WRITING FOR THE READER—NOT JUST FOR OTHER WRITERS

Since I joined a couple of writer critique groups back in the early 1990s, I learned a lot of basic guidelines for good writing. The majority of them made a lot of sense to me. And as a reader as well as a writer, I now notice some awkward, clunky writing that miss the following points.

• Stay in point of view—no head-hopping inside a scene.
• Write as much as you can in active voice; don’t be passive.
• Leave out the boring stuff.
• Use modifiers sparingly (some say not at all, but I don’t agree with that—see below).
• Never use a semi-colon in fiction. (I break this one every so often, just because I’m a rebel.)
• Learn and use all the rules of grammar.
• Spell check over and over again.
• Get critiques and edits.

Then there were other rules I had trouble with:

• Show, don’t tell. In my opinion, this can lead to choppy writing and lack of interesting details. Yes, show action, but tell descriptions.
• No prologues. Come on. Sometimes they’re exactly what’s needed. They can pull the reader in and explain some backstory so there’s no “info dump” later on. I agree, though, that they need to be done very well. Many best-selling authors use them. Why shouldn’t the rest of us?
• No epilogs. I have two reasons for using them in my Paula PI books—one is that as a reader myself, I like to know what happens with some of the characters later on. In a mystery in particular, it’s hard to wrap up all the loose character threads during the hopefully action-packed ending. The second reason was simply because it was a senseless rule. (There’s that rebel again).
• Don’t use he said/she said. Have the character do something instead (cough, sigh, drink coffee, drink beer, whatever). Sorry, after a while of reading all these small actions (especially the coffee drinking) it gets old AND intrusive AND boring. He said/she said is invisible to most readers. It doesn’t stop them. So, why not use it? I do both the saids and the small actions, mixing it up.
• Split infinitives are evil. Only if you’re an English teacher who hasn’t kept up with the times. When Latin was in use, this was a necessary rule. It’s not one for those of us who speak English. And sometimes splitting the infinitive makes the sentence much stronger: “to boldly go where no man has gone before’ has a much better cadence than “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” Right? Right. When we were motorhoming I found a great bumper sticker that we promptly put on the couch: “Boldly going nowhere.”

But I digress.

One warning about head hopping:

If you do head hop between scenes, be sure the reader knows right away whose head you’ve hopped into if you’ve changed it since the last scene. The book I’m reading currently has made this mistake several times, and it always make me stop in order to figure out I’m in a different head.

So, the biggest rule is to do what works. What works is smooth writing that doesn’t in any way make your reader stop reading to figure something out. This is okay for non-fiction. Not so much for fiction. Thus the rules about using good grammar and spelling in particular.

WARDROBE TRUNKS

Authors generally love to do research. (Secret: It’s a good excuse for procrastinating—don’t tell anyone!). I’m no exception. That doesn’t mean I enjoy researching every single subject. I might look up some information on guns, for example, which don’t interest me much, but I don’t want to make any errors about how they work because people who do know become incensed if a writer gets something wrong. Many times I simply become vague. She pulled out her gun—not she pulled out her [brand of gun] [name of gun] and inserted [type of bullets] into the [cylinder/chamber/magazine/whatever], screwed on the silencer [make sure type of gun allows for this] and pulled the [safety/hammer/whatever] . . . Well, you get the idea.

But when something does interest me, I can get lost in the details.

Take wardrobe trunks, for example. Also called steamer trunks. They could be huge—as big as a telephone booth. They were great for keeping clothing in good shape because you could hang it up. Drawers kept other things organized. You didn’t have to unpack—just open up the trunk, and there was everything you needed.

Only problem—you wouldn’t be able to put it in an overhead bin, or check it at the airport. It took at least two men to carry it around.

But they could be the perfect solution for someone who likes to be super organized, like Tina Shaw, my protagonist in her professional organizer series. In Cluttered Attic Secrets

clutteredatticsecrets-08an old wardrobe trunk plays a small part in the story. Researching them, I found out they could have ironing boards:

https://shard2.1stdibs.us.com/archivesE/upload/9390/02_13/IMG_1254/IMG_1254_l.jpg
or
http://bit.ly/1hiGWtZ

Fold down desks:

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/e0/96/eb/e096ebb9f1e553582a9abb248343a5ad.jpg
or
http://bit.ly/1N907jP

And be as big as telephone booths:

http://www.thisoldtrunk.com/store/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=2&products_id=179
or
http://bit.ly/1Made7l

Isn’t the internet great? I could find all this information in a matter of minutes. What have you been researching lately?

LESSONS LEARNED ABOUT DRAFTING A NOVEL

The list below of things to do after writing each chapter of your novel came about because I’ve edited nine novels now, and learned from personal experience that they would all have been easier to edit if I’d done everything on the checklist before continuing to write the next chapter. I’ve gotten timelines mixed up, character names mangled, forgotten whether it was spring, summer, or fall, left out sensory input where it would have worked brilliantly, and used “was,” “a while,” and other pet words way too often. Following the checklist should only take a few minutes and will make your first full run-through edit a lot less painful. See what you think. I only wish I’d done it for all my books, including my latest:

clutteredatticsecrets-08After each chapter is written:

1. Read it over and make minor changes and to refresh your memory.
2. Make a chart (word processing table or spreadsheet) with columns for Chapter Number, Day of Week, Time, Location, and Outline (synopsis).
3. Nail day of week, time of day, and location, put on chart.
4. List all new characters on another chart with first name, last name, and description so you can sort by first/last name to be sure not too many characters have similar names or begin with the same letter. Usually I do a small description of characters as they’re introduced, so I often just copy and paste the description into that column. If later on I mention something else about the character (eye color, make of car, for example), I put those details into that column, too.
5. Have yet a third chart to list names of businesses. My current novel has a made-up museum, funeral parlor, theater, and restaurant. It’s easy to forget many chapters later what I made up. It’s just two columns—name of business, and what it is. It won’t take you much time at all to add anything to it.
6. Check that senses other than sight are included–smell, hearing, touch, taste.
7. Find and replace your frequent words, for example, “was,” “that,” etc.
8. Check for your own personal demons—lack of description, echo words, tags missing making conversations confusing, mixed-up names, character positioning, and so on.
9. Do a final spell check.
10. Save your day’s work on your computer and back it up (I do that on the cloud).
11. Write the outline/synopsis for your chart.
12. In your notes file, (you have a notes file, right? With maps, research, anything else related to your particular project. I put these two charts in that file, always open when I’m writing the novel) list anything you want to cover later on, and any good ideas you have for later action. This is especially important if you are not an outliner, and it can help prevent writer’s block.

Your future self will thank you later for doing all this. So will your editor. Anyone have any tips to add to the list?

THE 80/10 RULE FOR WRITERS

You’ve probably been told how important good grammar and punctuation are to becoming a good writer. And they are.

You may have been made aware of certain “rules” or even current fads for writing fiction. “Show don’t tell.” “Eliminate all ‘wases.’” “No head hopping.” Then you scratch your own head when you see a best-selling author do all of those things. On one page.

You might have learned about story arcs, the snowflake graph, the best way to outline, structure, beginnings, endings, and a huge amount of other tips and tricks.

But still you don’t get it done. You don’t finish a story or a novel. You get stuck in the middle. Or even at the beginning. You think your skills are pretty darned good, but what good are they if you can’t finish what you start, or even get started in the first place?

There’s a new “thing” (I don’t know what else to call it, although it’s usually called a rule) going around about the 80/20 rule. This rule says that 20% of whatever you’re trying to accomplish is worth more than all the other 80%. So, you should concentrate on accomplishing that 20%.

I believe the 80% for writers are all the rules, guidelines, and mechanics of writing, and throw in the business side there, too. The 20% is the story, which is made up of words, sentences, and scenes. If you’ve read a lot and paid attention to how things are written, your subconscious probably knows a great deal about what is good writing and what isn’t. But all that reading, both about writing advice and fiction, can’t teach you how to put words on the page.

So, is there a trick for that? I think there are several.

First, stop worrying. Quit wondering where your next idea is going to come from, how you’re going to set up the murderer to be caught, how you’re going to fill the page.

Second, if you don’t have an idea right now, just pick one at random. It doesn’t matter what it’s about, who the characters are, pick anything. An object, a place, a person, a situation. Pick one of those things and start writing about it.

Third, eventually your idea will tend to peter out. This is where you stop and think consciously. Up until now, your subconscious was just doing stream of consciousness about what you decided to write about. Now, you need to start focusing more on a story.

Fourth, be pro-active in thinking about what to write next, about where your story can go from here. Use either pen and paper or your computer keyboard to let the ideas flow. Ask yourself “what if” questions. List all the possibilities that could happen next, no matter how outlandish (you may decide to write humor where outlandish is good).

Fifth, pick the idea you think is the most interesting, the most fun, the most unique, the best of all you’ve thought of.

And sixth, write some more until you come to the point where you have to repeat steps four and five.

If you insist on outlining, you use the same process. As you outline, just as those who do not, you will come to spots where you are stuck. Personally, I don’t outline for this reason. My first draft is basically my outline more fleshed out. And because this system is the way I write, I rarely have to make major edits to the story. So, I save a lot of time.

Some of the ease from this comes with more writing. Like most things, the more you do, the easier it gets. Usually.

And getting back to the 80/20 “rule.” Do the process steps over and over again while learning the current rules and fads for writing in this decade. In other words, pick them up as you go—don’t make them your main focus.

This works for me. I’ve had days when I’ve written three thousand new words in a novel. Most days I can get one thousand down, and many days I can pretty easily get close to two thousand. Each thousand words takes me approximately an hour or so to write, after a short time brainstorming with the what if/what happens next process.

I believe in learning by finding out how other people who are experts in their fields do things. I don’t classify myself as an expert—I’m not that arrogant. But I can tell that many prolific, successful writers, use this method. They may not even realize themselves how they’re doing it.

Give it a try. And let me know if it works for you.

ANOTHER BLOGGER’S RANT ABOUT COMPUTING

I thought this was interesting enough to share. If you read the comments, you’ll see what I have to say about using computers nowadays.

http://bit.ly/1HtpCKC

If I had more time, I could do my own post about this topic, but I need to go edit one of my novels. Right now.

FICTION WRITING RULES FROM FAMOUS WRITERS

I thought it would be fun to compile a list of lists of rules for writing fiction. We can, of course, start with Elmore Leonard’s famous list. Many people disagree with some of his rules, but it won’t hurt to read them carefully and make up your own mind. What do you like as a reader? Maybe some of the things he’s against, you like to see when you’re reading. Nothing wrong, in my opinion, in breaking some of his rules, or any others in the rest of the lists below. In case you’ve never seen Mr. Leonard’s, here’s a link.

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html

You’ll love Margaret Atwood’s ten tips:

http://www.literautas.com/en/blog/post-755/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-by-margaret-atwood/

Of course, Mr. Hemingway had a set of rules. See all seven here:

http://www.openculture.com/2013/02/seven_tips_from_ernest_hemingway_on_how_to_write_fiction.html

Here are six from George Orwell, compiled using one of his essays on writing:

http://www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/300

And then there is the famous Lester Dent  formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. This is not a list, but no list(!) would be complete without looking at Mr. Dent’s formula. If you spread it out, it will work for any story, short or long:

http://www.paper-dragon.com/1939/dent.html

Final rule from Jan Christensen:

Trust yourself. Yes, learn the craft, read and ponder the rules. Read a lot of fiction. After you do that, you can  trust yourself to know what works for you and your work.

 Good luck!

F-BOMBS AND EROTICA AND WHY I DON’T GO THERE

Here’s the first scenario:

You’re writing about a crusty old codger who swears like a sailor. You mentioned this, but you don’t actually show him doing it. And in one place, you know he’d probably use an f-bomb, but you leave it out.

What do you think reader reaction will be? Here are two I can think of, one probable, the other improbable:

  1. Well, f**k, he should have used the word f**k right there. It would be authentic. It would be the way this guy would speak. I’m throwing this book across the room and never reading anything else by this author.
  2. Reader doesn’t even notice, or if it dawns on her/him, she/he shrugs and keeps on reading.

Which do you think is more likely?

Next you’ve come up with a really hot sex scene, and you put it in, then have second thoughts and delete it, just doing what the old romantic movies did, closing the door behind the lovers and leaving it to the imagination. Reader reaction might be:

  1.  Well, s**t, I wanted a sex scene here. I want every detail. What are these two characters really doing behind that door? I’m throwing this book across the room and never reading anything else by this author.
  2. Reader thinks about what those two might be doing behind those doors for a while, then goes back to reading your book.
  3. Reader is so interested in what’s going to happen next in the story, he/she quickly turns the page and keeps reading.
  4.  Reader sighs with relief. She either doesn’t like to read sex scenes or is so bored by them that she skips over them. She thinks it’s like describing a person eating a meal, bite by bite. She continues reading happily.

Again, which do you think is more likely? If the story is compelling enough, and I hope it is, I doubt very many, if any, readers would stop reading if there was not a “bad” word or a sex scene where they might expect one.

But, even if the story is compelling, you risk losing readers if there are explicit sex scenes and “bad” language.

Which would you rather have happen? I leave it to you.

That said, there is a big market for erotica. If that’s your bag and you write it, I think that’s fine. I’ll even read it if it’s good enough. But I think writers are taking a big chance if they throw it into a book that is not marketed as erotica. Noir and hardboiled might also get a pass with very “bad” language. But, believe me, it’s not even necessary then. Not many of  the classic noir and hardboiled stories had either. And I’ve written some noir (published) that didn’t have any. So, it can be done.

Many thanks to Anne R. Allen’s blog post for getting me to think about this and expand on what she wrote:

http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2013/11/sex-sells-right-maybe-not-why-you-might.html

NaNoWriMo

What is NaNoWriMo, besides hard to key into your computer? Each year, for the last fourteen years, thousands of people pledged to write a novel—50,000 words, at least—in the month of November, which is National Novel Writing Month.

Here’s what the site has to say about the whole thing:

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 p.m. on November 30. Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought fleetingly about writing a novel.

It’s a pretty simple premise. Just write 1,667 words per day, each day, for a month. At the end of the month, you’ll have a novel, or something approximately like one.

NaNoWriMo is also a (totally optional) fundraiser for the purpose of promoting writing around the world.

Sound like fun? I’ve never participated, but I’m considering it for next year (other, more urgent stuff to do this November). Even if participants don’t get 50,000 words by the end of November, they will all probably have a lot more written than they usually would.

I see several other advantages, especially for people who have writer’s block a lot. This forces you to sit down every day (or you’ll get way behind really quick) and write. Something; anything. You might try outlining for the first time to see if it helps you write a book faster. You join a community of people who are urging each other on. There will be famous authors giving pep talks, and coaches on Twitter. Check out the website for more info:

http://nanowrimo.org/

 Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

Who’s in? Let me know in the comments if you are, and if so why you’re doing it. And if you’re not, why not?