Category Archives: writing tips

How to Avoid Writing That’s Gone Native

Here’s a sketchy piece of writerly advice to navigate with care: “Write as you speak.”

At first listen, this sounds good, but it’s a plan that can go terribly awry. How so? For most of us, our natural way of speaking is rife with criminally bad grammar, clichés, and stopped and started thoughts. Honestly, when we’re speaking off-the-cuff, most of us sound like middle-school dropouts.

Here, for example, is a snippet of an actual conversation between two students:

Speaker 1: So you don’t need to go borrow equipment from anybody to . . . to do the feet? To do the hooves?

Speaker 2: Oh, we’re going to have to find somewhere, so yeah. Sup, Dana. Are you gonna do the feet today? I’m gonna wait till, like, early in the morning to do this, cuz, I mean, you get so tired. You just—It takes, well, it takes me longer than most people because, you know, I’m not strong, and I’m not as good as somebody that would do it all the time, you know, I mean, uh, I mean, you know, I trim horses and stuff like that, but I mean I’m not like, I’m not, ah, I don’t know how to say it.

Painful to read, isn’t it? But trust me, you sound like that, too. We all do. Those who don’t are as rare as two-dollar bills. Now, I’m pretty sure you can gather that the advice I quoted doesn’t mean you should pepper your writing with “uh” and “I mean,” but here are some warnings to keep in mind:

  • Avoid paragraph-long sentences, particularly those in the stream-of-consciousness style. While the stream-of-consciousness method is brilliant when penned by a Faulkner or an Oates, for most of us, it results in an unreadable mess.
  • Avoid sentences lacking verbs, even if for stylistic effect. I list this one because it has historically been a favorite trick of my very own. To my inner ear, it’s natural-sounding, but every single beta reader I’ve ever had has been puzzled by it.
  • Likewise, avoid sentence fragments. This is another of our habitual spoken tendencies that only render your writing amateurish.
  • Avoid colloquialisms. Example: Until very recently, experts considered the use of “hopefully” in place of “it is hoped” to be a barbarism. While we resort to “hopefully” in speech, it was hoped that we writers would not make the mistake in writing. Alas, I’m afraid we let the grammar experts down, and it is now acceptable. Additionally, avoid “like” when you mean “as if,” “where” when you mean “at which,” and “people” when you mean “others” (or what have you).
  • Avoid trailing sentences (denoted by an ellipsis). As in the conversation transcribed above, our spoken sentences tend to trail off in a cloud of lily-livered uncertainty. Please don’t force your poor characters to sound so confused and unsure.
  • Avoid regionalisms unless you are specifically a regional writer. This means that you shouldn’t refer to turning the lights of as “cutting” the lights off, nor should you refer to “hitting” or “mashing” buttons when you mean pressing. Not sure what your regionalisms are? Welcome to the wonderful world of Wikipedia.

Learning the point at which to draw the line between writing that sounds natural and writing that’s gone native requires a vigilant word-for-word scrutiny of your work in the editing stage – not for the whole picture, and definitely not as an exercise in relishing your own genius. I can’t promise your spoken English will improve, but your writing definitely will.

What Bad Movies Can Teach You About Writing: Part Three

riddick2In my last two posts, I talked about how terrible movies can teach you much about how not to write. This week, I’ll wrap up this three-parter with an analysis of the character of Riddick (the always-wooden Vin Diesel) in the fourth movie of the Riddick series, released in 2013 and named simply Riddick.

First, a synopsis of this epic tale. In the previous Riddick film, Riddick had been heading for his home planet, Furya, with an escort provided by his nemesis, Vaako. Naturally, this was a ruse to kill Riddick on an unknown planet; of course, the escort doesn’t double-tap, so this installment thus opens with Riddick waking up after having been left for dead.

Riddick gets himself together and ekes out an existence for an unspecified amount of time before discovering a mercenary station. He sets off a beacon, bringing two competing ships full of bounty hunters to catch him. Naturally, Riddick kills all but a few, all the while fighting escapees from the Tremors series. Of course, in the end, he escapes the planet with the help of the three surviving bounty hunters, including a lesbian mercenary (Dahl, played by the fabulous Katee Sackhoff) whom he manages to turn straight (at least briefly) with his manly charms.

He just keeps going and going and going.

He just keeps going and going and going.

Now what’s going on with our hero in this movie? The writers have presented us with a seemingly tough-as-nails antihero who’s immune to all pain. You can stab him, tranquilize him, poison him, and leave him for dead, but like the Energizer Bunny, he just keeps going.

Riddick appears to have no heart; after all, doesn’t he kill almost all the bounty hunters while betraying no emotion? Oh, no, Riddick does have a heart, see, because he saves a dingo puppy, which then becomes his best friend. And when the vile Santana (a bounty hunter) kills that dog, well, all bets are off. Santana just pissed off the wrong guy!

Additionally, you wouldn’t expect a guy like this to live by any conventional moral code, but that doesn’t mean he’s amoral. Of course not! For he rescues Dahl when she is attacked by Santana (because a damsel can’t save herself); later, Riddick reveals that he previously killed the son of one of the bounty hunters to save a child. So he he does have a code – it’s just of his own devising.

Yes, Riddick is one manly man. Throughout the movie, he overcomes all odds, but, the writers hope we’ll surmise, what is he really fighting for? Sure, he wants to go home, but what is there for him on his home planet? He’s driven only be nostalgia for his mostly depopulated homeworld, as well as revenge against Vaako. Ah, such an empty, ultimately pointless life! (This, of course, is left unresolved so that the filmmakers can inflict yet another Riddick movie on the public.)

Variations exist on this theme: the bad girl with a heart of gold (Pretty Woman); beware the good man who goes to war (Braveheart); and, my absolute favorite awful theme, the bad guy who just needs the love of a good woman (Beauty and the Beast).

What lovely eyes you have.

What lovely eyes you have.

Now, what can you learn about what not to do in fiction from this movie? Just about everything. The movie is riddled with character clichés. Riddick himself is a walking caricature: from carrying secret emotional pain disguised by a brutish exterior to his preternatural ability to escape death. This is just silly and unbelievable. With a few notable exceptions, such as the historical “mad monk” Rasputin, no one is actually this slippery. Yes, this is a movie, and we can suspend some disbelief, but readers of modern fiction are simply too sophisticated for this (unless your character actually has preternatural abilities, but even Superman had his Kryptonite).

It is possible to create an antihero with depth – for example, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in The Walking Dead. The key, which the writers of Riddick seem to have dropped down the Port-A-Potty, is to make your antihero a thoroughly complex character, with good and bad points and internal conflict more pronounced than an immunity to all pain but his emotional pain. Resorting to the “emotional pain” trope or the unkillable superman may be easy, but it isn’t believable – and it doesn’t make for a story that stands the test of time.

Beware of Pretty Prose

In 1920, the weird fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft published his guidelines for writing good fiction. The list recommended reading good fiction, judicious description, good grammar – and an impressive vocabulary.

Here is his exact recommendation:

The average student is gravely impeded by the narrow range of words from which he must choose, and he soon discovers that in long compositions he cannot avoid monotony. . . . With a little conscientious research we may each day add to our conquests in the realm of philology, and become more and more ready for graceful independent expression.

H.P. LovecraftThough the list is quite good in general, it’s that last rule that we must strike. For about eighty years or so before Lovecraft, and during his career as well (he wrote in the 1920s and ‘30s), writers tended to turn out ornate, pretty prose – think Poe, Henry James, Faulkner, and Lovecraft himself. Unfortunately for poetic souls, this has fallen out of favor.

Let’s take a passage from Lovecraft himself. Here is the concluding paragraph of his short story “The Nameless City,” published in 1921.

And as the wind died away I was plunged into the ghoul-pooled darkness of earth’s bowels; for behind the last of the creatures the great brazen door clanged shut with a deafening peal of metallic music whose reverberations swelled out to the distant world to hail the rising sun as Memnon hails it from the banks of the Nile.

Certainly this is a beautiful passage – if you read Lovecraft in the context of his time, this writing is wonderful. Unfortunately, these days potential publishers wouldn’t touch such writing. I doubt they’d even read beyond the first page.

Many beginning writers fall into the “pretty prose” trap. The feeling seems to be that the bigger and more impressive the words and the more ornate the sentences, the better the prose must be. I certainly did this, and I still haven’t completely shaken the habit of writing overly long sentences. What this sort of writing amounts to today is just wordiness.

What to do? Simplify, simplify, simplify. After you’ve written a piece, print it off and go through it with that dreaded red pen. Did you write, “Presently, the voices, while still chaotic before me, seemed to my beating brain to take articulate form behind me,” when “Soon, the jumbled voices became clear to me” would work just as well? Did you write a string of adjectives such as “a nightmare horde of rushing devils, hate-distorted, grotesquely panoplied, half-transparent”? Clean it up – use just “grotesque devils.”

I know – it hurts you. But as I’ve said before, if it’s bad, kill it. The power of words lies not in their complexity, but in their precision. It’s not impressive to use three adjectives for one; it’s merely blather.

Here is the complete list of Lovecraft’s rules for aspiring writers.

Transform Your Fiction With Le Mot Juste

Today, we’re going to talk about the concept of le mot juste. I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase; coined by the French writer Gustave Flaubert, the term translates to “the right word.” Flaubert described it thus:

Whatever you want to say, there is only one word that will express it, one verb to make it move, one adjective to qualify it. You must seek that word, that verb, and that adjective, and never be satisfied with approximations . . . to escape the difficulty.

Gustave FlaubertCareful writers will obey this advice in order to avoid clichés. Here, for example, is a passage I wrote in an old story of mine, “Russia after the Fall of Communism.” The story follows a recently widowed woman, Jonny, who does not now know what to do with her new freedom. Working as a waitress in a diner, she meets a man who understands immediately what sort of woman she is and what she needs.

I described their understanding in this way:

She did not have to obey. Other, misunderstanding women would have turned him out. But he knew this native tongue, knew how to navigate the knots of her heart, and like a lost dog she submitted.

You may or may not like this style of writing, but when I wrote the above passage, I labored over my word choices for some time. I could have written simply, “He understood Jonny and what to say to compel her to obey.” But in my mind, such a passage would have been a cop-out. Writing only that he understood her gives the reader no insight into Jonny’s state of mind, which is key in the story’s denouement. Thus, I searched for several hours for just the right words.

However, the search for le mot juste doesn’t have to end in an overly complicated sentence. As often as not, the right word may be a good old Anglo-Saxon word – cram, briny, gore. Your search for the right word is not the search for the most impressive word; it is a search for the most precise word.

As always, this should never trip you up while you are drafting. Save it for your second draft, once you’ve worked the kinks out of the plot. But when you do go back to smooth out your draft, be vigilant, asking yourself if you’ve resorted to any tricks, any shorthand, any faded images. Often, an otherwise banal story can be transformed by the right word choices.

Who Tells the Story: On Point of View

The term “point of view,” or POV, is familiar to most of us. Most writers know about and can use first-person point of view, but did you know there are actually several more POVs from which a story can be written? Let’s talk about them.

  • First-Person Multiple POV. Of course, first-person POV always uses “I,” and the action is related through the eyes of a single narrator. First-person multiple POV, while using the “I” viewpoint, shifts from one first-person viewpoint to another, with the shifts generally coming in each new chapter or section of a work. The benefit of this POV is that you can show the same event through different eyes, thus achieving a sort of omniscience, without, of course, using the omniscient POV.
  • Third-person Subjective POV. This POV is quite common. Though the action is related in third person, using the name of the character through whose eyes we see the action, we are also privy to that character’s thoughts and feelings. However, when a writer uses this POV, it is generally impossible to describe the appearance of the character through whose eyes we are seeing the action. We are, so to speak, inside the head of that character and cannot see him or her objectively. This POV is not that different from the standard first-person POV, except that it achieves an air of distance.
  • Third-person Objective POV. In this POV, we don’t know the main character’s interior drama; all we know is how the main character is interacting in his or her world. Further, when we see the action, we do not see it as through the eyes of another character; the writer chooses to tell us what the character he or she has chosen as the focus is doing and how that character appears.
  • Third-Person Limited Omniscient POV. This may be understood as a combination of the previous two points of view. We not only see the action – what the main character is doing – but we’re also privy to his or her thoughts.
  • Third-Person Multiple POV. Sometimes called contrapuntal, in third-person multiple POV, the narration shifts viewpoints within a work from one character to another. This POV is distinct from an omniscient POV in that you, the author, do not intrude with information that any given character cannot know.
  • Objective POV. Called the “theatrical” POV, writing in this POV requires you as the writer to stay out of heads, but to describe all action, favoring none and implying nothing.
  • Second-Person POV. Just as the name implies, this POV addresses the reader (through the use of “you”), essentially leading him or her through the action as if recounting what the audience has actually done.
  • First- and Second-Point of View Combined POV. In this POV, the writer, while speaking in the first-person, seems to address another person (identified as “you”). Highly intimate and difficult to pull off, this is a rarely seen POV.
  • Third-Person Plural Observer POV. Though the action is told through from the viewpoint of an observer, the observers – a pair of siblings, a husband and wife, children – are multiple in number.
  • First-Person Collective Observer POV. Again, the action is told through an observer, but when you use this POV, you speak as a group: we saw, we thought, we sometimes said.

Each of these viewpoints has its own uses. Consider, when you plan a work, the possibilities of some of these more unusual viewpoints, instead of sticking to plain old first-person.

For a more extensive explanation of each of these POVs, see Josip Novakovich’s Fiction Writer’s Workshop, in which each of these POVs is discussed, as well as a few I left out.