A Word About Mechanics

I’m talking about writing mechanics, not the folks who keep our cars running. (That’s a whole different breed of magic about which I’m not qualified to comment.)

Of all the many things a novice writer can do to improve his or her writing mechanics, the following handful of basics will do more than all the rest combined. I promise!

First: vary the basics–sentence lengths, paragraph lengths, dialects, and word choices. Imagine reading only six word sentences. Before long they just drone on. The words get lost in fog. Over, and over, and over again. They will put you to sleep.

But mix them up and they take on shape and texture. Some short, some long. And some that just seem to mosey on, taking their time to reach a much anticipated goal. Paragraph lengths operate much the same way. Mix ’em up. Long, short, medium, whatever. You’re writing for the eye, too, remember.

Why vary dialects? Because if everyone sounds the same, even if they all come from the same place and time, sameness generates monotony. So give someone a lisp; give someone else a slight brogue, or a cough, or something else to distinguish their voice from all the others.

And then there’s the word choice thing. Look for instances of the same word used more than once in the same paragraph. It often occurs in the same sentence, and the result isn’t pleasant: Joe’s car was pretty cool. The car had four doors and a convertible top, but unlike other cars, it had a secret: this car was jet-powered. Please, someone, gag me with a car. And then, if you have time, re-write this mess without the two instances of “was” and three of the four instances of “car.” (Post it in the comments, and I’ll do something nice, like send you a free copy of my new book, Oh, Bits!)

Second: get rid of  “was” and “-ly” words. I can hear the chorus of squeals already: “What’s wrong with ‘was?'” Nothing, except it’s the crappiest verb known to man. It squats in the middle of sentences taking up space that smart writers fill with “real” verbs, the kind that paint pictures in a reader’s brain. To wit:

  • Was version: Bobbi Sue was fast. I mean, really fast. She was the fastest gal in town.
  • Was version–1: Bobbi Sue had blinding speed; she could outrun everyone in town.
  • Was version-2: When Bobbi Sue raced, the soles of her shoes caught fire.

Close your eyes. See any pictures?

In most cases, recasting a sentence to remove “was” will result in a better sentence. Yes, there will be times when the effort isn’t worth it, especially in dialog. But keep was in mind; it’s sneaky. You’ll do your writing a tremendous service by expelling it.

Something similar can be said for adverbs. In fact, you’d do well just to focus on words ending in “ly.” There’s nothing wrong with them grammatically, and if you prefer to issue stage directions instead of writing action scenes, then keep using ’em. The problem is this: adverbs tell “how” something is accomplished: Joe ran quickly; Debbie danced gracefully; Archibald spoke harshly, etc. [Yawn]  The emphasis is on the modifier, not the verb, and this dilutes the action to the point of banality. Blah.

Why not let Joe tear through the field? Make Debbie pirouette across the stage, and have Archibald scream until his lungs ache? Science has proven that writers deal in words while readers deal in pictures. Logic dictates that the best writers paint the best word pictures. Why don’t they tell us this stuff in school? I suspect it’s because they (whoever in hell “they” are) don’t have a clue. They may be too busy diagramming sentences. [Is anyone still doing that?]

Third: ditch clichés and pet phrases. This may be the toughest one to master. Clichés have become such a part of everyday speech that we don’t realize we’re using them. They’ve become a sort of shorthand, an easy method to get an idea across without bothering to fire up an extra synapse. This failure to be creative in our spoken language causes our written language to deteriorate, too.

If you can’t find these exhausted, empty expressions on your own, find someone else who can. Have them highlight every one so you can go back and purge the damned things. Drive them away like that bloody spot in “MacBeth.” Replace them with something fresh from your own little nest of brain cells. You can do it! It takes practice, but it can be done. (And it sure beats doing push-ups.)

Identifying pet phrases can often be just as hard as finding clichés. But we all know they’re there. We just can’t see ’em. Here’s another situation that can benefit from the sharp-eyed among your friends. If you have to, pay them to find your pets. At the very least, buy them a drink and introduce them to your rich uncle. But not until you’ve gone back through your manuscript and nuked 90% of your pet words and phrases. Trust me on this, you don’t want your work to go out in the world until you’ve cleaned it up.

So, there you have it, the mainline approach to upping your writing mechanics game.

–Josh

PS: Thanks to everyone who took the time to nominate my new book, Oh, Bits! for publication in the Kindle Scout competition. It has been in the top 20 for nine days in a row now and will be available for nomination for 18 more days. If you haven’t already, click the link below if you’d like to read the opening chapter and consider supporting the book. If Kindle Press picks it up, everyone who nominated it will receive a free copy! Here’s the link: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/13XS5GFXGR9WH

Thank you!

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The Scoop on the Scouts

Sorry, this isn’t about kid scouting. It’s about horn-blowing. My own, actually. And something called Kindle Scout. And my new book. More about that anon.

One of the hardest things for independent authors to do is self-promote. Doing it well is even harder. Most of us get into this business thinking that writing the book will be our biggest challenge. But for the many who meet that challenge, an even bigger one awaits: selling the book!

To do that, one has to be noticed, and with so many new titles appearing every single day, getting noticed is damned difficult unless you’ve got the kind of name recognition that comes with an NFL contract, election to national office, or maybe a conviction for the crime of the decade. It’s safe to say most of us won’t be able to rely on anything like that.

So we’re left with options like constantly flogging our titles on Facebook, or sending out flyers, or buying lists of names and doing mass e-mailings to people who don’t know us and couldn’t care less. Marketing “services” abound, each promising to push our books to fantastic heights and stratospheric profits. I don’t know about you, but the older I get the more adept I’ve become at smelling snake oil when I step in it.

Then along comes Amazon with an alternative: Kindle Scout. They accept previously unpublished books, which meet their editing standards, and make the first 5,000 words available for free. Readers can thus sample a wide range of new titles which they can then nominate, or not, for publication by Kindle Press.

Kindle Press will pay the author a modest advance against e-book sales and evaluate the manuscript for potential audio book conversion and foreign language translations. The author will receive a generous portion of any proceeds from such sales. The author also retains all other rights, including the option to print and market printed copies.

But the biggest advantage of all is having Amazon’s marketing juggernaut behind the title. That will likely stimulate sales of all the other books by the same author. At least, that’s the hope.

Which brings me to my latest book, Oh, Bits! which entered the 30-day long Kindle Scout gauntlet last week. If you follow this blog, I’ve already sent you an e-mail begging your support. Consider this a gentle reminder in case you didn’t get around to doing anything earlier.

It takes a good deal of time and effort to maintain this blog, and the aim is to provide useful information on a regular basis for writers, especially those on the front side of their careers. I will be profoundly grateful if you return the favor and nominate Oh, Bits! for publication by Kindle Press. It really is one helluva story.

And… here’s the link: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/13XS5GFXGR9WH

Feel free to share it!

–Josh

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Trust Your Readers!

After all, they trusted you enough to buy your book.

Let’s back up a step or two. Just who are these people who took a chance on your ability to string nouns and verbs together in an entertaining fashion? Where did they come from? Surely, they can’t all be related to you in some way, can they? I think not.

Consider these woeful statistics excerpted from the Literacy Project Foundation (There’s plenty more to read on their website, and I urge you to spend some time there.):

  •  50% of adults cannot read a book written at the eighth grade level
  • 45 million are functionally illiterate and read below a fifth grade level
  • 44% of American adults do not read a book in a year

It’s safe to say that few, if any, of your readers come from these categories (and obviously, I’m not including books written for non- or beginning readers). For one thing, they bought your book, and unless you’ve loaded it up with cartoons and/or photos which appeal to juveniles, they bought it for the written content.  *↓* 

In other words, these folks are intelligent, reasoning human beings. They can draw logical conclusions, follow intricate plots and story lines, and formulate reasonable opinions about the characters, entertainment value, and other elements found in popular books. In short, they don’t need you to lead them by the nose.

  • Your job is NOT to tell them what to think.
  • Your job is NOT to tell them how to react.
  • Your job is NOT to interpret any emotional aspect of the work.

They can and will handle all of this on their own.

Many of us grew up hearing or reading the following line or a variation of it, usually (hopefully) as children: “And the moral of this story is… blah, blah, blah.” In other words, the author of this tale has absolutely no regard for the intellectual ability of his readers. They are so stupid, so insipidly moronic, they can’t even figure out a life lesson from something as stunningly obvious as “don’t be mean,” or “use good manners,” or “don’t poke a hornet’s nest unless you can run faster than at least one of the other idiots in your herd of troglodytes.”

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen this, or something similar, in the work of my students. The good news is, after I’ve roundly chastised them for the transgression, they rarely repeat it. (I hear I’ve been nominated for the “Knuckle-Rapper Award,” a coveted prize won almost exclusively by misanthropic nuns. Hope springs, eh?)

There are other manifestations. Most of them revolve around the narrative slipping into second person. Anytime one hears a narrator admonishing “you,” the locomotive is already off the tracks; the rails are separating and headed for different zip codes, and a tidy mountain of gravel is doubtless being plowed and piled by the runaway train. Please, don’t let it bury you.

Treat your readers as adults, unless you’re not specifically writing for adults. And even then, give them some credit for intellect. People are smarter than you think, despite what those steeped in politics–on both sides of the aisle–wish to tell us, ad nauseam.

As always, use good judgment.

–Josh

 *⊕* Okay, I realize I’ve loaded up my writing textbooks with illustrations that may not appeal to the most noble of intellectual ideals. They’re there for comic relief, and folks who are struggling to learn the craft of writing need all the comic relief they can get.

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Formula fiction? Me? Never!

Okay, not never. In fact, always. Why? ‘Cause it works.

There are certain things fiction readers crave, but the item sitting at the top of the list is simply this: a rousing good tale. It needn’t even be original. But it must be evocative enough to transport the reader away from whatever is their daily norm. Genre is far less important than the power of the story to make the reader suspend disbelief, whether the action takes place on another planet, in a high school gym, under a cabbage leaf, or anywhere else.

How does a writer accomplish that? Surely a formula can’t be the answer, or we’d all be writing bestsellers every time. That presumes, of course, that we’re all using the same formula. Far too many wannabe writers have no idea what’s in the formula, and yet they’re adamant about NOT using it. Somewhere along the line, “formulaic” became a bad word.

What a bunch of horse piddle. The formula I use requires:

  • Sympathetic characters
  • Conflict
  • Meaningful motives
  • Surprises
  • Conflict
  • Verisimilitude
  • Conflict
  • Experiential settings
  • Variation in pacing and structure

And did I mention conflict?

Writing with a formula in mind isn’t restrictive; it’s liberating. As pointed out long ago, (here, in fact) it requires some pretty basic stuff: an opening consisting of a Person, in a Place, with a Problem; a middle consisting of Try/Fails, and an ending which includes both a Climax and a Denouement. See the link for details.

The formula doesn’t provide a checklist of things you can dump into a recipe like garlic salt or bacon bits. You still have to write intelligently. You still need to understand proper punctuation and grammar. Fortunately, those things can still be learned if you somehow avoided the information in grade school.

The stories I find most interesting, and the kind I try to create, are those featuring a cast with conflicting goals. (Note the root word of the adjective describing goals.) This is the heart of the story. It’s made up of the actions and the consequences of those actions, which the characters employ to achieve their ends. Readers don’t much care whether or not the players achieve intermediate goals; what they want to see is how the characters handle adversity, success, fame, and/or failure. That’s where they’re more likely to find parallels in their own lives.

In order to get started, you need a character with a conflict. (There’s that word again!) He wants or needs something, but there’s an obstacle in the way. I find it easier to work from a scenario where another character either is or represents that obstacle. Instantly, I have two plot lines: he wants it; no, she wants it.

If all I intend to do is write a short story, I’ve got plenty to work with. Novels require more. So instead of having the two characters with conflicting goals go at each other in the beginning, I’ll throw some other obstacles in their way first. Joe wants to drive to Iowa to claim his inheritance? Fine. I’ll have someone steal his car, or blow it up, or force it off the road, or just let him run out of gas. Any of those things, and about million others, will present opportunities for spinning Joe’s tale. Maybe he gets mugged while hiking to a gas station, or maybe he tries a short cut and gets kidnapped by crooks, or aliens, Amazonian warrior babes, or rabid fairies.

The other protagonist, I’ll call her Pearl, can’t afford to let Joe claim his inheritance because doing so will reveal some horrible secret, probably but not necessarily, about her. Fortunately, she already lives in Iowa and knows the attorney settling the estate. Her task then becomes getting her hands on the damning document (book, video, manuscript, carving, Voodoo death charm or whatever) before Joe does. Slowing her down is as easy as breaking her leg, arresting her for being drunk and disorderly, or running her out of town for preaching without a license. (I’m told they have some bizarre laws in Iowa.)

If that isn’t enough, I can always toss in a love interest for one of them or maybe add an incensed bureaucrat, a bipolar athlete, or a deranged urban outdoors-man, and suddenly I have the makings for a real page-burner. Er, turner.

All that lovely conflict will provide opportunities to show what the players are made of, what drives them, and how far they’ll go to achieve their aims. It includes all the non-conflict stuff in the list I posted above. You’ll need to include all that, too. Luckily, having all that conflict to work with should make it fairly easy.

–Josh

 

 

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Psychology of the Page

If you’re a reader, you’ve probably looked at a million pages. If your reading material of choice tends to be hard-copy novels (paperbacks or hardbacks) as opposed to digital books, you have no say in how the page looks. What you see is what you get. Writers, on the other hand, do have some options. We can seriously influence the way our books look, and I’m not just talking about independent publishers. Even if you publish traditionally, you might want to give some thought to just how the pages of your book, look.

If you favor lengthy, involved paragraphs, rich with exposition, description and other collections of detail, there’s a good chance your pages will generally consist of solid chunks of unrelieved text. The Bible (sans illustrations) and just about anything by Ayn Rand are good examples. Note the two page mock-ups which follow.

The one on the left has very little white space. In fact, almost every line is maxed out. The page on the right is much more relaxed. The paragraphs are shorter. There’s probably some dialog, which would account for the extremely short entries. Now, without knowing the actual content of either page, which one do you find more inviting? Which is more intimidating? Perhaps more to the point, which of these pages will take longer to read? Should that matter? Probably not. But does it matter? I think so. I believe this one issue, call it “text density,” could very well contribute to a reader’s perceptions of the story.

It works in a couple ways. In the most obvious instance, readers are moving faster through the book since there’s less text on every page. Seems simple enough. Those pages are being flipped in a hurry; the reader races through the story, and before he or she knows it, they’ve reached the end. Writers always love to hear they’ve created a page-turner. If a writer chooses to write with a little white space in mind, they can actually create one.

Then too, consider the over-all length of a book. The average novel runs between 80-100 thousand words. Let’s say yours is smack in the middle: 90K. How many pages will that require? Font size is critical; a book set in 14-point type will take 40% more pages than one set in 10-point, assuming the style is the same. Text density can also have an effect. White space can add a significant number of pages, perhaps as much as 10 or 20% more.

Imagine you’re standing in one of those little airport shops perusing the available paperbacks. You’ve got a five-hour flight ahead of you, and you want something to help you kill time. You find two books that appeal to you. One of them is 250 pages of small, dense type; the other is 350 pages of bigger type with lots of white space. The bigger book costs two bucks more. Which one will you buy?

I’m guessing the majority of readers will spend the extra money. I certainly would.

Of course, all of this is based on a much more important premise: that you’ve written a book which is absolutely worth reading — no matter what font you used, or how much white space you employed. None of that will save a lousy story, unsatisfying characters, or a hackneyed plot. A bad book will remain a bad book no matter how lovingly it’s laid out.

–Josh

 

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I’ve Got This Great Idea For A Book!

Now, where do I start?

Most writers have some clue about the story they want to write. If they’ve been down the writing road before, they’ll most likely just dive in and start working. Those folks, of course, are pantsers, members of that daring category of storytellers who disdain logic and reason (and an outline) and plunge into the business of creating art — or “arting” as Chuck Wendig would have it.

The rest of the writing herd, the plotters, are more likely to make a few notes if not some sort of outline or plan. Then they’ll dig in.

But what if you haven’t been writing long enough to know whether or not you’re a pantser or a plotter, or something in-between? What do you do? Where do you start?

My suggestion would be to restrain the arting urge, at least for a little while. Then, instead of writing an outline, a list, a series of character studies, or anything else, try your hand at blurbing your book.

There are a variety of approaches one can use for writing a book blurb. The one I like the most was devised by professional writer and freelance editor, Victoria Mixon. Her formula cuts right to the heart of what a story needs to compete in the world of commercial fiction. Here it is:

When [identity] [protagonist name] [does something], [something happens]. Now, with [time limit/restrictions], [protagonist] must [do something brave] to [accomplish great achievement]/ or [sacrifice high stakes].

Here’s a version of the formula with a variety of character possibilities. The formulaic words can be manipulated to fit the circumstances, but the primary elements all remain: character, motive, action, and consequence leading to a climax.

Here’s how I applied the formula to my current novel in progress:

When eager college grad, Stormy Green, applies for a newspaper job during WWII, she meets an eccentric gossip columnist with a bizarre lead on some Nazi infiltrators. Now, with the columnist murdered, and time running out, Stormy must take her place, unravel the lead, and find a way to thwart the terrorist plot.

Clearly, the blurb doesn’t tell the whole story. Far from it. But it does force the writer to focus on the critical story elements. By working what you have in mind into a framework like this, you’ll suddenly have a better understanding of the story arc — the guts of the tale. You’ll be far more likely to know where the tale begins and how it will end. All in a couple of sentences!

Does this mean you can’t change your mind as you go? Of course not. New characters will pop up; new challenges will present themselves; things you never dreamed of will suddenly rear up in the night and demand to be included in your book. Whether or not you allow them in is entirely up to you. But by then you’ll command a double armload of scenes, maybe even chapters, and those decisions will be much, much easier.

If you haven’t blurbed your story idea yet, get busy. Now!

–Josh

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The Dos and Don’ts to Dialog Tags

I’m pleased to offer the following writerly advice from Ryan Lanz whose blog on the craft (see links at end of article) have helped many beginning writers. And, I’m pleased to note, we pretty much agree on every point! I’ll be back next week. –Josh

The Dos and Don’ts to Dialog Tags

by Ryan Lanz

Writers use dialogue tags constantly. In fact, we use them so often that readers all but gloss over them. They should be invisible. However, there are ways to misuse them and make them stand out.

In an effort to avoid that, let’s take a closer look at dialogue tags. Toward the end of “Tag travesties” is something I sorely wish someone had told me before I started writing.

Why do we use dialogue tags?

The simple answer is that we use them to indicate who’s speaking. In visual media, such as movies or television, the viewer can easily tell who’s talking by lip movement and camera angles. When reading a book, obviously that’s not an option.

Tag travesties

There are certainly ways to misuse dialogue tags. When I was a new writer, I felt compelled to overwrite. I ‘m sure every new writer goes through a version of this. I observed how successful writers used simple tags like “said/asked” and thought to myself, that’s boring. I’m going to be an awesome writer by making them more interesting. You don’t have to admit it aloud, writers, but we all know that most of us have. Let’s look at an example of this:

  • “We can’t cross this river,” Alanna exclaimed repugnantly.
  • John crossed the room and shouted disgustedly, “I’ll never take you with me.”
  • “This has been the worst day ever,” Susie cried angrily.

For those of you who still aren’t convinced, let’s up the dosage with a paragraph:

Hank crossed the room and sat down. “We should have never waited this long for a table,” he seethed, leaning over to glare at her. 
“If you wanted a better spot, you should have called ahead for a reservation,” Trudy returned pointedly.
“Well, perhaps if you didn’t take so long to get ready, I could have,” he countered dryly.

Can you imagine reading an entire book like that? *shiver*

So why do new writers feel the urge to be that . . . creative with their dialogue tags? Back in the beginning, I thought the typical tags of “said/asked” were too boring and dull. It didn’t take me long to realize that dull (in this context) is the point.

Image your words as a window pane of glass, and the story is behind it. Your words are merely the lens that your story is seen through. The thicker the words, the cloudier the glass gets. If you use huge words, purple prose, or crazy dialogue tags, then all you’re doing is fogging up the glass through which your reader is trying to view your story. The goal is to draw as little attention to your actual words as possible; therefore, you keep the glass as clear as possible, so that the reader focuses on the story. Using tags like “said/asked” are so clear, they’re virtually invisible.

Now, does that mean that you can’t use anything else? Of course not. Let’s look further.

Alternate dialogue tags

Some authors say to never use anything other than “said/asked,” while others say to heck with the rules and use whatever you want. Some genres (such as romance) are more forgiving about using alternate dialogue tags. I take a more pragmatic approach to it. I sometimes use lines like:

“I’m glad we got out of there,” she breathed.

The very important question is how often. I compare adverbs and alternate dialogue tags to a strong spice. Some is nice, but too much will spoil the batch. Imagine a cake mix with a liter of vanilla flavoring, rather than the normal tablespoon. The more often you use anything other than “said/asked,” the stronger the flavor. If it’s too powerful, it’ll tug the reader away from the story and spotlights those words. In a full length book of around 85,000 words, I personally use alternate dialogue tags only around a few dozen times total.

By saving them, the pleasant side effect is that when I do use them, they pack more of an emotional punch.


Related: How to Write Natural Dialogue


Action beats

I have a love affair with action beats. Used effectively, they can be another great way to announce who’s talking, yet at the same time add some movement or blocking to a scene. For example:

Looking down, Katie ran a finger around the edge of the mug. “We need to talk.”

That added some nice flavor to the scene, and you know who spoke. The only caveat is to be careful of not using too many action beats, as it does slow down the pacing a tiny bit. If you’re writing a bantering sequence, for example, you wouldn’t want to use a lot of action beats so as to keep the pacing quick.

Dos and don’ts

Sometimes, action beats and dialogue tags have misused punctuation. I’ll give some examples.

  • “Please don’t touch that.” She said, blocking the display. (Incorrect)
  • “Let’s head to the beach,” he said as he grabbed a towel. (Correct)
  • Sam motioned for everyone to come closer, “Take a look at this.” (Incorrect)
  • Debbie handed over the magnifying glass. “Do you see the mossy film on the top?” (Correct)

Conclusion

Like many things in a story/novel, it’s all about balance. Try alternating actions beats, dialogue tags, and even no tags at all when it’s clear who’s speaking. By changing it up, it’ll make it so that no one method is obvious.

Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on TwitterFacebook, and Tumblr

Image courtesy of Onnola via Flickr, Creative Commons.

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