As for outlines, I tried one once and it was disastrous, like trying to play the piano from inside a straitjacket.
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)
In the craft of writing, editing is accepted as a necessary evil. We all realize that our sentences must be properly punctuated, our noun/verb combinations must agree, our sentence and paragraph structure must meet certain recognizable norms.
Yes, there are exceptions. Books are written in verse. Writers experiment with no dialogue tags, single-sentence paragraphs, and chapters that consist of fewer than 10 sentences. And at least one author, Cormac McCarthy, has eschewed the use of almost all punctuation.
But for most of us, editing is an acceptable, if somewhat mundane, chore.
Revision, on the other hand, is greeted with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Revision is “hard”. Revision is “based on someone else’s opinion” and is “not the way I write.”
Yet revision can be the most satisfactory part of writing.
I’m not talking about the “Revise & Resubmit” advice an agent or editor may give, and which any author is free to accept or reject. I’m talking about recognizing the shortcomings in our own work, and making a concerted effort to improve them.
In a previous post, I talked about the books, primarily mysteries, that my grandmother and my mother have bequeathed to me. A few days ago, I was reading one by Ed McBain, an author very popular in the 70s-90s, whose style of terse conversation and fact-based investigation is a bit Hemingway-esque. McBain’s most popular book is probably HEAT, and if you’ve ever seen that movie FUZZ where Burt Reynolds dresses up as a nun to catch the bad guy, you know the one I mean. But the point is, in this book, POISON, McBain waxed poetic over the weather. Not the spring or summer weather, or even autumn. But winter weather.
It was unexpected, and breathtakingly beautiful. I can do that, I says to myself. In my first novel, LET THE CANYONS WEEP, I have a scene where the winter weather is at the heart of a conflict. I can make it much more dramatic. I can almost make it a character – an antagonist – in its own right.
That started me off. The next question was: where do I have weather? Or time of day? Or anything that has to do with the characters’ surroundings. I can do this. I will do this!
In most cases, it doesn’t take much. The description of a table as old and scarred; of a porch as sagging around its posts; of a cabin with grass that’s been seared to gray. Sometimes the scene calls for more than a few words. As an example, I’ve made a change at a critical point in the story. I started out with:
When he left her, the night was at its darkest hour.
Everyone’s heard “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” Most of us have spent at least one night awake, drunk or sober (oops, did I say that?) and have experienced it for ourselves. The sentence as it stands brings that idea to the mind of the reader.
But so much more has happened, so much terror and heartache was revealed in the previous chapter, that the opening was really, really trite. Revision created this:
When he left her, the night was at its darkest hour. The stars had faded, the tired old moon had set. But the night was no blacker than the wound on his heart.
And now, it’s not just a dark hour in the night. There’s a complete lack of light. And a more complete understanding of the character’s emotions.
Revising is difficult, yes. It takes a lot of time, a lot of thought, and a whole lot of willingness to look at those perfect words we wrote and find a way to make them better.
No one can deny the importance of editing – every comma needs to be in its place, every pronoun needs to refer to the right person. But revision – I’ve come to believe that’s what makes the difference between a good book and a great one.
What are you working on now, and what specific revisions have you made or do you intend to make?
#amwriting #grammar #style #rules
In the past few weeks, I’ve seen too many articles that propound “THE RULES of Writing”. An overabundance, if you will, most of which don’t make any distinction between THE RULES and STYLE CHOICES.
THE RULES are universal. For instance:
– a sentence must have a subject and a verb;
– the subject and verb must agree;
– participles should not dangle;
– a sentence may have only one viewpoint: it cannot start out in first person and end in third;
– Etc., etc., etc.
It’s possible for a good writer to break THE RULES occasionally, but s/he must realize what s/he is doing in order for it to be effective. The universal RULES of writing can be found in any reputable GRAMMAR guide; one I like is Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL).
Anything above and beyond the universal RULES is a STYLE CHOICE:
– No adverbs? Style choice;
– No compound sentences? Style choice;
– No words over three syllables? Style choice;
– No dialogue tags but “said” and “asked”? Style choice;
– Etc., etc., etc.
STYLE CHOICES are found in “Style Guides” and are not universal rules. I, for one, would be much more apt to appreciate their advice if the guides followed these so-called “rules” in their own publications. But, almost universally, they don’t. More scholarly types than I have proven that even the ubiquitous Elements of Style by Strunk & White has broken most of the “rules” it espouses. Go ahead, try to count the adverbs in any guide that propounds “no adverbs”. Count the passive verbs in a guide that propounds “no passive verbs”. It’s almost impossible to write fiction (or to write about fiction) and follow these strictures at all times.
(Of course, there are many who get around the “no adverbs” stricture by substituting an adverbial phrase — eliminating an adverb like “tremulously” in favor of a phrase like “in a tremulous voice”. To me, that’s worse, as it adds empty words to the story.)
Adding to the confusion is that, in the history of literature, STYLE CHOICES are transitory. No one writes like Chaucer any more; few write like Faulkner or Austen. The current trend toward starkness and simplicity will no doubt be as short-lived.
Now, I’m not saying that STYLE CHOICES are wrong. On the contrary, each writer should make these choices for him- or her-self. If you want to use smaller words and shorter paragraphs, you are perfectly free to do so. But that doesn’t put writers who use longer words or longer paragraphs in the wrong. Or longer words and shorter paragraphs. Or longer paragraphs… or whatever.
Touting your own STYLE CHOICES to the world at large as “rules” is akin to attempting to convert someone to your religion, and my best advice there is “Don’t do it!”
You and your writer friends will both be happier with the outcome.
P.S. Can you find which of the RULES stated above is broken rule in this article? How many times has it been broken?
There’s a great dichotomy among writers: plotters (those who outline) vs. pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants). Most writers fall into one camp or the other and sing the praises of their choice. Nothing wrong with that. Everyone’s mind works differently, and what works for you may not work for me.
I’m one of those rare birds who uses both methods. I plot out a short story or an essay like this – it’s the only way I can make sure I don’t lose track of my theme somewhere in the middle. But when it comes to novels, I’m a pantser.
I start out with a concept, plus a beginning, an ending, and a few scenes in between. But once I start writing, I let the characters take me where they will. That process sometimes means the intended scenes don’t make it into the manuscript and, at least once, it’s meant that the ending isn’t what I originally envisioned.
Yet I can see the point of plotting, especially when the story is complex or there are more than a few characters to keep track of. Not too long ago, I read a book in which all but one of the sub-plots was left dangling at the end, and I remember thinking that the author could have made good use of an outline. That’s one of the benefits of plotting – making sure everything that’s started has a resolution.
But as far as I’m concerned, whatever works for you as an individual is fine with me.
However, I recently read a blog post by someone who swears by outlines. The blogger spent quite a bit of time belittling those who don’t plot ahead, saying things like “some authors can’t be bothered to outline”, “an outline is the only sure road to success”, and “I never read a good book that wasn’t plotted out beforehand”.
Really? This blogger contacted every author whose book she ever read to determine if the writer used an outline? And never enjoyed a book whose author said “NO”? What about those dead guys, like Cervantes, Twain, Dumas and Voltaire, whose works are still held in reverence – did she contact them by séance?
Or did she maybe just assume that bad books are not plotted and good books are? You all know what happens when you assume…
So, in support of all the non-plotters out there, here are some quotes about writing from your fellow pantsers. Now I haven’t read all of these books, but I’m fairly certain most of them are pretty good.
I’ve never written a book with an outline or a predetermined theme. It’s only in retrospect that themes or subjects become identifiable. That’s the fun of it: discovering what’s next. I’m often surprised by plot developments I would not have dreamed of starting out, but that, in the course of the writing, come to seem inevitable. Susan Choi (American Woman)
I don’t plot the books out ahead of time, I don’t plan them. I don’t begin at the beginning and end at the end. I don’t work with an outline and I don’t work in a straight line. Diana Gabaldon (Outlander)
I cannot outline. I do not know what the next thing is going to happen in the book until it comes out of my fingers. Patricia Reilly Giff (Maggie’s Door)
In fiction, you have a rough idea what’s coming up next – sometimes you even make a little outline – but in fact you don’t know. Each day is a whole new – and for me, a very invigorating – experience. Peter Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard)
I do not outline. There are writers I know and count as my friends who certainly do it the other way, but for me, part of the adventure is not knowing how it’s going to turn out. Joyce Maynard (To Die For)
I don’t outline; I listen to a kind of whisper inside the material. Jayne Anne Phillips (Shelter)
Writing is a process of discovering. I could never outline a narrative; that just sounds boring. There’s no joy of discovery in what you’re doing if that’s your strategy. Bob Shacochis (Swimming in the Volcano)
I don’t outline at all; I don’t find it useful, and I don’t like the way it boxes me in. I like the element of surprise and spontaneity, of letting the story find its own way. Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner)
I don’t write a play from beginning to end. I don’t write an outline. I write scenes and moments as they occur to me. … I sequence them in a way that tends to make sense. Then I write what’s missing, and that’s my first draft. Richard Greenberg (Life Under Water)
The important discovery I made very early is that my novels had to be written without any given plan or outline. I can’t do it in any other way. But then they are dependent on the sentences, my intuition, and, as I have experienced many times, the subconscious. Per Petterson (Out Stealing Horses)
The way that I write novels in particular is I don’t usually outline; I just write. Part of the fun is discovering what’s happening in the story as I’m going along. John Scalzi (Old Man’s War)
I never work from an outline, and often I don’t know how the story will end. Patricia MacLachlan (Sarah Plain and Tall)
Choosing to write a play is some kind of surrender. I don’t make an outline. I sit and work, and suddenly the door opens, and out it comes. David Rabe (HurlyBurly)
When I sat down and wrote the first paragraph, I was like, ‘Oh, I can go with this.’ I didn’t do an outline. I didn’t do anything. I just wrote sentence by sentence, not knowing where the story was going. Colleen Hoover (Losing Hope)
I picked this book up on a whim: the title drew me in. I regret to say I didn’t really enjoy it. The writing was too simple for my taste and though the plot had great potential, the twists and the ending were telegraphed early on and there was nothing unexpected happening at any point.
Of the characters, I liked Ewan best. Even though he was too preachy for my taste, I could admire him for his love of his family and his work ethic.
The overriding theme of the book seemed to be that good things happen because of God and bad things happen because of people who don’t do God’s will. I found this extremely simplistic and even a bit insulting, as it dismisses outright any set of beliefs that don’t include the Christian God. There are absolutely good people who aren’t Christians, and evil is sometimes done by those who profess deep faith in the Christian God. The theme could have been presented much more subtly; if emphasis had been shifted to the romance plot and character development, this would, in my opinion, have been a much better book.
#amwriting #amreading #bookreview
Is a chance to escape a life not worth living worth the danger of losing it altogether?
In the near future, a tripartite civil war in the US has left the village of Buchell in Appalachia under the boot of an oppressive cartel leader. The citizens have for too long allowed Jeff Petrowski to keep control of the town, for those who oppose him are nearly always found dead.
This is the story of Simon “Saint” Flaherty, a teenage boy whose one talent is fighting, and of Erin Livingston, who took Simon in when he was orphaned some years earlier. Against a background of fear, poverty, and fight scenes reminiscent of Roman times, the characters struggle to come to grips with their secrets and their changing relationship.
In this gritty novel, the atmosphere is perfectly matched by Nisbet’s writing, which surprisingly has a raw lyricism all its own. Told in multiple points of view in the first person present tense, it gives the reader a deep look inside the personalities of the characters as events unfold. The reader is caught up completely in the story, in the characters, in their dilemmas as they search for any way out of Buchell.
If I have one criticism of this novel, it’s that it ended too soon. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in this series.
Notes: From time to time, I am asked, or volunteer, to write a review of a novel by another author. Please be assured that, although I may have an acquaintance with the author involved, the views expressed will be entirely my own and will be based on the book itself and nothing else. For it is only by being honest that I can expect my readers to trust me.
I was provided with a pre-release copy of this book by the author, with the provision that I write an honest review. It has been my distinct pleasure to do so.
If you have a book you’d like reviewed and are willing to accept my unadulterated opinion, contact me through the website. I’ll be accepting adult full-length novels, and posting no more than one review per month, on a book chosen at random from among those submitted. However, if your book is not chosen this month, it will remain on the list and have more opportunities to be “the one”. You may, of course, withdraw your request at any time.
Please note: due to poor eyesight and therefore limited screen time, I am unable to review any book for which a hard copy is not provided. My apologies to ebook-only formats: I wish I could accommodate you as well.
It occurred to me the other day that the people who propound THE RULES OF WRITING are much more vocal than those of us who do not. Since I was listening to a John McCormack CD at the time (it’s almost Paddy’s Day, you know, and I’m learning two new songs), I wondered how those proponents of THE RULES feel about music.
There are all kinds of music for all kinds of tastes: from rap to opera, from big band to show tunes to rock, rock’n’roll, rockabilly, country, pop – the list goes on and on. My tastes are probably a bit limited, as I prefer music with a simple message and a complex but repetitive melody. To wit, I like traditional folk music. Whether it’s Irish or Cowboy music, Appalachian or Gold Rush, African-American spirituals or Bob Dylan, I love folk music.
But I also like mid-century Country-Western, doo-wop, contemporary ballads, show tunes and some classical pieces (though I prefer a single instrument to an orchestral arrangement).
It seems to me that almost everyone enjoys more than one kind of music. Just because you like rap doesn’t mean you can’t like show tunes. People who like swing might also savor classical music.
So what if I said that everyone should like Irish folk music and listen to nothing else? If I did, you’d laugh out loud, wouldn’t you? Give me the brush-off, a raspberry or even an inelegant gesture.
You wouldn’t accept anyone at all telling you what kind of music you have to listen to and enjoy.
Why is it then, that all writers are supposed to imitate one author? Why is only one author held up as the ultimate standard for writing well?
And why, if only one author qualifies for such a high honor – why is it not Shakespeare?
Nope. It’s Hemingway. The Heming-way is the way we must write now. We must eschew adverbs, delete gerunds, avoid passive voice, reduce adjectives and write shorter sentences.
In addition, we must only use “said/ask/whispered” for dialogue tags (or use none at all), simplify our punctuation, and make our paragraphs shorter.
There’s even an app now called “Hemingway Editor © ”. It encourages shorter, simpler words and reports a “good” score as 6th grade reading comprehension level. That might be great for 6th graders, but really? The first sentence of this post is 27 words long and the app considered it “too complex” and too hard to read. The second sentence, it considered “very hard” to read. But I’d bet real money that you had no trouble understanding either of them.
Previous generations used reading as a way to increase their knowledge of words and language. Do we really want to encourage people to limit their vocabulary and comprehension? Do we really want to play to the lowest acceptable level of literacy?
It makes no sense to me.
If you were to catalog the classic literature of the early 20th century, Hemingway is only one of many authors you’d find on the list. Fitzgerald, Wolfe, Steinbeck, Joyce, Faulkner – all contempories of Hemingway, all hugely popular in their lifetimes. All still have a following today. And all have unique writing styles.
The Sound and the Fury – was there ever a better depiction of a Southern aristrocratic family’s dissolution?* Faulkner employed a number of narrative techniques, including omniscient POV and stream of consciousness. Why do THE RULES hawkers disavow him?
Look Homeward, Angel is my favorite book, hands down. Thomas Wolfe gives us an intimate look into the heart and soul of a poor, socially awkward boy with a miserly mother and an alcoholic father.** The writing is lyrical, melodic, majestic in its reach. The emotional scope of the novel is incomparable. Again, THE RULES hawkers decry.
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce manages to blend the most appealing aspects of the two works noted above. And the hawkers tear out their hair and scream “No! NO! NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”
I’ve heard from several sources that contemporary readers prefer a style like Hemingway’s. Do they? Or have they just become so inundated with it that they don’t realize they have a choice?
We as writers have a choice. We are free to choose Hemingway – if that’s what we want. But I think it’s equally important to realize that choosing “other” is not a cardinal sin. We have an obligation – yes, an obligation – to create what is in us, regardless of THE RULES.
I don’t discount or disparage Hemingway’s talents at all. But I do object to them being held up as the gold standard. No single author deserves that, not even Shakespeare.
Believe me, if I could write like Thomas Wolfe I would.
So tell me, what kind of music do you enjoy? Does it translate to what you enjoy reading? or to the way you write?
*By the way, Hemingway Editor doesn’t think you can understand the first sentence in this paragraph, either.
**Per Hemingway Editor, this sentence is too long for you to understand, and “miserly” was identified as an adverb. Oy vez!
One of the truths of today’s publishing world is that a writer must have an on-line presence. Doesn’t matter if you’re self-publishing or going the traditional route, writing fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose, your name has to be out there.
Blogging is one way to accomplish that, but it’s fairly time-consuming. Readership growth is slow compared to other social networks. And snail-like compared to what Twitter can provide.
I was looking for an easier way to make contact with other writers and readers when I started my Twitter account. I didn’t post too often – it seemed a little forward of me to put my thoughts out there for others to consider. (You’d be surprised how often this particular mind-set encumbers writers.) I posted now and again, and I set up an account at HootSuite to enable my blog posts to feed into my Twitter account. In a few months I had about 30 followers.
Then, like a bolt out of the blue, I saw a post from one of the writers I followed labeled #1lineWed. It was a really nice line of prose, and I simply had to find out what it was all about.
Clicked on #1lineWed and the sparks started flying!
Before I go any further, let me explain what #1lineWed is. It (naturally) occurs every Wednesday, and is a place for any writer – professional, hobbyist, poet, novelist and anyone else who writes – to post a line (or many) from their work in progress. A theme is posted every Thursday by @RWAKissofDeath (the mystery/thriller arm of Romance Writers of America). All you have to do is find appropriate lines in your unpublished work and post them. That’s it!
The hardest part (for me) is making sure I’ve only got 140 characters including the hash-tag. The easiest part is finding other authors to follow, and most, if not all of them, will follow back. In my first 4 months on Twitter, I gained, as I said, about 30 followers. After 6 months of playing #1lineWed, my following has grown to over 2,000 and gets bigger every day. Even better, my Twitter feed is full of wonderful writing that inspires me to “keep on plugging on”.
#1lineWed has two additional benefits that I never saw coming. If I post a line and it gets a good reception, I know it’s golden. If few or no people like it, I know it needs work (or maybe I just chose poorly – sometimes it’s hard for a line to do its job out of context).
Second, it can be an eye-opener when I search my manuscript for themes: one recent theme was texture, and I found I used the word “soft” over 200 times in one manuscript. Believe me when I tell you, I cleaned that up quickly!
But the BEST part is the writers’ community on Twitter. What a wonderful group of people! If you’ve got a cover reveal or a publication date coming up, they’ll cry “Bravo!” If you’re stuck in the third chapter of a new work, they’re there to cheer you on. Enter a contest and need support? These writers will have your back. And if you’re just plain having a bad day, someone‘s always willing to commiserate with you.
I feel like I’m connected to a community in a way I haven’t been since my fibromyalgia forced me to quit working 15 years ago. My outlook on writing as a solitary pursuit is no more. The writing community on Twitter is fluid, yet close-knit. Sharing and accepting. Smart, funny and talented. In short, they rock! And I’m extremely lucky to be sharing words with them.
There’s plenty of room for you, too!
In addition to #1lineWed, I also “play” #2bitTues. The #2bitTues theme is posted on Sunday by @AngDonofrio, but it’s optional, so if you don’t have anything that conforms, you’re welcome to post whatever lines strike your fancy. One note of caution: NO selling!
Still can’t get enough? There’s #meta4mon as well as hashtags specifically for poetry, flash fiction, 6-word stories, etc., etc., etc. But be careful – these hashtags are addicting and you may find yourself using up all your writing time playing along.
Looking for an agent/publisher? There are contests you can enter, too: #PitMad and #AdPit are two coming up soon!
And you can find me on Twitter: @giffmacshane
#amwriting #amediting #blogging
Hope everybody’s gotten a good start on the New Year. I was a little surprised to get my year-end stats and realize I hadn’t posted anything but a few short quotes since Thanksgiving. (Re-blogging others’ work doesn’t really count.) So I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain what I’ve been up to.
On the writing front, I finished the final edit of my first manuscript, LET THE CANYONS WEEP, based on a “revise and resubmit” request from an editor at a small press. (I resubmitted, but haven’t had any news yet – still got the fingers crossed.) I also had to admit that my query letter just wasn’t working, so started from scratch. The process of writing a query letter is completely and utterly different from writing the novel – it takes a long time time and a totally different set of brain cells to distill 100,000 words down to three paragraphs. Now that it’s done, I really like the finished product and have begun sending it out. We’ll see what happens…
Then I got my second manuscript, THE WOODSMAN’S ROSE, back from my critique partners – there were some problems with story flow, so I’m still working on a few new scenes, but most of the other edits are done. And I’ve been preparing my third work, RAINBOW MAN, for my critique partners – still got quite a bit of editing to do on that.
Last, but certainly not least, I’ve completed two new chapters of my latest novel, THE WINDS OF MORNING.
Sounds like I might have had my hands full, but this year I also decided to invite my family for Thanksgiving. Never done it before – always just had to bring a covered dish or dessert to someone else’s house, usually my mother’s, MIL’s, or brother’s. But I’ve got to say I really enjoyed it. I like to cook (on occasion) and I love to bake, so it was a really great experience!
As if that weren’t enough, my family makes a REALLY BIG DEAL of Christmas. That means the house gets decorated to the hilt – even the shower curtains get changed. Special Christmas dishes come out of storage, candy canes and snowmen rim the lawn, wreaths are put on every door, inside and out. Reindeer, snowmen, Santas, music boxes, cookie jars – oh, and trains, I love the trains! When I’m finished, the house almost looks like an old-fashioned “shoppe”! Glance in any direction, in any room, and you’ll see something of Christmas.
For much too long, my husband and I lived in a small 4-room apartment that had no room for a tree, so our Christmas tree went on the enclosed but unheated porch downstairs, which meant I only saw it twice after it was decorated: on Christmas morning and at our holiday open house. One year I found a cute little tree that I could decorate and hang on the wall, so at least I had the feeling of a Christmas tree upstairs. Two years ago, my brother gifted me two artificial trees (one full size, one 4′) and my sister gave me a table-top tree.
At that time, we moved into a 10-room home, and decorating has taken on a scope it’s never had before. This year, I decided to use all the trees at my disposal, plus the live tree for the living room. Tiny tree went in the guest room, wall tree to master bedroom; full size tree to my office, 4′ tree to the TV room downstairs. And believe it or not, I had already accumulated enough ornaments for all of them!
Crazy, you say? Maybe a little bit. But living for 16 years without a Christmas tree in the house leaves its scars. And this year, a whole lot of healing took place!
Fortunately for me, the artificial trees can go out to the new shed with the lights still on them, though the decorations have been removed. Otherwise, it might just have taken me until Easter to get everything put away.
I’m at the end of the process now, holiday dishes and cookie jars about the only things that haven’t been put away. Which means that soon, I be getting back into my “normal” rhythm, and be posting a few times a week.
And next year, I’ll be sure to let everyone know there will be down-time between Thanksgiving and the middle of January. Hope you don’t miss me too much!
There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.
W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)