Monthly Archives: June 2015

If It’s Bad, Kill It

I once wrote a short story about a girl who was possibly (or possibly not) possessed by a demon. In this story, I went on and on for about 48 pages. Yes, I said a short story. Throughout the story, I threw in every bit of information about exorcism and demon possession that I had gathered in the course of my research, as well as every possible variation of scene that I could think of.

I thought of this as thoroughness, but then, after I’d set it aside, I had to ask myself if all of that verisimilitude had really been necessary to tell the story. I ended up going back and cutting fourteen pages out of it.

Some of those fourteen pages were really dear to me. You know how it is—clever turns of phrase, good observations, scary setups. But none of it added any significant momentum to the story.

Which brings me to my point. Your maxim when self-editing should be, “Is this scene (sentence, description, and so forth) really necessary to tell my story?” Sometimes, you may think so, but you’re not sure.

If it's bad, kill it.What do you do then? You experimentally delete it. If the story arc flows on just fine without it, then it was just distracting filler.

Deleting such material is often painful to do—especially if you’re writing from personal experience. Or you may be writing a tale with a message that you think the world needs to hear, and you may find that some of what you were certain you had to say just isn’t important to the story. That’s the hard stuff to cut, but this is no time to get on a high horse.

The moral is, if it’s bad, kill it. Verisimilitude is always necessary in order to create believable fiction, but when all that detail becomes mere decoration around the action, either it has to go, or your readers will.

Littering Your Text with Redundancies – It’s the Absolute Worst

Have you ever caught yourself saying or writing something like this?

Celandine crouched in close proximity to the dragon’s lair.

Or how about this one:

Celandine considered herself a very unique outlaw, because she robbed from the poor and gave to the criminally insane.

What’s wrong with those two sentences? Well, they contain redundancies: “close proximity” and “very unique.” Robin Hoek robbed from the poor.

We use these redundancies every day when speaking, and even though we know better, they often creep into our writing. Redundancies happen when you have a word that is absolute, yet you attempt to establish just how much Prince Waldemar’s ball was perfect (“absolutely perfect”) or that every single one of the robber barons had cheated the farmers (“each and every”).

We use redundancies so much that we probably don’t even know when we’re guilty of them, such as when we say “bald-headed,” “first of all,” or “native habitat.” I know I’m certainly guilty of dozens of them.

Redundancies add nothing to your writing and only clutter up the text. Not only that, they dilute the English language. We’ve all heard that something can’t be “the most unique,” and neither can ice be anything but frozen (“frozen ice”). Nor is telepathy anything but mental (“mental telepathy”). Why use two or three words when one is satisfactory? Let the words do the job they were invented for.

Source: (contains exhaustive list)

Call Off That Search for Your Voice

Writing manuals often talk about the importance of finding your own voice. Usually, they quote a famous writer or three in order to illustrate the differences between voices. Unfortunately, these books usually pick the extravagantly eccentric writers, such as Tom Wolfe, Joyce Carol Oates, or Hunter S. Thompson, as examples of unique writing voices.

For example, try this passage:

Del had these two Seneca Indian cousins he got in tight with and spent time in the juvie facility up at Black River, that Zoe said she didn’t know anything about except what he told her, that wasn’t the entire truth, see—one of Del’s cousins was in for manslaughter second degree which off the rez might have been murder second degree but they don’t give much of a shit for what a drunk Indian will do to another drunk Indian, it would be a different story if one of them stomped a white man to death, right?

–Little Bird of Heaven, Joyce Carol Oates

This run-on, stream-of-consciousness voice is utterly unique, but that’s the problem. As this example illustrates, all that referring to writers such as Oates does is convince you that you must really strive to sound unusual in order to be distinctive. So you start playing with punctuation, interjections, run-on sentences, and sentence fragments. The result is a completely forced style in which the story takes the backseat. You not only can’t write well when you’re deliberately hewing to a style, but your readers will instantly recognize your posturing and write you off as pretentious.

Given the emphasis writer’s guides place on the necessity of having your own voice, you can be forgiven for thinking that it should be the primary focus of a budding writer. But I can’t overstate how little attention you should actually pay to finding that voice.

Honestly, writers last because of their ability to tell a story, not because they have a unique voice. Joyce Carol Oates, referenced above, for example, has not lasted for fifty-plus years because of her writing style—no, she remains relevant because of her insights into human nature.

So instead of focusing on cultivating a knockout style, focus simply on writing well and honestly. These are far more important skills to cultivate.

While you’re at it, you must read voraciously. Not just one writer, but many different writers in many different genres. The end result of writing and reading enough is an organic voice that’s naturally yours. And you won’t even have to try.

Why Writers Don’t Write, Or, Don’t Wait Until You’re on Your Deathbed

Today, we’re going to take a time-out from grammar and such and have a pep talk. The text for today’s sermon is taken from Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

You’re probably familiar with this story. In it, a man lies dying in Africa, near Mount Kilimanjaro, while he and his wife wait in vain for a rescue plane. The pertinent aspect of the story for us is that the narrator is a writer. As he slowly dies, he regrets that he no longer writes as he used to. At one point, he thinks to himself,

Now he would never write the things he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either.

Is this you? You know it is. We all have a writing project we’ve been thinking of for years, maybe even decades. The one that we’ve filed, the one that we return to at night when we can’t sleep. Maybe you bought a few books for research, but you haven’t opened them. Something prevents you from actually, truly starting on the project.

Maybe your reason is the same as Hemingway’s narrator. I don’t know enough, you think. I need to make enough money to travel to the area in the book, I need to learn French first, I need to gain a little more distance and wisdom. Or maybe it’s just simply, I’m not a good enough writer yet, I’ll just butcher it.

Why do we do this? Hemingway’s already told us. As long as we don’t write it, it remains perfect, unblemished. We can talk about our great novel idea, because as long as we haven’t started it, we can imagine how perfect, how beautiful our ideas are. But we know that once we do start writing it, it’ll sprout pimples and start talking back to us.

The fact is, we don’t become good at something by thinking about doing it, and we don’t learn how to write unless we actually do it. Yes, your first draft will suck. It won’t be Great Literature. It won’t even be Sorta-Passable Literature. That’s okay. Janet Burroway wrote that Great Literature never emerges in draft form for anyone, except maybe for one person she knows, and, she says, there’s no evidence God even likes that person very much.

So, you should write today. And tomorrow. And the next day. Really, just write. No fairy godmother is going to appear to make you a good writer. Not even knowing all the grammar rules I talk about on this site will make you a good writer. The only thing that makes you a good writer is writing.

Your Tour Guide to the Wonderful World of Semicolons — And a Pack of Hellhounds

Today, I will introduce you to the wonderful world of semicolons!

The semicolon is among the top misused punctuation marks and remains a mystery to most people. But no longer! Only four rules for semicolons exist – and they are easy to follow.

Here they are:

Use a semicolon to replace a period. Sometimes, you may write two complete sentences (sentences with a subject and a verb) for which a joining comma is too weak. That is, the two sentences really do belong together, but they need more emphasis than a mere comma. Alternately, in order to avoid short sentences, you may not want to use a period. Instead, you can use a semicolon.

As an example, take the following sentence:

Alzena’s limbs were still too battered to continue the journey to Fugglestone; breathing hurt her ribs, and her left leg still lay mangled from the attack by Count Osric’s dogs.

In this example, each sentence is a complete thought, but because they complement each other, I’ve put them into one sentence.

Use a semicolon before qualifying words such as “therefore,” “that is,” or “after all” when they introduce a complete sentence. Qualifying words amplify or explain the first statement. The two sentences therefore belong together, but instead of using an incorrect comma, use a semicolon. (It would also be perfectly okay to separate the two with a period.)

For example, try this:

Count Osric’s dogs mysteriously appeared whenever anyone attempted to cross his lands; therefore, some peasants claimed that they were spirits.

This example contains two complementary but complete thoughts joined by “therefore.” Thus, I separated them with semicolon.

When you are listing items in a series and one or more of the items must contain a comma, then use a semicolon to separate the items.

Count Osric's hellhounds.For example, say you are listing the names and sires of Count Osric’s dogs. The name of each dog and its sire are separated by a comma. You must, therefore, use a semicolon to sort the information out, or you’ll end up with a mess.

But the superstitious Peterkin swore that demons had sired Count Osric’s dogs and would name their fathers. He knew all of the count’s dogs – Lazarus, son of Abaddon; Uriel, son of Belial; Herne, son of Moloch.

In the above example, if I had not separated the name and parentage of each dog with a semicolon, the reader would be forced to mentally separate each unit in the sentence. Why make your readers work when a simple punctuation mark does so for them?

Separate two complete sentences joined by “or,” “and,” or “but” when the first sentence contains commas. This is not required, as you can use a simple comma, but as with the previous rule, using a semicolon can simplify the sentence for your readers.

What does this mean for Alzena and her ruined leg? Let’s see.

A pilgrimage to the holy shrine near Foulpapple, where the goddess Myrtis was said to stir the waters, would heal her destroyed leg; but how could Alzena escape the count’s guards?

Both sentences are complete thoughts, and the first sentence contains a comma. Therefore, just to sort out the clauses, I used a semicolon to introduce the second sentence.

Semicolons, as you can see, are not very mysterious at all. Just as with any other facet of grammar, it’s only a matter of knowing a few rules and applying them to use the semicolon correctly.