

An athlete getting two injuries is not irony; it is a matter of probability. Rimsky-Korsakov plays basketball, a sport that requires frequent jumping and turning. He was out of shape from not playing. He was favoring his left knee and working the other one too hard. His odds of injuring his right knee were, in fact, higher than ever before in this scenario. Maybe he should take up rowing instead, and get to work on destroying those rotator cuffs.

*

“Midway through the film, Bond ends up in bed with Ginny Tonic, only to discover she is a Uvulan spy seeking information about England’s top-secret invisible tuxedo prototype. Ironically, the same plot device was used in last year’s CIA thriller See-Through Assassin.”

There’s really nothing ironic about stealing an idea from another movie. What would be ironic is getting accused of stealing another story’s ideas when you wrote the first tale since Epic of Gilgamesh that actually didn’t steal something from a previous one.

*

“Senator McFlop told supporters he is opposed to half-priced Whopper day, yet, ironically, he stopped at Burger King on the way to the rally and ordered one for himself.”

Hypocrisy and irony share a few of the same letters, but little of the same meaning.

 

You can easily cut 5 calories by ditching the onions

Irony comes in several forms, but, with most modern language, we use two: Snarky irony and Cool Twist irony (hey, Oxford makes these rules, not me).

Snarky irony is when someone says the opposite of what she means. For example, I might say, “So, how was the gallbladder removal?” The ironist may reply, “Fun, I can’t wait to do it again.”

The irony being that it’s not fun to have a gallbladder removed (unless I went to the wrong hospital and missed out), and one can’t have a gallbladder removed more than once. I hope.

Snarky irony is kind of witless, and it’s so similar to facetiousness that I can’t tell them apart. In short, snarky irony is for losers and NBC sitcoms.

Cool Twist irony is what happens in Twilight Zone episodes. That does not mean all twists are ironic. “It was all a dream” is not irony (it’s a cop-out). “They were ghosts the whole time” is not irony (it’s a cliché). “The butler did it” is simply a surprise. And a good one, since it’s never the butler.

Here’s irony:

A guy sells his soul to the devil in exchange for eternal life. Then he finds out his wife cheated on him and, in a rage, murders her and her lover. He is caught in the act and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Doh!

Then there’s the great Twilight Zone episode in which Burgess Meredith plays Henry Bemis, a henpecked banker who only wants one thing in life: to read books. But he never has time between his wife nagging him to do chores and errands and his employer dumping work on him. One day he falls asleep in the bank vault and is spared when a nuclear war wipes out civilization. When he emerges into the sunlight and finds the local library is intact, he is filled with joy. Time at last to read! He gleefully lines up piles and piles of books, takes the first one from the stack, sits down… and drops his glasses, shattering them on the ground.

That’s bloody irony. Save it for special occasions, my friends and colleagues.

“Leave the irony to Rod Serling, Mr. Sportswriter. Just tell me the score.”


Self-Editing Your Prose

Hola, amigos. This is a writing blog, so I suppose I gotta throw a writing-themed post in here and there. Today’s is about self-editing your prose to make it pop (in case the title wasn’t clear). Read on…

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Practical writing advice is often targeted at beginners: Don’t start your story with, “It was a dark and stormy night.”  All stories need conflict, so make sure yours has one. Don’t end it with, “And then I woke up.” Those are pretty straightforward and easy suggestions to follow.

As we develop, expert suggestions become less tangible: Try not to rely on exposition. Find a consistent voice. Get rid of unnecessary words.

Holy crap. How do I know which words are unnecessary? I needed them to tell my story in the first draft, so why don’t I need them now?

A good, typical answer is, “Get rid of words that don’t add meaning.” However, if you truly eliminate words based on functionality, you might lose a little poetry and end up with something that reads choppy. We’re talking about fiction, so let’s pull back from absolutism and say, instead, “Assume your reader is smart enough to make connections on her own.” Then get rid of all the handholding words.

By handholding words I mean text that spells out the obvious for the reader. Like, “I squeezed the trigger on my gun and felt a sense of exhilaration when the bullet exploded from the barrel.” A bullet and a trigger signify a gun. Exhilaration is a sense. Your reader can make those connections herself.

The difference between intermediate writing and professional-quality prose is often the presence of handholding clutter in the former. Here is a before, during, and after-editing micro story I’ve put together as an example.

Before

I was sitting on my chair at the table drinking a cup of Earl Grey tea when the massive explosion went off outside, rattling the windows. I leapt up from my seat and, like a fool who has no regard for his own safety, quickly ran outside to investigate. I headed down the front steps and, just as I reached the bottom stair, a huge, flaming hunk of debris fell from the sky and landed five feet in front of me.

The intense heat of the thing sent me flying backward, and I fell onto the stone steps. I looked up, and my eyes darted rapidly across the sky to see if any more flaming hunks of debris were headed my way. Lo and behold, who do you think I saw floating up there but Zeus, the Greek god.

“Er, apologies old chap,” he said to me from on high. “I seem to have dropped a lightning bolt. Dreadfully sorry. Won’t happen again.”

Even though it turned out that 172 homes were destroyed and property damage from the explosion was in the neighborhood of over a billion dollars, I think a guy who fesses up to his mistakes is a guy who has already paid his debt to society.

No hard feelings, boss daddy.

During

I was sitting on my chair at the table drinking a cup of Earl Grey tea when the massive explosion went off outside, rattling the windows. I leapt up from my seat and, like a fool who has no regard for his own safety, quickly ran outside to investigate. I headed down the front porch steps and, just as I reached the bottom stair step of the front porch, a huge, flaming hunk of debris fell from the sky and landed five feet in front of me.

The intense heat of the thing sent me flying backward, and I fell onto the stone steps. I looked up, and In a panic, my eyes darted rapidly across the sky to see if any more flaming chunks of debris were headed my way. Lo and behold, And who do you think I saw floating up there but Zeus, the Greek god.

“Er, apologies old chap,” he said to me from on high. “I seem to have dropped a lightning bolt. Dreadfully sorry. Won’t happen again.”

Even though it turned out that 172 homes were destroyed and property damage from the explosion was in the neighborhood of over a billion dollars, I think a guy who fesses up to his mistakes is a guy who has already paid his debt to society.

No hard feelings, boss daddy.

Most of the excised passages are handholding text. My reader probably assumes the character is sitting at a table drinking his tea, and she probably knows that Earl Grey is tea. Even if she thinks it’s coffee, it doesn’t hurt the story. She also knows why it’s foolish to run outside when an explosion just occurred. I also got rid of clichés like “lo and behold,” because clichés are simply bad writing. I removed “I looked up” as well, because it becomes clear in the next clause that the character is peering at the sky, which can only be up.

I could have kept “rattling the windows,” because it adds a cementing detail. However, one assumes that explosions rattle windows, and it borders on rote to say it. On the other hand, I kept, “who do you think I saw floating up there,” despite its wordiness, because the rhythm of it accentuates the (allegedly) humorous reveal. Also, I retained “the Greek god,” though my reader almost certainly knows that. Again, with a humor line, timing and rhythm are important too.

Note that I added or moved a couple of words (in bold) for flow.

Here’s the revised version:

I was drinking a cup of Earl Grey when the explosion went off. I leapt from my seat and, like a fool, ran outside to investigate. Just as I reached the bottom step of the front porch, a huge, flaming hunk of debris landed in front of me.

The intense heat sent me flying onto the stone steps. In a panic, my eyes darted across the sky to see if more flaming chunks were headed my way. And who do you think I saw floating up there but Zeus, the Greek god.

“Er, apologies old chap,” he said. “I seem to have dropped a lightning bolt. Dreadfully sorry. Won’t happen again.”

Though 172 homes were destroyed and property damage was over a billion dollars, I think a guy who fesses up to his mistakes has already paid his debt to society.

No hard feelings, boss daddy.

What I did here was tighten up a so-so little vignette. If I really wanted this story to grab people, I’d have started it this way:

The explosion knocked my tea cup from the table…


Worse, Worser, Worst, Worstest

No, this is not a review of the Police Academy movies.

Ouch! How’s that for topical humor?

I’m actually posting this message with the desire to help mankind. You see, before people (not you guys) decide to leave a yet another inane comment after a Yahoo! news article, I hope they go over to Google, type Worst vs. Worse, and find this post explaining the difference. Because I can’t believe how many of them don’t know.

For the record…

1. When you are comparing two things that are not good (in your estimation), you say one is WORSE than the other.

2. When you are talking about a category of things, the one you despise most of all is the WORST.

Please don’t say, “Plan 9 From Outer Space is the WORSE movie ever made.” First of all, there are much, er, worse movies than Plan 9 From Outer Space. Sure, it’s bad, but it doesn’t come close to The Creeping Terror for putrid. And not even that movie is the worst movie ever made. I don’t know what the worst movie ever made is, but it might be Showgirls. That movie ended careers.

An example of worse, used correctly:

“Each episode of ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’ is worse than the one before.”

In this case, you are comparing the latest episode to the previous episode.

An example of worst, used correctly:

“‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’ is the worst show on TV. In this universe and the next.”

In this instance, you are comparing one show to all the other shows, and “shows” is a category of things.

At this point you might be thinking, “Hey, grammar dude, the second sentence in your example above is incomplete. Do you really think that is a good example to set?”

You must have heard your fifth-grade teacher say, “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” That’s what’s happening here. By the way, if you’d paid closer attention to your fifth-grade teacher, you wouldn’t leave comments after Yahoo! news articles in which you say things like, “Neptune is the worse planet in our whole stinkin’ solar system!” Because it’s not. Neptune is freaking cool.

Take a gander. It’s got “Conquer the Humans” written all over it:


Business Writing for Beginners

Business writing doesn’t exactly stir the soul, does it?

We bloggers love to wallow in poetry and fiction, but out there in real life, most writing is conducted in a cubicle. And grudgingly so. Lots of employees have to report on or otherwise document business activities or research findings, but few enjoy it.

I believe many people dread writing because they don’t know how to turn something dull and confusing into something readable. A single blog post can’t teach someone to write well but, if your pain at work is writing, the tips below can help.

Oh. If your other pain at work is your boss, let me know. I bust knee-caps for $50 and make people disappear for $200.

Legal disclaimer: The preceding two sentences are intended for comic relief. I would never make someone’s boss disappear for less than $500.

On to the business-writing shenanigans!

*****

 Here’s what you need to get started:

1. Fingers for typing (or a plastic bird-beak mask so you can peck the keys)

2. Something to say

3. Relevant data to fill up the body of the report, which no one is going to read.

I can’t help with the first thing, but, for real, don’t start writing until you know what you want to say.

Let’s pretend your company decided to try powering its truck fleet with dry macaroni noodles instead of gasoline and your boss asked you to submit a report on why this endeavor didn’t (or, you know, did) work. When scanning that request, you’ll note the word “why.”

That’s it! Your report will state why it was stupid to pour macaroni noodles into your trucks’ gas tanks. Sometimes “what” and “how” can be useful starting points as well, depending on the report. “When” is for losers.

*****

Here’s what you do next:

1. Wish you had time to write an outline, which you don’t, because your boss only gave you eight minutes.

2. Organize your thoughts before you write, or you’ll write gibberish. Since you‘re making a point, you should state it right away. Don’t say all your trucks are blue in the opening line. Save that for the part you end up deleting because it doesn’t matter.

3. After you make your big statement, support it with data of descending importance, chronology, or whatever your template requires. If your company’s report structure hasn’t been formalized, just get the important information to the reader as soon as possible. For example, macaroni noodles clogging up the fuel injectors is more important than your drivers complaining about a shortage of macaroni-noodle refueling stations.

*****

What belongs in a report (A.K.A. What makes the report good):

1. A logical sequence of statements that support the central point.

2. Tight, clean sentences with appropriate language for the reader. For example, if the report is intended for your CEO, who has never ever once lifted the hood of a car, don’t talk about torque, displacement, and bore stroke. However, if you are explaining to your technical crew why macaroni noodles are bad for truck engines, prepare to be laughed at.

3. Words that matter and nothing else. When trained, professional writers say, “Take out every word that does not add meaning,” they are talking about your report.

Notice how short that list is? Good writing is simple.

*****

What does not go into a report (A.K.A. What makes the report bad):

1. Irrelevant information. Sometimes you go to the trouble to gather data, such as walking out to the back lot and noting that all your broken trucks are blue. It hurts to think you wasted your time, so you stick that in the report. My advice: Leave it out and just consider your newly acquired knowledge to be “personal growth.”

2. Inflated language. People are people, not “individuals.” Macaroni noodles are macaroni noodles, not “pasta-derived fuelstuff.” Inflated language does not make the writer sound smart. It makes the writer sound like she wants people to think she’s smart.

3. Flowery language. Business writing is about facts. Fact: “World-class Truck Operation and Navigation Specialists with a passion for only the highest quality freight-transportation experience” are also known as “truck drivers.”

4. Contractions. “Don’t” is ok in a blog post about business writing, but do not use it in a business report. Hehe. See what I just did?

5. This atrocity that makes me cringe. For God’s sake, please don’t say “In conclusion” or “In summation” at the beginning of a conclusion or summary. **Shudders**

6. Clichés. Self-starters with good oral and written communication skills don’t use clichés.

7. I could go on, but you have enough to think about.

Next time, I’ll do a bad versus good example.

Peace out!