A few thoughts for the new writer, some even useful
The Beginner’s Corner
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 published, and those with a modest sized publisher, 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 see publication, 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 sell 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?
The Wonderful World Of Print-On-Demand: 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 houses are vanity printers, no more. Remember, publishing houses are not in business because they print books. They are in business because they produce books 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 POD publisher 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 wants 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?
It can be done, but the success stories are few. 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 B&N, 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. 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. 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 start reading, to see if the writing style matches your tastes. You read a paragraph or two—maybe as far as the bottom of the page, 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 two. 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 you must truly care what’s going to happen, and each chapter 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.
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.”
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 the 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 it 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, and 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 is necessary, they don’t work.
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!”