Every Writer’s Nemesis

Library shelves bulge with volumes dedicated to the rules of grammar, and yet, writers, teachers, and scholars debate the placement of a comma.

Part of the problem stems from language evolving—as humans evolve—some good, some bad. Published writing incorporates a multitude of styles, some writers choosing long flowing sentences littered with phrases where a breath is needed—commas indicate a short pause—while others use little or no punctuation despite a needed slow-down.

But there is more to it than a writer finding their voice or casting all rules over the cliff in a desire to “stand-out” on the crowded hilltop. Punctuation, commas especially, give sentences their cadence, their continuity, and the flow with which the writer weaves their tale.

The “Do Not Do” list of January 10th had a sentence rendered unruly without commas.

Learn the rules of punctuation so readers can understand what you mean your nuances and the tempo of your sentences.

With commas added, the sentence makes sense:

Learn the rules of punctuation so readers can understand what you mean, your nuance, and the tempo of your sentences.

If you have problems with commas, study Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Although written long ago (recently updated), this “little book” is still required reading on the finest college and university campuses. Why? Using simple examples, the book illustrates the basics of sentence structure and style.

Another place to learn about comma usage is online at Grammar Book

As with any rule, there are times when a sentence is better served when a rule is broken; the main criteria is efficiency and clarity for the reader. Here’s a sentence from my novel, The Returning, when a merchant stands before the King, having been robbed while transporting wagons filled with weapons and gems to fund an upcoming war:

“You know I would have given my life to protect your goods but there was no opportunity to stand and face them like a man and—“

Normally a comma would be placed before but, (and before the final and), but I wanted to show the merchant rambling, breathless.

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Side Note: Dashes at the end of a sentence indicate the speaker is cut off in mid-sentence; in this case, the King demanding the merchant be silent. This is different than using ellipses ( . . .) at the end of a sentence when the words (or thoughts) trail off without a conclusion. The ellipses at the end of a sentence, as when placed in the middle, shows the reader that words are missing:

Today, after all the votes were cast, the young deputy trumped the old sheriff.

Today . . . the young deputy trumped the old sheriff.
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The use of commas can be a tricky business. The best advice I can give is this: Read, Study, Learn. See how other writers handle different situations, ask yourself why they chose to use a comma (or not), and practice writing sentences a variety of ways to find the best one for your purpose. Again, clarity is the key ingredient, and ambiguity is your enemy.

There is a time when commas are unnecessary: during the first draft. If while writing you sense a pause, type in a comma, but there is no need to get too hung up on grammar when in the throes of creation. For me, all bets are off during the first draft—the main purpose is to get the ideas from your brain to paper or computer screen.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Adverbs and You

The next item from the “Do Not Do” list (posted January 10th of this year):

Eliminate adverbs, especially those with the dreaded -ly ending.

Adverbs with the -ly ending should be used sparingly. This sentence prompts the question, Why?

The sparing use of adverbs improves writing. Although this sentence also asks a question, (How?), the strength of the construction is declarative: a statement of fact rather than mere suggestion.

Adverbs exist for a reason; they are used to modify and strengthen a verb, but often -ly adverbs only add redundancy or offer a weak alternative to a stronger verb choice.

She turned quickly. Alone this sentence is adequate, but nothing more.

A better way may be to write Nancy spun (or pivoted, or whirled), or perhaps show the action–Nancy’s hair whipped across her shoulders when she turned [spun, pivoted, whirled].

The goal is to give the reader a sense of the action so they can view the scene in their mind.

A different example:

The two reports on “Man’s Migration From Africa” were different.

The two reports on “Man’s Migration From Africa” were profoundly different.

The use of the adverb profoundly in the second option enhances the meaning and thrust of the sentence. Notice how the adverb adds urgency so the reader anticipates a great disparity within the two reports and looks forward to reading more, whereas the first sentence remains innocuous, dull.

The examples show the impact an adverb can have. I assume the sentences and paragraphs to follow will detail the differences of the two reports. As with all sentence structure, the point the writer wishes to make comes with dozens of variables and word choices.

One choice may be to reform the sentence:

The two reports on “Man’s Migration From Africa” differed.

See, choices, always decisions depending on what and how you want to infer the information to the reader. With adverb usage, it is important to ensure the choice helps the sentence rather than hinders or masks a flaw in the construction.

Finding and eliminating the overuse of adverbs will happen in the second and subsequent drafts. Do not be overly concerned when in the heat and inspiration of the first draft; instead, get the ideas down, remembering the first draft will be inadequate.

Now, go type or write those words because without their appearance on the page the ideas remain imaginings rather than reality.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Action Speaks Louder

Last week I blogged about the “Do Not Do” list, and thought the topic warranted more discussion. The reason for the list is that, in most cases, avoiding the items are best—for your writing, and especially for your readers.

Tackling the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule in conjunction with use of active rather than passive voice, here is a sentence, perhaps one in the middle of a scene.

Deke was afraid.

This is a passive sentence and a “telling” instance. Let’s remove both weaknesses.

Deke’s hands trembled.

“Trembled” denotes fear, but it can be reaction to other outside forces as well, like cold or a case of nerves.

Deke’s hands trembled, his head [temples] pounding with each heartbeat. Sweat beaded above his upper lip.

(Note: In the above sentence, the word “temples” in brackets tells me, the writer, to make sure I utilize the best word, whether “head” or “temples” or something else—it tells me to stop and look deeper into the nuance of the sentence. I bracket words or phrases during first drafts so as not to halt writing flow).

Maybe a bit more is needed in the above example to flesh out Deke’s character, while adding a little back-story without the dreaded info dump.

Just like the war. He had survived that, and he would survive this—the hope fell hollow and silent.

Adding the hope fell hollow and silent [hope rang dull] shows doubt and desperation, but at this point the reader may or may not know if the threat causing Deke’s fear is real or imagined.

With a little revision, the section now reads,

Deke’s hands trembled, his temples pounding with each heartbeat, sweat beading above his upper lip. Just like the war. He had survived that, and he will survive this—the hope fell hollow and silent.

A slight change at the end adds a question rather than the loss of hope:

He had survived that, and wondered if survival this time required the same action.

Either way, the sentence is longer, but more important than word count, is Deke’s response to fear: Showing Deke’s reaction versus Telling the reader what he feels.

Each writer brings to the keyboard a lifetime of experiences and observations, and depending on how and what they want to reveal will determine how each scene is portrayed.

One writer may choose to write as described, while another might opt for brevity:

Fear crept up Deke’s spine, prickling his scalp just like during the war. Will I run this time?

This last version has a bit of “telling” with the use of the word fear, but then describes Deke’s response—prickling scalp—and informs the reader that the character was in the war (back-story). The question Deke asks himself also adds a question in the reader’s mind: is Deke a deserter, or does he define orders to retreat as running?

Each writer will make these types of choices in a thousand times a thousand instances; creation demands you convey what you want the reader to feel and sense and wonder about.

How you craft sentences will be based on several factors, but much has to do with how your character’s history affects the “now” of the story.

Each version written about Deke causes questions readers will ask themselves; questions prompted in a reader’s mind will draw them to the next sentence, the next paragraph, and the next page to the end of the writing.

Isn’t that what we want?

See you on the next page,

Rick

P.S. Of course, you could write the sentence, Deke was afraid (or frightened, or terrified), but is that really what you want to do?

(Knights of Writ’s 50th Blog Post)

Don’t Believe What THEY Say

If you have been writing awhile (or, more specifically, read about the writing craft), there are certain “Do Not Do” messages that keep being told:

  1. Show, don’t tell
  2. Use the active voice, avoid the passive voice
  3. Eliminate adverbs, especially those with the dreaded -ly ending
  4. Learn the rules of punctuation so readers can understand what you mean your nuances and the tempo of your sentences
  5. Refrain from using exclamation points, damn it!
  6. Develop a sympathetic character readers can identify with
  7. NO prologues (especially within the fantasy genre)
  8. Watch out for the Viewpoint Switch–how are you in that person’s head when you were just in that other person’s head?
  9. No fragments.
  10. And do not begin a sentence with a conjunction.

Lies. Rules to be broken. Sort of.

All of the above list are writing “guidelines” you need to be aware of, though the validity of some border on outright untruths (though they may have been true in past ages). These guidelines remind me of Captain Barbossa’s definition of the pirate-code-of-parlay in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

Case(s) in Point:

I recently finished reading the best-seller, The Kite Runner, a novel set in Afghanistan and the San Francisco Bay Area, the first novel by Khaled Hosseini. He broke most of the above “rules” several times during the course of the novel, and yet the book’s appeal remains undeniable.

Everybody not living a hermit life in a cave somewhere knows that George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is a national bestseller, and that the Game of Thrones (the title of the first novel in his epic fantasy) is an ungodly popular mini-series. Martin is an exceptional writer in many ways (not prolific, however, as he has taken up to 6 years to write a single novel within the series), but he breaks the “No Prologue” rule in his novels. I might add that his prologue in Game of Thrones is one of the best action-oriented prologues I have read, but it is still a prologue.

Then there is Cormac McCarthy, a multiple best-selling author and Pulitzer Fiction winner (among other distinguished awards) for his novel, The Road, which was made into a movie starring Viggo Mortensen. I have not been able to read his books, though trying several times. For me, I have a difficult time reading prose that contains little or no punctuation, “especially quotation marks for dialogue,” I declare, quite vehemently.

What does all this mean to you and me, writers struggling to get editors and agents to read and accept our writing?

In the above examples, two of the authors were known and at least semi-famous before the novels mentioned were published; The Kite Runner was Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel—a commendable feat, to be sure.

As a writer, it is critical to know the rules (guidelines?) of one’s trade, not unlike any other profession or art-form. Writers need an intimacy with their tools—words, punctuation, sentence structure—and an understanding of their individual power, for they are the building blocks of creation. In other words, simply knowing that the rule, “use the active voice, avoid the passive voice” is often the best option, one must also know it is not the only option. There are times when you want, even need, to use the passive voice, if for no other reason than to change the pace to set up the next section.

There are some rules that give you a choice such as the use of the colon: The first word following can either be capitalized or not, consistency throughout the document being the most important element.

There are other rules that do not allow modification: the use of dashes—such as this—and parentheses ( ) are examples. Dashes and parentheses are used in order to add, describe or further explain a part of the sentence, the story, or a character.

Examples:

Walking past the three boys, I ignored—or tried to—their disparaging remarks.

With both the dashes and the parentheses, if removed along with the words, they do not change the main thrust of the sentence; their placement enhances the sentence instead.

Placement of both dashes and parenthesis is critical to sentence construction. As to parentheses (remember these?), think of them as a whisper with less force to the statement than the dashes—get what I mean? In either case, do not overuse them; they hold a power that is lost (or just annoys the reader) when dotting every page.

Again, the words within the dashes and parentheses can be removed without changing the point of the sentence. In other words, (one cannot) use parentheses arbitrarily, as in this sentence; when the words between the punctuation are removed, the sentence either makes no sense or dramatically changes the meaning.

Yes, there is a great deal to learn about language (like life), and every day should be a learning experience. The decision to break a rule ultimately lies with the creator, and I recommend that you conform to the known guidelines until you are trusted by agents, editors, and especially readers. That is, unless you MUST break through the barrier out of artistic necessity; if so, be prepared to explain why you did such-and-such.

Now go write, and I will see you on the next page,

Rick

Steal Another Writer’s Ideas

2016: A New Year, and the perfect time to steal another writer’s ideas and make them your own. Everybody does it. Quentin Tarantino freely admits theft of ideas when he says, “I steal from every single movie ever made.”

Theft is rampant. Embrace it. Use it.

An example, per Wikipedia:

Mithril is a metal found in many fantasy worlds. It was originally introduced by the fantasy writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, being present in his Middle-Earth.” Everybody who has used the term mithril after J.R.R. stole the idea.

Speaking of Fantasy’s acknowledged Master, Tolkien “stole” the concept of Orcs from previous writings and myths, specifically Beowulf and perhaps the writings of Giambattista Basile (1566-1632). Since Tolkien’s depiction of Orcs in The Hobbit (and more dramatically in The Lord of the Rings), many others have taken his ideas, notably the gaming industry, including Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer, and World of Warcraft, the latter which bases much of its mythos on the Orc race. Many Orc-related books have also been written. I was reminded of this recently while following Goodreads’ “Sword and Sorcery, an earthier sort of fantasy” blog.

Be forewarned: I am not talking about plagiarism or copyright infringement—those bring with them possible jail time . . . unless, of course, you want unlimited writing time. Should you desire unlimited time to write (except when you’re looking over your shoulder for your new friend, Bubba), look up those two criminal acts and, well, act on them.

There is nothing new under the sun (or moon, for that matter). Everything has been done before, or at least a variation; there is nothing you can devise that has not already been thought about and implemented within the creative endeavor of writing. That truth should not deter you.

There exist only so many conflict types of stories.

Man versus Man (woman, alien, monster, etc.)
Man versus Self
Man versus Nature
Man versus Ideology and/or Authority
Man versus Society

Note: Some lists combine the last two (Ideology/Authority and Society), but here I separate them because a character can have a conflict with an ideology or authority (say, the church), but not with society as a whole.

The trick to legal theft within the creative writing process is to find an idea (remember, no original ideas exist) and put your own twist on it. How many stories have been written with the following premise: a girl from an affluent family falls in love with a boy hailing from a feuding family?

Romeo and Juliet leaps to mind, but there are dozens, if not hundreds, of others. As a side note, Shakespeare stole the idea from earlier writers.

Also from Wikipedia:

Romeo and Juliet belongs to a tradition of tragic romances stretching back to antiquity. The plot is based on an Italian tale translated into verse as The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562, and retold in prose in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter in 1567. Shakespeare borrowed heavily from both, but expanded the plot by developing a number of supporting characters, particularly Mercutio and Paris. Believed to have been written between 1591 and 1595, the play was first published in a quarto version in 1597. The text of the first quarto version was of poor quality, however, and later editions corrected the text to conform more closely with Shakespeare’s original.”

Shakespeare, then, was a thief, stealing the story (and basically the title as well) from another who wrote the tale two years before the Bard’s birth. Of course, Shakespeare did a masterful job with his language and plot-twists, but that does not change the fact that he did, in fact, steal the idea.

You can do the same and perhaps, like Shakespeare, improve on the original. Just be careful not to “borrow” specifics: change names, events, settings, time periods, and come up with your own plotting tricks.

How?

Let’s look at Ernest Hemingway’s classic novella, The Old Man and the Sea, the story about a Cuban fisherman during a streak of horrible luck who finally catches a giant marlin in which an epic battle ensues.

A similar story idea might be something like this: A middle-aged to older knight, his better and braver days behind him, sets out to slay a fierce dragon and earn the respect of the people—something lost long ago which defines who he is.

It is the same plot, but the story’s elements (time, place, character’s occupation) have been changed, which in fact, makes it a new and different story—a story only you can write.

There is nothing wrong (either ethically or morally) with this sort of creative theft, as long as you heed the warnings and impart your own unique “branding” style and prose.

With that said,

See You on the Next Page,

Rick