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Words and Music – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Words and Music – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Words and Music

     Music has the power to move us in ways that border the astonishing. With just a few notes it can change our mood in ways dramatic. A fanfare can make us smile, while a musical joke may bring a chuckle. Music can invoke the power of the raging sea or transport us to the tranquil moments leading to sleep. And it can do that all without words.
     Couple speech to that power and the possibilities are limitless. That combination of lyric and melody can inspire us to love, patriotism, and even despair. We whistle a happy song when we pass a graveyard, and celebrate the anniversary of our birth with a little ditty. It permeates our lives. Words bring the thought and music the emotion. Together they can accomplish miracles.
     So how, you ask, does that relate to writing fiction? That’s easy. Most of us have a voice, our instrument, that’s less than impressive. There are few, a very few, who were born with an intuition of song that makes them a natural fit to some aspect of music. The rest of us, should we pursue a singing career, must develop those skills through practice and study. And because the instrument we’re given as a birthright does not usually embody perfection, most of the most successful popular singers make do with something less than that. Even Ella Fitzgerald, the first lady of jazz, and someone blessed with a voice that only a precious few possess, had to be guided into the best use of her talents. And so it is with writing.
     The problem is that as we grow through our teen years we learn to present the emotional part of our stories through the physical techniques that are also useful when performing music. As we present the facts of the story with our words, we present the melody—the emotional aspect—though sweeping hand gestures, changing expression, intonation, modulation, body-language, hesitation, and the many tricks of delivery in the storyteller’s bag of tricks. We stop and shake our heads as if in sorrow, and our audience is given important emotional information. We lean toward the audience and speak softly, and they know we’re about to relate a secret.
     But then we turn to recording our stories in print. We can record the words, yes, but what about the music? What happens to the melody played by that marvelously expressive instrument, the human voice? Where is that interpretive dance we do to tell our audience, visually, the things they absolutely need to know if they’re to understand the character’s motivation?
     Gone. All gone.
     On the page lie our words, the lyrics of our song, lifeless, devoid of all emotion.
     And the reader, the one we’ve appointed to sing our song? What of them?
     Hand me the song lyrics to, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and the melody begins to play on the iPod of my mind before my eyes read more then the title. That’s true for almost any song we already know. But what about the song we don’t know? We’re handed the lyrics and told to sing to ourselves. But how can we do that? We don’t know what a line we’re about to sing says, factually or emotionally, until after we read it.
     How do we solve that problem when we give someone our brand new song? If we’re with them we sing it. If not, we may hand them a recording. But if neither are available? We supply the musical notation and the lyrics, the sheet music. The singer now has both, the words and music, the facts and the emotion. And in writing we have exactly the same situation. We need to present the reader with the facts of the story, while, at the same time, making them feel the emotion the character does.
     Over time, writers have developed the tricks of presentation that will give our reader what’s necessary to know our story as we do, from the inside, so to speak. Properly presented, we can make the audience feel is if time is passing, and can motivate the reader to speak the dialog as we would—as the actual character would. We can pass them the emotional part of the story by making them experience it, not just hear about it. It’s one thing to tell the reader that Sam was glad to see Ella when she enters the room, but quite another to make the reader say, “Damn, I’m glad she’s back. I like Ella.”
     The thing to remember: you’re not telling your reader a story. Your reader is a musical instrument—your musical instrument. They are both amazingly powerful and flexible, and certainly worth learning how to play. So don’t tell them a story. Take the time to learn to make them live it.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
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What In The Hell Is POV – The Grumpy Writing Coach

What In The Hell Is POV – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 

What In The Hell Is POV?


 

     If there’s one thing that causes both me and new writers anguish it’s point of view. For them it’s the anguish of making it work. For me it’s the whimper when I read something as pleasant as fingernails on a blackboard. POV, as it’s usually abbreviated, is the single greatest hurdle in the battle to change from writing reports to writing fiction.
      We all know how to report, of course, it’s the essence of verbal communication. We tell about our day, our feelings, and our stories. Just visit Facebook and you’ll see that in action. It’s told as a report because we’re alone on stage, the star of our own one-person show. So naturally, when we begin to write fiction we tell the story as we always have.
      So why is that not enough?
      The setting for this example is easy. We begin with a single character standing on the shoulder of a blacktop road next to a field of soy plants. The character’s hands rest on a fencepost. Before them the ground is level, but it slopes away in the distance into a shallow valley a few miles wide and extending an unknown distance in either direction from the vantage point. In the distance, close to the far side of a narrow river, the shoulders of a mountain thrust upward, forming the backdrop of a truly magnificent view. As far as the eye can see there’s farmland, interspersed with wooded areas, with the tracery of roads and the border-lines of fields dividing the view into visual pixels.
      Above, the afternoon light throws a cloudy sky into relief, much of it heavy with the possibility of rain. The air, too, carries a hint of moisture on the gentle breeze, though the roadway behind is dry.
      Got all that? It’s the scene. Any character placed in that scene sees precisely the same thing. So, if you tell me, “small watercourses could be seen here and there in the valley,” it’s a report of what the writer visualizes, and what even people driving by can see. So who cares? It’s static. It’s unrelated to the character and what the character is doing. Unless I’m reading the work in search of a beautiful view, it’s a waste of time telling me about it. It’s a greater waste if the description is in prosaic terms.
      But every new writer does exactly that. They tell what there is to be seen, not what the character is noticing.
      Let’s look at something very different. We’ll look at the scene as several different characters see it by plugging them into the setting I detailed, above and talking about what they notice, not what can be seen.
 
The starving farmer:
      This man hasn’t seen rain for over a month. The valley is there for him, yes, and it’s just as beautiful as it always has been, but he sees it every day of his life, and it’s commonplace—unnoticed. He’s looking at the plants in the field in front of him and noticing the way the leaves are drooping, moisture starved and close to death. He’s noticing the clouds, poised so teasingly overhead. He frowns at the haze showing on the mountain where the breeze strikes the slope and sweeps upwards, condensing the moisture and causing it to rain on the flanks of that mountain, to run into the river and be carried away. He’s thinking of his family, and of how he’s not going to get through the winter if the crop fails. He looks, and he thinks, and everything he does is underlined by the prayer that fills his being: Please… Dear God, please send me rain.
 
The tourist:
      This person is a visitor from another country, where drought hasn’t struck. She’s an artist, here to paint, and she sees the view through the eyes of an artist. She views the roiling clouds in terms of their contrast to the serene scene on the ground. She sees the drooping plants but understands their significance not at all. She sees the rain on the mountain and feels pleasure at the way it completes the picture, and smiles over the fact that it’s not where she is, ruining her perfect moment.
 
The wet farmer:
      This lady is sullen. She stares at the rain clouds and hates every one of them. In the fine detail of her world the plants droop not with dehydration, but from drowning roots, as the result of a saturated summer and the probability of more rain conspire to push her to the brink. Her thoughts aren’t on beauty, but on giving in and accepting a man’s offer of marriage—he of the stinking breath and awkward hands. To her, rain and tears are inexorably intertwined. And everything she looks at reminds her of the decision she must make before nightfall. Beauty? There is no beauty there for her.
 
The lover:
      This man stands by the road, surrounded by glory, but he notices it not at all for itself. The fields represent life, and remind him of his lover, and the children they will have together. The vista, with its airy beauty, makes him reflect on the comfort he’s found with her. The mountains, reaching upward, remind him of her as she climaxed under his ministrations. He laughs as his eyes trace the series of peaks and his mind relives her gasps and clutchings. His focus is the coming evening.
 
The geologist. The bounty hunter. The land developer… All see the same image, and all take away only what they, uniquely, take away. And in doing so—in seeing something we wouldn’t see because our perceptions are shaped by our own needs—they take our interest.
      Each of us is unique. Each of us perceives the world in a way that’s shaped by our own needs and experiences. Each of us have a different story.
     Tell the story, not its setting.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
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Posted by on September 22, 2011 in The Grumpy Old Writing Coach

 

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Wolves In Hiding – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Wolves In Hiding – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Wolves In Hiding


 

      Thank you for your recent submission. Unfortunately…
 
      So begins the response to that fragile carrier of your hopes and dreams—the query letter.
      We’ve all been there, and it hurts. It hurts a lot. But it’s how the writing game goes, so we shrug, hone the query, and fire off another batch… and another—while depression deepens and self-worth hovers one notch above absolute zero.
      Then it happens, you discover the ad in the back section of Writers’ Digest: Agent accepting new clients. And best of all they’re looking for unpublished authors! Sure, your daddy told you that if something sounds too good to be true it probably is. But hell, if we had an ounce of brains we wouldn’t be writers, would we?
      With trembling fingers you stuff a query into an envelope, cross your fingers, and hurry to the post-office. A week later back comes amazing news. They like you! They like your work enough to want to see more. They like you so much that your brain turns off, and you never question that terribly reasonable explanation of why you should also send a shovelful of money along with the manuscript. “The sample chapter was wonderful,” they gush. “But since so few unpublished authors have it exactly right the first time, we need to see the entire manuscript, just to make sure the loose ends are tied up.” And surely you can’t expect a busy agent to give up precious time without charging you a teeny little service fee, can you? Well can you?
      You sure as hell can. The simple truth is that an agent or editor who makes a living through selling other people’s writing can recognize writing skill in a paragraph and marketability within a page. You prove that true each time you take a book from the rack at your local bookstore. When was the last time you read more than a few pages before you decided not to buy? The difference between you and an agent or publisher is only that they shop from the comfort of their desk.
      No reputable agent charges a fee for reading. Engrave that statement in stone above your desk. They’d love to charge, if for no other reason than in retaliation for having to spend so much time wading through crap submissions. But they don’t, because the rules of The Association Of Authors’ Representatives, the AAR, forbids that.
     And reputable agents don’t, as a rule, recommend a specific editor to an unknown writer who’s making a submission, though they may suggest editing. Edit Ink*, the most notorious example of abusing that suggestion, paid a commission to the agent or publisher who recommended a client. A submission to one of their shill agencies (never a member of AAR) was likely to bring a letter suggesting that they might be interested… after editing. And, “oh yes, we’d suggest you use our good friends at Edit Ink.” The insidious part of that is that the agency—who made a fifteen percent commission if you took the bait—and Edit Ink are in different parts of the country. There couldn’t be an unsavory connection there, could there? There were millions of dollars charged for editing work done by college students and new grads working at minimum wage rates, money that will never be recovered.
      Book-doctors are another thing to avoid if you write fiction. Why? Use your brain. If someone could take your book and fix it so it would sell, they’d be selling their own work and making a lot more money. And forget the idea of giving your manuscript to a published author in return for cover credit for supplying the story idea and rough draft. All new writers lust after that one, but any competent writer can fire off ideas faster than you can record them. It’s writing well that’s hard. That author would have to know your story as well as one they wrote, in order to meaningfully rewrite it. Starting from scratch is easier and more profitable.
      Read those advertisements carefully for the scam tip-offs, like the mention of representing poetry or short stories. No reputable agent represents poetry. The fifteen percent agent’s commission on what the average poet makes on a sale won’t pay postage for the submissions. And no reputable agent is interested in short stories because the effort of selling a three-thousand word short is exactly that of a selling one-hundred-thousand word blockbuster. Any agent who claims to sell either poetry or short stories is to be avoided, and those who request a “one time reading fee” or money in advance for reproduction and mailing, are to be laughed at.
      So how can you tell if you’re ready to submit your work professionally?
      • Study writing. Craft is invisible, but necessary, and as I mentioned a few issues ago they didn’t teach it in grade school. Some of my personal favorite books on the subject are: Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain; GMC: Goal Motivation and Conflict, by Debora Dixon; Sol Stein on writing, by Sol Stein; and Writing the breakout Novel, by Donald Mass. And if you’re broke, look for Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones in your library. It’s an older book, but a good solid introduction to writing technique.
     But, those are just a few. Everyone has their own favorite, and there are many available.
      • Do your research. Don’t submit a two-hundred-thousand word family saga to Precious Gems, or fiction to an agent who specializes in cookbooks.
      • Join a critiquing group—one composed of writers whose work you respect—people with skills matching (and hopefully, exceeding) your own. Your local library is a good place to find notice of what’s available. Almost nothing is as useful as the feedback you get from a writer of greater skill.
      • Find a grammar fairy to touch your manuscript with stardust. You want nothing to distract the editor’s eye from your glorious prose.
      • Study under the masters. Once you know what you’re looking for, analyze your favorite authors to see what made you like them. Look at how they handle dialog and characterization. Do they favor long sentences or short? Rewrite one of their scenes in your own style, and then compare the two for content and readability. Did you tell as much in as few words? Did you stay as focused? Do your words flow into the reader’s mind as smoothly?
 
      The odds are against us succeeding. That’s a given. The success rate for manuscript sales by a new author is less than one in one-thousand—with good reason. No one is searching the stores for a book with your name on it other than your mother, so editors are looking for something extraordinary, not a “good enough,” novel. They already have more “good enough” writers than they need.
     But in spite of those odds, lightening does have to strike, so it could well be you. That kid shooting baskets in the playground could wind up stuffing them in as part of a professional team, and you could be the next great author to be discovered. So keep on studying and keep writing. If nothing else it keeps us off the streets at night.
     Just keep your eyes open and your wallet closed.
 
 
 
* Now out of business. To see a history, visit http://www.sfwa.org/beware/cases.html

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
 

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Craft? What’s that? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Craft? What’s that? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Writing Craft? What’s that?


 

     Hello, it’s me, your grumpy old writing coach, pressing my arthritic fingers to the keyboard in order to destroy your new writer aspirations of fame. It’s my only remaining hobby, but that’s okay, because it’s also a service to humankind. If I can talk you out of writing I’ve saved you long boring nights at the computer, and I’ve saved many, many editors the annoyance of having to read your crap. Plus, I sleep better knowing I’ve destroyed someone’s dreams.
     Today’s lesson is: your writing sucks. Please feel free to respond with poison-pen letters. I find a day without one depressing.
     Okay, on to the bashing. You’re a creative person, or you wouldn’t be interested in writing fiction, so let me start with a thesis:
 
          1. Creativity without craft is nothing.
          2. The craft of writing fiction is taught in damned few high schools.
          3. It therefore follows that you have no craft.
                    Therefore: You are nothing.
 
     The world is filled with people who have not a shred of creativity, and require none. The cabinetmaker who’s spent decades honing woodworking skills, but who builds only tried and true designs, enjoys well-deserved acclaim. The doctor who treats you with care, compassion, and knowledge is a prize. The technical writer who produces readable and concise manuals is the ideal employee. Even the hack writer who turns out mindless, formulaic drivel gets by with no creativity. But: Picasso, with creativity but without craft, would have been a cipher, useless. The Mensa member driving a taxi because learning craft in some field is beneath him or her, is a taxi driver, no more. Picasso was, first, a fully competent journeyman artist. Adding creativity to that platform yielded a map for the less creative to follow.
     Take the tightly disciplined writing of the journalist, add a bit of genius, and you have Hemingway. Take John Smith without craft and you have “John who?”
     The vast majority of people suffer from having gone to grade school. They’ve been taught how not to write fiction by people who can’t. Worse yet, they’ve been tested to be sure they’ve not accidentally done something right. Finally, patted on the back for being ignorant, they’re turned loose, secure in the belief that they’re ready for a career in storytelling—a celebration of the blind leading the blind. And if you, as a member of that great mass of “they” go into education you have the honor of perpetuating that stupidity.
     My point should be obvious: Writing, like any craft/profession, is complex, arduous to learn, and is the horse your creativity must ride. The good news is that it’s fun to learn—as much as I hate to admit that anything is fun.
     Okay, so you stink at writing, your mother stinks at writing, and your friends do, too. And it isn’t going to get better with time and experience, I’m pleased to say.
     Why? Because no matter how hard you throw an egg down the damn thing still breaks—and always will until you begin to work on the real problem, in this case craft—or lack of it.
     New thesis (not because I’m trying to prove a point, I just like to be argumentive): People don’t read because they like the story, they like the story because of what they read.
     Ask anyone why they open a book and you’re going to hear, “For the story.” That’s a lie. They read for the misery, the suffering, and the disaster heaped on disaster. They read for the blood. They wallow in suffering, and a really good murder has them drooling. Try selling a story in which a nice guy meets a nice woman, has a nice courtship, lots of nice kids, and a pleasant retirement. See if anyone wants to pay to read that.
     But take the husband and give him a secret career as a spy-chaser. Let his wife catch wind of it after more than a decade of thinking him a mild-mannered salesman, and you have the makings of a story in which their teen aged daughter ends up suspended from the nose of a VTOL fighter-plane staring at the pilot and saying, “Daddy?” Isn’t the plot of True Lies, more fun than, Mary and John Grow Old Together? Except… if Mary has a lover, who is really…
     So why do we read? To worry, of course. To be interesting, a book has to be more fun than our own life. It has to be more dangerous, too. If we decided to try a bit of spying we would probably end up looking like a colander and leaking gore—and maybe radioactive blood. Not exactly the most desirable outcome.
     But by becoming Ian Flemming’s Agent 007 we can not only take absolutely insane risks, we’re guaranteed to live through it—even if we die. With a book in her hands the mousy bookkeeper who has come home to an empty apartment and a boring life can romance the man who in life wouldn’t even notice her. She can put on the skin of the woman she only wishes she could be, and live the adventure that would leave her quite dead in real life. With a book providing the wings she can fly!
     Okay, now that I’ve demolished your dreams of selling that manuscript you’ve been typing I feel a little better, so I’ll go see what’s in the fridge, or maybe taunt Dog-Breath for a bit. When the happy mood fades I’ll come back and maybe annoy you some more. Till then, an assignment:
     The setup: Our lives are an unending chain of linked events. You have stimulus, followed by response, which causes the next stimulus, which causes…
     The task: Take a look at your writing and ask yourself if every single act by your characters—every thought, movement, and decision—is a response to some stimulus your reader will be aware of before the act occurs.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
 

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The Beginner’s Corner

The Beginner’s Corner

Fiction Writing Hints


 
 
 
     This article is directed toward the new writer, so all you multiply published and shamelessly adored writers can just walk on by, thank you. We’re going to gather in a quiet corner to talk about how we manage to screw up a perfectly good story.
     Of course you may ask why I, someone who has had only a few novels and shorts published, and those with modest sized publishers, presume to advise you on how to write. The answer is simple. Without doubt I am the dumbest of all writers. If there’s mistake to be made you can absolutely depend on me to make it. Who better to say, “For God’s sake, don’t do this?”
     So, that being said, let’s dive right in.
 
A Word Or Two On Plots:
     How many new writers have said, “It’s not fair that agents and editors only read a few pages before making a decision. After you get to know my characters, and as the plot grabs you, you’ll love my story.”
     But plot will never sell a story. You have to have one, and it has to make sense, but consider this: At the half-way point of your story it could have dozens of perfectly acceptable and pleasing conclusions, ranging from sweet, to exciting, to out-and-out alien abduction. The reader has no idea of which path it will take, so the plot is meaningless to anyone but the writer—at that point. What is important is that the reader is still with the story. And if they are, it’s because you’ve made them care about your characters. If the writer doesn’t do anything wrong the reader will reach the end, lean back and say, “I liked that story.”
     So… an okay book is one that keeps you reading till the end. A good book is one that makes you say, “Hmm, I have to look for that writer the next time I go to the bookstore.” A great book is what my sister likes to call a bathtub book: A story so good that you start it in the bathtub, then let out the water when it gets cold and sit there, wrinkled and chill, but still reading. Of course my sister always has been a little crazy.
 
On Body Language:
     One of the hardest things to get across, realistically, is emotion. One method is to use body language—the little ticks and mannerisms we use to tell others how we feel.
     As an example, Sarah has just been told something she doesn’t want to hear:
 
     Sarah slid her pad back into its case and set it aside, deliberately, then crossed her arms.
 
     Sarah’s action of placing the pad into the case and putting it aside says she’s clearing the decks for action—readying herself for a major battle. Crossing her arms says she’s not willing be swayed by argument, and really doesn’t want to even hear it.
     The reader has been told nothing of her thoughts yet clearly gets the message, and will relate her actions to their own in like situations. Forcing the reader to recall emotion is the surest way of drawing them into the story.
     Moments later, when Sara has been presented with facts she can neither refute nor deny:
 
     She took a deep breath and shrugged, but uncrossed her arms and slumped a bit before saying…
 
     Sarah tries to shrug away the evidence, but the reader knows she’s given up the fight. Using such things as having someone who has hurried till now begin to saunter, or having someone shred a paper napkin as they talk, provides a background commentary that can reinforce or even give lie to the dialog in progress. If you say, “She straightened, cocking her head,” you needn’t tell the reader there was a sound—they know it, just as they know someone is surprised when they drop their jaw, jump back, gasp, stare, or any of a dozen body-language giveaways.
 
A Warning On Agents:
      “New authors wanted,” the advertisement reads, but what it really says is, “Here, Dummy… here, Dummy.”
     The sad truth is that there are far more manuscripts than there are slots for publication, and as few as one in one-hundred will even be asked for a full manuscript. The rejection rate for new authors is between one and several thousand rejected for every new writer selected—a rejection rate of greater then 99.9%, which means a feeding frenzy for the predators. There have been “Book Doctors,” who used college freshmen to critique manuscripts. There are “agents” who send an oh so reasonable explanation of why you should pay huge up-front copying costs, and why they must charge a reading fee (refundable out of commission when your work sells, of course).
Sharks, all sharks, so hold tight to your wallet.
     Agents who claim to represent poetry and short stories should bring your defense-mechanisms to full alert, because fifteen percent of the income for poems won’t pay the postage to submit them, and selling a short story takes the same effort as a novel, so why bother?
     Publishers who suggest you send money for a “cooperative publishing venture,” are, at best, going to deliver carton after carton of unsold books, for storage in your basement. As promised, they will place an advertisement in the trade journals (an ad you pay for). But given their reputation, you can imagine the number of sales that approach will generate.
     You might be expected to pay the cost of reproduction, etc., after the sale, but if your work isn’t good enough to make an agent want to use their own money to promote it then it won’t sell. It’s that simple.
     And any agent who claims to “specialize in unpublished authors” is lying. What do they do, say “Take a hike,” as soon as you begin to sell?
     When in doubt, a good resource can be found here And to find that agent, look here
 
The Wonderful World Of Self Publishing:
     Turn on your television, or log on to the Internet, and you may see an ad telling you how easy, and cheap, it is to be published. What they don’t tell you is that there is a vast difference between being printed and being published. POD services which are seeking authors as customers are vanity printers, no more. The same is true of the on line ebook services. Real publishers use POD printers to produce books when print runs are small, but only as printers and as a distribution channel—which is all the POD houses are really offering you. Remember, publishing houses are not in business because they produce books. They are in business because they produce stories people want to buy, be that on paper, through your computer, or via methods not yet invented. They sift, they cull, and they edit. They cajole, browbeat, and do whatever it takes to induce their authors to strive for perfection. They do this because they have a reputation to uphold. Too often the self publishing promoter is like the mens-wear salesman who says, “Sammy, the man wants a blue suit. Quick, turn on the blue lights.” Sure they’ll edit your work… if you pay for it. But will you be edited by someone who knows, through experience, how the reader of your genre likes to see the work presented? Probably not. And will the POD house be able to get you space on the shelves of a bookstore clear across the country from where you live—or any distribution at all? How? They have no sales team, or credibility with the bookstore owners. Many bookstores won’t even order a POD self-published book.
     Self publishing can be done, but the success stories are a very tiny fraction of the total titles offered. To put it simply. If you cannot sell your story to an editor working in the field you are not going to sell your work to the bookstores. And standing outside your local book store, selling books out of your trunk is sooo tacky.
 
A Word Or Two On Tags:
      “I don’t think so,” John stated.
      “I think she will. I really think so, but only if it rains,” Sam said.
 
     The first example has been called “Tag Bookism.” (named for, The Tag Book, a mimeographed “book” sold in the Writers Digest classified section in middle of last century) New writers almost always fall into this trap as they try to avoid the use of “he said.” But, “John stated,” tells us nothing. Of course he stated it. Nearly everything John says is a statement. Simply put, the reader has expectations. Give them something other than what they expect and it had better be something that makes them say, “That’s neat!” If it’s not, there will be a little splinter of annoyance pushed under the reader’s skin each time that unexpected little trick appears. That doesn’t say you have to use only “s/he said.” James Mitchner seemed to positively adore finding new ways of using tags, and he does seem to have achieved a measure of success. The key is to make every single word work for you—which pretty well sums up the subject of writing, I suppose.
     Now look at the second example, with the tag telling us that Sam said something—but not until the idiot’s been spouting off for three full lines. One might as well present the Gettysburg Address enclosed in quote marks and follow it with, “Lincoln said.” When using a tag, the number of words between the start of the line and the first word of the tag should be kept as short as possible. It is perfectly acceptable to jam the tag in the middle of a sentence, though: “I love you,” Bunny said. “I’ve loved you forever.”
     A tag can appear before or after the dialog it connects to: Luke sneered as he said, “You’re a dead man, Raintree, and I don’t talk to dead men.” This can be very effective, because it insures that you hear the words in the proper tone of voice, rather than modifying what’s been said after reading the line. But: beware the “announcement.” Don’t fall into the trap of using leading tags so often that the reader sees it as an announcement that, “Dialog is coming. Dialog is coming.”
 
On Editors And Agents:
     Think of how you buy a book from an unknown author. If the title or cover catches your attention you pick it up and read the blurb on the back to get a feel for the story type. You heft it, and look at the size, balancing its word-count against your available time. Then you open to the first page and begin reading, to see if the writing style matches your tastes. You read a paragraph or two. If that sounds interesting you go on to the bottom of the page, perhaps as many as three pages, then stop, thinking—deciding. You might read a bit more, but you probably won’t. There are things you need to be doing, and other books beckon for your attention.
     Are editors and agents any different? They open a query and start to read. What kind of book is it? What’s the word count? Is it of a type I’m looking for? If it sounds right they turn to the first page of the story or synopsis. From that point on you have one page, perhaps as many as five if you’re lucky. The rest of the slush-pile is screaming to be read and other tasks await, so you must take that agent by the shirt-front and lock your fangs firmly on the throat. Do that, and do it quickly, or you sink into obscurity.
     The first paragraph must make you want to read the second, and the second must make you want to finish the page. By chapter’s end a reader must truly care, and wonder what’s going to happen. And, each chapter ending must make you say, “Okay, I’ll read just one more.”
 
On Turning Corners And Car Wrecks:
     Writers adore surprising their readers. It’s the unexpected twists and turns of plot that can make a story memorable, after all. But readers are easily confused when faced with the unexpected, and when a reader says, “Huh?” you could be in big trouble. Why?
     I had finished chapter one, happy, because my readers were in for a shock. My protagonist had been given a magic ring. Then, disaster piled on disaster had left her floundering, deep under water so cold that even the will to struggle has been taken from her. In despair she accepts her coming death. The reader then turns to chapter two to find my protagonist has been transported somewhere else, and finds herself breathing normally while still under water—as a mermaid. A great surprise, right? The protagonist lives and the story has taken a turn that will leave the reader saying, “Brilliant. I love it.”
     Except… what they actually said was, “I hate it.” and “Sorry, she’s just not a believable character.” It took me a while to realize that I had poured my heart into making her demise absolutely believable, and had succeeded. I’d done such a good job of killing her off that for her to be out of danger—and in what amounted to an entirely different story—that I’d left them saying, “But…but what about that stuff in the harbor? I thought she was, well…dead.” My test readers had skidded off the roadway of plot into the bog of confusion. They did not like that. A fix was mandatory. But how?
     Since I’m using driving terms, what I did was to “bank the turn.” Just before death claims her, the protagonist notices that the ring has begun to glow, the patterns on it blazing with light. Prepared, the reader turns to chapter two saying, “I knew it. I knew the ring would save her.” Now they’ve rounded that turn with their foot to the floor, tires screaming, heading off in my new direction, saying, “A mermaid you say? Cool idea, tell me more.”
 
On Exposition:
     The single most misunderstood item in writing fiction is point of view. On that, alone, I could write ten articles, each longer than this one. Instead, I’ll cheat and let someone else handle the harder part of the job.
     There are two methods of telling a story that can make it seem real. Most stories use a combination of the two.
     The first, and the hardest to understand and make our own is that of placing the reader on the scene, in real-time and as the protagonist, to observe and decide in parallel with the protagonist. This is, by far, the most real the most involving, and the approach that makes us duck when a punch is thrown at our protagonist. For that I’ll defer to a paraphrasing of Dwight Swain’s work, here.
     The other area is in exposition, the words that hold conversation and action together. Exposition sews scenes together. It can also be used to create a scene, as an on-page version of the storyteller’s art, modified to take into account that the reader can’t hear our golden voice, see our smiling face, or know the slashing hand gestures we would use…if only they could see us.
     Here’s one secret of exposition: You arrange your prose so that what you say raises a question, one which the reader mentally asks—though not necessarily in words—and which you next answer. That gives the reader a feel of being with you and conversing. As in music, it’s tension and release providing a heartbeat to the prose.
     So you raise a question. Then, the next thing you say flows from the previous to continue the string, generating a feeling of continuity as we go. To illustrate, look at a paragraph from the Last Unicorn:
 
“One day it happened that two men with long bows rode through her forest, hunting for deer. The unicorn followed them, moving so warily that not even the horses knew she was near. The sight of men filled her with an old, slow, strange mixture of tenderness and terror. She never let one see her if she could help it, but she liked to watch them ride by and hear them talking.”
 
     It would seem that this is a passage of pure telling, but look what happens when I take the role of the reader:
– – – – – – –
One day it happened that two men with long bows rode through her forest, hunting for deer.
     Really… what happened?
The unicorn followed them, moving so warily that not even the horses knew she was near.
      Ahh. But why did she need to hide? Afraid?
The sight of men filled her with an old, slow, strange mixture of tenderness and terror.
     Really? That’s odd, but interesting. Tell me more. (a “tell me more,” situation, is a hook)
She never let one see her if she could help it, but she liked to watch them ride by and hear them talking.
     Ahh… so she understands? Or is she just fascinated by the voices?
– – – – – – –
     To me who is always the last to get the message, learning this was an epiphany. There is an art to providing exposition that I never consciously realized existed.
     My forehead was bruised from whacking the heel of my hand on it while shouting, “You idiot! How in the hell did you miss that one? It’s Dwight Swain’s motivation/response units applied to exposition!” Duhhhh.
     Look at fiction you love and I’m betting that you’ll see this river of linked conversation throughout. But then look at your own story.
 
A Few Writing Hints, Some Of Them Actually Helpful:
 
1. Never forget that writing for publication is a business. Publishers aren’t looking to bring great writing to the public. They’re business people looking to make a buck or two. That editor you’ve just queried loves good writing, but editors live or die by accurately judging what will sell. Is it any wonder they’re so picky?
 
2. Start your story at the beginning. This might sound like obvious advice, but time and again I’ve seen stories that spend the first thousand words telling, “what has gone before,” as though the reader were coming in on part two of a serialized story. If there is no way to slip the backstory in as part of the action you need to either rethink what you’re trying to do or start your story earlier.
 
3. Read your work aloud, as though at an author’s reading. Better yet, get someone to read you a few pages. You’ll be amazed at what jumps out at you. A text to speech program is a wonderful tool. And never forget that the reader doesn’t hear your voice, filled with emotion, as you do. To simulate what they get, read your story with no emotion, and at a constant rate.
 
4. Always edit a printed copy after you’ve done as well as you can on the screen. It reads differently. And change the margins when you print it, so as to reposition the words and force yourself to read what you typed, not anticipate it.
 
5. Involve all the senses to evoke the scene in the reader’s mind. Speak of the smell of food in your writing. Use the noise of the bar-scene, the scent of her perfume, hair, and skin—the texture of a wooden railing under the fingers. “The flat slap of the wooden screen-door closing,” is something we’ve all heard, and it evokes a memory that can make a scene real. Use all the senses—but use your head, too. Don’t do it in such a way as to be predictable.
 
6. Beware of presenting a neighborhood for which you must audition, a place where crowds of people act like individuals: It had snowed, and everyone was having trouble getting around. Everyone? No one was staying home, or had a four-wheel-drive vehicle, equipped with chains?
 
7. Beware of characters who turn on and off like a radio. The protagonist enters a room where people are having a conversation and introduces them to his companion, a lady he’s just met. He than proceeds to have a conversation with the lady, while those in the room turn off. They don’t try to join the conversation. They don’t have their own conversation. They simply sit, silently, waiting for their next cue.
 
8. The excitement belongs in your writing, not at the end of the sentence. If your words and the situation don’t indicate the degree of excitement, putting a bang at the end won’t help!
 
9. Use an unusual word sparingly. Say there was a plethora of ideas in chapter one, and then use plethora in chapter twenty. The reader will notice—and complain.
 
10. Use the unusual. Make the reader stretch a bit. Use sound terms for sight and sight terms for sound. Use allegory, and simile and all the other tricks you know to tickle the reader (but don’t overdo it or you’ll lose them. They must never be able to predict when it’s coming). “Corners like a billiard ball in a boa-constrictor,” is so much more interesting than, “the car handles well.” But that’s hard to measure against, “takes the corners like a slot car,” if the reader has to make a choice between the two.
 
11. In dialog, never have your characters do only one thing at a time. People look out the window, they drink coffee, and they scratch. The phone interrupts them, they digress, they change the subject, and they stare. Women hold several conversations at once, men don’t, and often become confused when a woman veers. Men are literal, but women often see implications in their words that weren’t intended (a great source of misunderstandings). When one character drops a profound remark the other never simply snaps an answer back at them. They digest and reflect, then nod, or lash out, or turn away. Their face pales, they drop their pencil, they laugh inappropriately or go perfectly still—but they always react. People hesitate and repeat themselves when they speak, even stop and change what they were about to say: “Sam, you can’t…I won’t let you do that.” Make use of such things to show state of mind and your people become more human.
 
12. Make every character unique. Have them speak with their own voice and their own vocabulary and mannerisms. Let them have faults. One lady of mine had a habit of interrupting everyone, but when someone did it to her she snapped, “Don’t interrupt me, damn it!” I came to love her, and knew when she was about to walk on someone else’s line. The hallmark of the beginning writer is that everyone speaks with the same voice, has the same opinions, and takes whatever stand will fit a given scene—smart when they need to be smart and dumb when the plot needs them dumb. But characters are people. They get excited and echo the words of others, or finish the sentence for them. And unless they’ve told you, the writer, to go to hell because it’s not in them to perform a requested action, they do not truly live—for you or the reader.
 
13. To sharpen your skills at brevity, set yourself the goal of reducing the word-count in a given chapter by at least ten percent. Get out that carving knife and slice away. Anything that’s not absolutely necessary goes straight to the word-graveyard. You may be surprised at the improvement in readability.
 
14. Find ways of saying things in fewer words. Don’t tell the reader what they can deduce for themselves. And seek out ways of making a given line do double or triple duty:
 
     “An errant gust brought a view of pipestem thighs peppered with goosebumps.”
 
Twelve words that tell you it’s both windy and chill; that the speaker is fairly close to the female being described; that she’s wearing a lightweight skirt—probably short; that she’s not dressed for the weather; and that the speaker doesn’t find her sexually attractive. We even know she’s not sitting primly—legs closed—because her thighs become visible. And best of all, the reader deduces all these things and feels pride at being so observant.
 
In line with the above point, never “tell” the reader something you can slip in as part of the scene. You can inform the reader that the protagonist has shoulder length hair, for example, by having her toy with her hair, which also tells the reader that her hair is in a casual and touchable “do.” Or the wind can ruffle her hair and cause her to brush it back with her hand. Never simply tell the reader anything, because you, the author, are not in the story and have no voice.
 
15. Beware of the trap of “some.” As in: Some of the people were playing with their children, and others were tending to household tasks. Be specific! Generic information has the feel that the writer doesn’t have a sharp view of the scene in their own mind, or was too lazy to spell it out. Better to give a razor sharp view of an ant, if that ant embodies the essence of the scene, than to give an out-of-focus view of the countryside. Remember, watercolor is for painting and for poetry, not fiction writing.
 
16. Beware the Info-dump. Certainly, you want detail in your writing. But when your heroine looks in the mirror, need you say, “Tabatha caught her reflection in the wall-sized antique gilded framed mirror her aunt had given her for her birthday?” Detail, like medicine for children, needs to be given in small doses, well disguised. Think of the times your own eye began to scan a paragraph of tedious detail, looking for something more interesting.
 
17. Passive voice can be pretty, but pretty is all it has going for it. Use it for decoration, and for scenes where the mood is quiet. For punch, though, “Sundays were when John saw Mary,” can’t compare with, “John saw Mary every Sunday.”
 
18. A semi-colon is not, not, not a device for connecting the various parts of a continuing sentence. Learn the rules of grammar; they are the fixtures you use to hold your words in place.
 
19. Beware the wandering body part. “Her hands flew up in the air,” makes you wonder why they weren’t attached to her body just a little better.
 
20. Adjust sentence length to the tension of the scene. In a fight scene use only active voice, and as the action becomes more furious the sentences should become shorter. Use more flowery language for pastoral scenes to help set the mood and contrast the action scenes.
 
21. One sentence, one subject. Don’t zigzag! This is basic as hell, but I’ve seen it violated endless times: “Susan loved dogs and all animals, and had red hair.” A-r-g-h-h-h!
 
22. Be careful not to make your people too understanding. When the protagonist runs into the room distraught and barking commands, those in the room will not have an instinctive understanding of the situation. One of the hallmarks of the beginning writer is that everyone the protagonist meets provides exactly what’s needed to move the story along. But people say, “Huh?” and people try to talk about what they think important. And they often misunderstand. This can be one of your more useful tools in making a scene real.
 
23. Remember, you are not telling the reader a story, you are being our eyes, our ears, and our noses. You are our hands on a lover and the fist that sucker-punches us. You are peering through the keyhole at life. Boiled down: Relate the story, not the plot.
 
In line with the above, in order to stay in the character’s viewpoint in first or third person point of view, you may not present information that the character doesn’t have reason, right then, to remember, think about, or notice. The sequence is: Present a real world event that the character will next respond to. You may not say, “He heard a noise,” for example, because that presents the noise after he’s heard, identified, and thought about it. You tell of the character of the noise, then have the character react. This provides the reader with the moment in time that the character calls “now.” These pairs of motivation/reaction units, or MRU are the basic building blocks of fiction. And this is true of every character for every action. In dialogue, each is acting as the stimulus for the other.
 
24. In writing, context isn’t important, it’s everything. If your reader doesn’t have context you wasted the time it took to write it.
 
25. Beware of slang, because what’s common in your area may be unknown in another.
 
26. Use dialect sparingly, so as to give the flavor of the speech. Used for a continuing character, it often becomes tedious. The exception to this is the historical novel, where the accents are expected. But even there, err on the side of clarity.
 
27. Research, research, research. People love to nit-pick. And beware techno-babble, especially if you write science fiction or fantasy. Never make the assumption that if you don’t know, your audience won’t either. And don’t set your story in someone else’s world. Ann Rice changed the rules for her vampire stories. But her rules aren’t binding on you. If you want your vampire to roam freely during the day because a sun-block rating of #200 protects her, feel free.
 
28. Do a check for the word “that,” because until writing becomes second nature you will have lots that can be eliminated, i.e. “He thought that it was a good idea.” Look for “it” and you will find some that need to be more specific. Another word that everyone seems to have a problem with is “from,” because it always seems to want to become “form.” And check for things like “Get off of the bed,” that should be “Get off the bed,” or even, “Up!”
 
29. Do a search for “ly” and rip out those adverbs that creep in like weeds. Suddenly is a good example, because it’s horribly overused by new writers. In nine times out of ten, the word can be removed with no loss of meaning—as can most adverbs (including “horribly,” in the previous sentence). Of more importance, many adverbs imply emotion, and those words can’t be used for someone who is not the point of view character. Barbara cannot skip “happily” away unless we are either in Barbara’s point of view, or her happiness is obvious.
 
In speech, we act out adverbs as an emotional illustration. Thus, “slowly” becomes “sloooowly,” and you create a mood when you stress the word “absolutely,” in “absolutely silent.” On the page, though, they’re just words, so if the stress you use in verbally telling the story is necessary to make the line work, it won’t.
 
30. Foreshadow, foreshadow, foreshadow. And not just events. Foreshadowing can provide justification for skills and memories. Is the protagonist to save herself by remembering an obscure fact mentioned early on? Then have someone comment on her unusual memory, or have another, more benign memory episode happen in another scene. In the movie Vertigo, the protagonist hangs by fingertips over an abyss, generating a lasting fear of heights. At the time it’s just a bit of drama, but later, when it matters, his fear of heights is the point around which the plot pivots, and it keeps him from preventing a murder. Finally, at the movie’s climax, his fear is removed, underscoring that moment.
 
31. Chop out every single word that doesn’t actively move your story forward. And slice out every word that comes from you, because you are not in the story. In writing: Fewer words = more punch. So if you can say it in fewer words and still retain your distinctive “voice” then chop away. Watch for the redundancies. “Up on the horizon,” for example, can reduce to “on the horizon,” with no loss of meaning.
 
32. Remember that whatever the point of view character doesn’t know cannot be mentioned, except as speculation, when you are in their point of view. The woman we’ve known and loved as Betty must go back to being “the woman,” when the new character called Fred takes a seat next to her on the subway—if we’ve moved to Fred’s point of view.
 
33. If you are in third person point of view, and in your protagonist’s head, stay there unless you absolutely have to switch. You can give the other person’s thoughts without going to their head by simply saying, “She looked as though…” or some variation on that. Better, still, do it by giving the reader clues: “His nostrils flared, momentarily, but he said nothing.” Sure, Nora Roberts head-hops, but she’s Nora Roberts, you aren’t. At least not yet. You need the reader to identify strongly with your characters, and to do that you need to avoid needless head-hopping. By all means use more then one point of view character, but in a given scene ask, “Who will the reader care about,” and stay with that character unless there’s reason to be in another head. After all, if the reader knows she loves him. And the reader knows he loves her, why should they stay around till the two of them finally notice?
 
34. Something to try: Take a single chapter, or short story of your work, and copy it. Then go through it changing the color of every word of backstory, plus every word not absolutely necessary to move the story forward. Paint those beautiful character studies a bilious green, the history of the protagonist’s mother orange, and the scene where your protagonist looks in the mirror to describe herself, fuchsia. Then, if you’re on the computer, cut and paste, to move all that highlighted text to the end of the file. Now, read through, moving detail back where absolutely necessary, and smoothing the result. My bet is that you will move back not one word, and like the result much better then the original. I once tossed one-thousand absolutely beautiful words from a four-thousand word chapter. I cried as I pushed the delete button. But that was the novel I sold.
 
35. There are no hard and fast rules in writing. For every point I’ve mentioned you can probably show me an exception or three. The thing to do is know what a certain technique accomplishes. That way, when you “violate a rule,” it will be for a purpose, and far more likely to succeed. What most people call “writing rules,” are often techniques that have achieved the status of custom because many people have found them useful.
 
36. Why read books on writing? Why take courses? Because if the school of hard knocks is a stairway, education is an escalator. Education can tell you what not to do. It can expose you to the methods others use to spice their work—and those methods number slightly more than the total number of writers.
 
37. How can you tell if you have that spark of greatness? Well the first test is that the great ones never gave up.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

 
And so, at long last, we come to the end. Success. It’s impossible and it’s heartbreaking, but someone has to make it, and who knows, maybe you’re the one. For what it’s worth, I wish on you my all time favorite complaint: “Damn it, I didn’t get any sleep last night because of your #@$& book!”
 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Author’s note:
 
These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, Jack Bickham, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
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Posted by on March 16, 2011 in The Craft of Writing

 

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