Tag 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.

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.

Character Worksheets: Map Your Way to Complete Characters

Creating well-rounded characters is one of the most fun aspects of story planning. Now, if you’re protesting this statement, I’m going to share with you an easy way to create your characters.

The simplest and easiest way to create good characters is to use character worksheets. On these worksheets, you list a number of questions you’ll need answers to in order to round out your character. Sure, you’ll want to know his or her name, location, age, and appearance, but that doesn’t take you very far.

For example, what is your character’s main vice? What about her main virtue? Political views? Major hangups? Romantic history?

What I like about character sheets is that they help me write a more fully realized story. If I know my character’s nervous tics, for example, then I know what she’s doing with her hands when she’s anxious. If I know her major vice — say, she forgets to watch the speed limit — then I might know she’s had a lot of encounters with cops and may have a bad opinion of them. If I know her movie and book tastes — for example, documentaries and nonfiction — then I might know she’s more of a cerebral type.

Two of my most favorite questions to answer are sun sign and phobias. Now, whether or not you believe in astrology, knowing your character’s sun sign can also help you round out a character. For example, for a character I created name Sadie, I set her birth date on December 10, 1985, making her a Sagittarius. A little Internet research provides some information about Sagittarians: overly expressive, with frequent burnouts, and who like to make a difference in the world. These traits helped me put Sadie together into the politically active, turbulent character she turned out to be.

For another character I created, Levi, I chose apeirophobia as his phobia. Apeirophobia is fear of infinity or living forever. This helped me figure out why Levi, who is naturally spiritual, chose the religion that he did — one with no conscious afterlife existence. This also helped me come up with a backstory for him, as well as an impetus to choose stargazing as his hobby.

For me, putting these character sheets together is a bit like playing God — and quite a lot of fun, although I otherwise would not make a very effective God. The benefit of them is that as you’re writing the story, you have a wealth of material about this character, whom you now know quite well, to draw from in any situation.

And in case you were wondering, Phobia List has a near-complete list of phobias, and Astrology Online has in-depth explanations of the characteristics of each sun sign.

The Six Questions Fiction Must Answer

You may remember from sixth-grade English that a writer must answer the five W’s: who, what, when, where, why – and of course, how. Though these details have a long history in rhetoric, Rudyard Kipling usually receives credit for popularizing them in a poem included in his “Just So” stories, published in 1902:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

This procedure, called the Kipling method, is usually associated with journalism, but the method also applies to creative writing. As in a newspaper article, these six details provide all the necessary information for a piece of writing.

Let’s break it down.

What, of course, answers the question of plot: a theft, an affair, a pursuit. Though your plot may be long and complicated, it does still break down to this one simple question: What happened?

Why answers the question of motives. Why did Bilbo steal the ring? Why did Anna Karenina kill herself? Why did Harker set out to kill Count Dracula? While motives are rarely clear-cut, they, with all their convoluted reasoning, are still necessary to flesh out a story.

When puts a timestamp on the piece. Even if your work takes place in a fantasy setting with no parallel to our Western timeline, it’s still necessary to situate the piece in a named era or age, as Tolkien did with his epic Lord of the Rings (Third Age, starting in 3001), or as Brandon Sanderson did in his Mistborn series (the Final Empire).

How also answers plot questions. How did Frodo destroy the Ring? How did Anna’s life unravel? How did Count Dracula go about thwarting his pursuers?

Where applies to setting. Though setting is underutilized in modern fiction, in times past, setting proved indispensable, such as in Jack London’s stories or in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Because environment contributes to shaping of a person, setting shows your readers another how as well: how your characters came to be the way they are. Could Scarlett O’Hara, for example, have been a Northern belle?

Finally, we come to Who. This question might appear the simplest to answer, but we’re talking more than name and rank: who covers the character and soul of the individuals in your piece. Who is Anna, that she has a brazen affair? Who is King Arthur, that he sleeps with his own sister? Who is Lisbeth Salander, that she sets out to kill her father?

By answering all of these questions when you have a mosquito of an idea, you can chart a course for your story. Of course, in fiction, you won’t simply relate the facts (unless you’re Hemingway); you’ll dress these up and elaborate on them, but when you boil your story down, these are the questions that form its backbone.

Crafting a Premise Sentence to Keep Yourself on Track

If you ever had to write a paper in college, you’re probably familiar with the concept of an abstract. An abstract is a short summary of a paper that precedes the paper itself. This abstract notes the main points of the paper, as well as its conclusion.

Similarly, as K.M. Weiland writes in Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, writing has its premise sentence. A premise sentence pins down such variables as your protagonist’s identity, the nature of the central conflict and plot, and any relevant details, such as setting. However, unlike an elevator pitch or abstract, writers should craft the premise sentence before writing the actual work.

This premise sentence essentially serves as your lighthouse. Clarifying and directing your thoughts, it keeps the overall thrust of the work at the forefront. Additionally, distilling all your thoughts into one sentence can help you glean particulars from your general concept. For example, you may think that your main character’s primary problem lies in her rootlessness, so you might write the following:

Nixie Morrison is a rootless young woman who searches for a home.

Doesn’t exactly grab you, does it? So make it specific:

Nixie Morrison, an orphan who can’t stay put, is a Galactic Academy reject searching for her home colony of Ressad.

Much more specific. Still, I haven’t indicated the conflict. So, what about this:

Nixie Morrison, an orphan who can’t stay put, is a Galactic Academy reject searching for Ressad, her home colony – but the man who slaughtered half of Ressad, including her parents, is determined that she never find it.

There you have the protagonist, her situation and a character trait, the plot, her backstory, and a conflict, all in one sentence. Now, if I write Nixie’s story, I can refer to it as I go, making sure that all my threads weave into this one, central idea.

What do you do with your premise sentence once you’ve worked it out? I suggest posting it in a location where you can see it while you write. This keeps the premise in your mind and can potentially prevent your plot from wandering off-course. It’ll save you time and the disappointment of realizing that you’ve spent the last fifty pages chasing a plot that doesn’t add up in the end.