13 Ways You’re Writing Wrongly

Inspired by K. M. Weiland’s wonderful post, “How Not to Be a Writer: 15 Signs You’re Doing It Wrong,” I decided to make my own list.

My list differs from hers, since it’s borne of my own experiences. Moreover, I’m sure there are plenty of unlisted items I’m still getting wrong, that hinder me from greater success.

Arranged in rough order of the writing process, here are a baker’s dozen ways you’re writing wrongly:

  1. You’re not actually fitting one word up against another. In other words, you’re not writing any fiction. Maybe you’re easily distracted, doing too much research, talking about being a writer while not writing, or just intimidated by the prospect. Doesn’t matter. If you’re not writing, you’re never going to be a writer.
  1. You bought your limousine and mansion before the advance arrived. Let’s set some realistic expectations here. Most likely, you’re going to labor in obscurity for a while, probably years. First time best-sellers are very rare. Heck, best-selling authors themselves are rare. Only a tiny percentage of writers support themselves with their writing.
  1. You’re copying someone else’s style. After all, (you’re thinking), if it’s working for James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, Nora Roberts, John Grisham, etc., then it should work for you. Inconvenient fact—readers already have a Patterson, Rowling, Roberts, Grisham, etc. Create your own style.
  1. You’re sure the rules don’t apply to you. I’m talking about those pesky rules of English and the rules of literature, stuff like spelling, grammar, and story structure. All those rules are for mere plebeians, not you, right? Actually, you’re really supposed to know them. As for always following each rule to the letter, see item 5 on my list.
  1. You obsess about following the rules. You’re now a walking dictionary and could qualify to teach English at Harvard. You chiseled the rules onto granite tablets and now pray before the tablets twice daily. Why are your stories not selling? There’s an overarching rule you forgot—you’re supposed to write stories people want to read. If some rule of writing is keeping you from telling a great story, break the rule. Just don’t go too far (see item 4).
  1. You quit before “The End.” Around the world, desk drawers and computer file directories bulge with half-finished stories. If you would be a writer, you must finish your stories.
  1. Your epidermis is on the thin side. In other words, you don’t take criticism well. The most mundane comment from someone in your critique group or from an editor will either set you off in a bout of inconsolable sobbing or high-minded ranting at the imbeciles that surround you. Get a grip. They’re not attacking your personal character; they’re trying to help you improve your story.
  1. You inhabit a world that’s just too slow to recognize the wonder that is you. How frustrating that must be, to cast your gaze at the mortals about you and see them not bowing before the genius in their midst. Well, genius, here’s a word you might look up: patience. Recognition, if it’s to come at all, will come in time.
  1. You revise edit reword amend change adjust vary redraft alter rephrase modify wordsmith rewrite your story endlessly. Sure, that story will be perfect once you work on it a bit more, just add this and delete that, change the POV character, throw in some better verbs and adjectives. It seems like it’s never quite right. True, it never will be perfect, but it could be good enough.
  1. You defy Submission Guidelines. What’s with all these editors, anyway? Each one has a particular format for story submissions, and each format is different. That’s too much trouble for a great writer like you. Your story is so superb the editor will overlook how you flouted a few guidelines, right? Nope, wrong again. Obey those guidelines.
  1. You never click ‘Submit’ or ‘Send.’ That’s because if you do, some editor might actually see your precious story, might read it, and might not like it. Better to keep your story safe with you, in your home, where nobody can ever criticize it. Uh…no. Show your baby to the world. It will be okay.
  1. Rejections are reasons to revise edit reword…rewrite your story. An editor has rejected your story, perhaps even explained why. To you, that’s a sign you must rewrite it before it can be good enough to submit elsewhere. No. Go ahead and submit it elsewhere immediately. (However, if an editor rejects your story but says she’ll accept it if you revise it in a particular way—ah, that’s the sign that you should rewrite and submit it to her again.)
  1. You’re relaxing after submitting a story. There, you just sent your story on its way. Now you can kick back and wait for the acceptance, the contract with the six-figure advance, the launch party, the book tour, and the TV interviews. Sorry, no. You’re supposed to be a writer. Start writing your next story already.

Avoid those pitfalls and you’ll be on your way to becoming a published writer. Best wishes in all your writing efforts, from—

            Poseidon’s Scribe

December 25, 2016Permalink

To Know Your Grammar is to Love Her, Part II

Millions of you loyal readers will recall the first time I blogged about grammar. This time I’m tackling the issue from a different perspective.

GrammarIn my previous post on the subject, I focused on the obscure and easily forgotten terms people associate with grammar, and how some think they can’t write because they don’t remember all those definitions from English class.

Today I’ll explore some basics of grammar that might be keeping you from succeeding as a writer, prevent you from grasping that brass ring. No strange words this time (well, maybe one).

I came upon this blog post by Allison VanNest that discusses five common grammar mistakes beginning writers make. Well worth reading! Experienced editors would likely agree with Allison about her top five list, based on manuscripts they receive.

  • Misuse of Commas: I like Ms. VanNest’s take on this one. Commas are supposed to signal pauses. That’s why I’m an advocate of the Serial (or Oxford) Comma. However, I’ll bow to the wishes of an editor who’s willing to accept my stories!
  • Incorrect Capitalization: I’m surprised this one made the list of the top five grammar mistakes, but I guess it is a problem.
  • Misspellings: It’s very true what Allison writes about this, including the fact that spell checkers can lead you astray. (I’ve long loved the funny poem about spell checkers.)
  • Wordiness: We’re all prone to this. As you edit, make each word and phrase defend itself, earn its place in your story.
  • Missing Determiners: There’s that one (possibly) strange word I mentioned. Don’t leave out “a,” “an,” and “the” when they’re needed for clarity.

You may be thinking, “So what if my story has a misspelled word, or I’ve got a comma out of place? Why is that so important?”

Here’s why: If you send your manuscript to an editor, your bad grammar tells the editor you don’t know the language very well. Your bad grammar makes the editor more likely to reject your story even if it is otherwise compelling. Moreover, the editor is more likely to reject your future submissions out of hand.

If you decide to skip the editor and self-publish instead, you’re disappointing and then frustrating the reader, your ultimate customer. Not only will your reader cast your book aside in disgust, he or she will not buy your other stories and may leave an unfavorable review, thus turning off other potential readers.

My intent today was to comment on the content of Ms. VanNest’s blog post. That site is promoting a grammar-checker software product called Grammarly. I have not yet tried that program, so have no reason to criticize or endorse it. Many word processors include grammar-checkers, but you might find single-use software such as Grammarly to be superior.

Ensure your writing avoids the top five grammar mistakes before you submit it for publication. Make them part of your editing process as you rewrite your drafts. Before you know it, you’ll have more stories published and a higher income from your writing, than—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Just Your (Writing) Style

Style is one of the five fundamental elements of fiction, along with character, plot, setting, and theme.  It’s also the most difficult of the five to explain or understand.

StyleI like to start my blog posts by defining terms, but this time I’ll let the definition of style emerge as we go.  For now, I’ll say that every author writes differently, with certain identifying characteristics.  In theory, if we took a sufficient random sample of any single author’s writing, we could identify the author by the style.

According to Wikipedia, the components of style include:  Fiction-writing modes, Narrator, Point of View, Allegory, Symbolism, Tone, Imagery, Punctuation, Word choice, Grammar, Imagination, Cohesion, Suspension of disbelief, and Voice.

Each item on that long list does contribute to style, but some are more important than others, and some are more characteristic of a particular story than of the author’s general manner of writing.

To me, the major characteristics of style are Tone, Word choice, and Grammar:

  • Tone is the attitude displayed by the writer toward the subject matter of the story.
  • Word choice, or diction, relates to the author’s vocabulary.  Does the author stay with simple, understandable words or employ arcane words?  Does the author embellish with adjectives and adverbs, or let the nouns and verbs do the work?
  • Grammar is all about the structure and logic of sentences.  What sentence patterns and lengths does the author prefer?

Although your style may change as you mature in your writing, readers like it better when authors maintain a consistent style.  Style can set you apart from all other writers; it can be the factor that keeps readers buying more of your books.

If you’re wondering how to go about creating your own style, I recommend you read the list created by author David Hood in this blog post.  His eleven-item list can seem intimidating, so just focus on items 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7.  I think if you learn the rules of writing, expand your vocabulary, read a great deal, experiment with different styles, and learn about literary techniques, your own style will emerge naturally.

What’s more, you shouldn’t have to work too hard to continue using your newly discovered style.  It should flow from you in a natural way.  Unlike your stories, which are overt acts of creative effort, your style is something that should emerge.  In a sense, you’re unleashing it, not creating it.  Even if it does require a little effort at first, in time it will get easier.

Perhaps you’ve gotten a better understanding of style now, that signature or fingerprint that identifies you and separates you from other writers.  With any luck, readers will love your style.  For now, I’ll sign off in the usual style of—

                                                         Poseidon’s Scribe

To Know Your Grammar is to Love Her

Grammar LessonYou’d like to write a story, you really would.  But there’s that awful memory of your grade-school English teacher trying to convey the meanings of comma splices, dangling modifiers, gerunds, infinitives, intransitive verbs, and subjunctives.  You’ve forgotten all that stuff, so you think there’s no hope.

There’s hope.  Yes, there are a lot of English grammar terms, and it can be hard to recall what they all mean.  And yes, just like with any occupation, you should know the specialized lingo that comes with it.

However, in my view, a detailed knowledge of all the English grammar terms belongs way down on your priority list.  The very first item on that list is being able to tell a story in a compelling way.  If you can manage that, I think most editors don’t mind correcting a few language flaws.  They’ll take a single passionate spinner of yarns over a hundred boring grammarians every time.

Ever started a car engine and driven a car?  Can you name all the parts of an automobile engine?  Perhaps you noticed you can drive pretty well without knowing all those underlying details.  Writing’s like that.

You can re-learn the grammar stuff at your leisure.  But telling a tale that captivates readers, ah, that’s a skill much more difficult to learn or teach.  Focus your efforts there.

As a service, I’ll provide explanatory examples of the grammar terms I mentioned earlier.  There are a myriad others you might have forgotten, but you can look them up on sites like this.

  • Comma splice.  I’m using a comma to link independent clauses, that should be acceptable.  In most cases, it’s not.
  • Dangling modifier.  One morning I saw a dangling modifier in my pajamas.  How it got in my pajamas, I’ll never know (and thanks, Groucho!).
  • Gerund.   It’s the taking of a verb such as ‘take’ and reshaping it into a noun like ‘taking’ by adding ‘ing.’
  • Infinitive.  To understand infinitives is to know something complex, but to simplify, you’re urged to add ‘to’ before a verb.
  • Intransitive verb.  These are the independent, self-sufficient kind of verbs that don’t need no stinkin’ object. They exist.  They stand alone.
  • Subjunctive.  If I were to take a concrete, here-and-now verb and elevate it to new a new and uncertain stratum of possibility, hope, or opinion, I’d be making it a subjunctive.  (Like to take and be making.)

Don’t despair if you can’t recall all the grammar terms.  I’m sure some famous authors don’t know them all, either.  Learn to write well now, and master the grammar terminology later (or maybe not ever).  Whether you agree or not, let me know by leaving a comment.  No one’s idea of a master grammarian, I’m—

                                                                     Poseidon’s Scribe

Short Story Editing

Before I get to today’s topic, I should mention that I’ve shifted my website software and given the website a new layout.  Still a work in progress!

Sadly, writing isn’t just writing—it’s also re-writing.  Perhaps you have a mental image of yourself typing frantically long into the night, then at last typing ‘THE END,’ and attaching your short story to an e-mail and sending it to a short-story market.  That happens sometimes, but I suspect such stories are the easy rejects.

You don’t want to be rejected, so you’re not going to do that.  You’re going to look over your story in detail before you send it in.  You’re going to do some editing.

Ideally, you’ll take time to let the story sit for a time while you work on something else.  How long?  Best to give it a few weeks or even a couple of months.  The idea here is to give your ego some distance, to enable you to look at the story fresh, as your readers will, as if someone else wrote it.  You’ll view it with a more critical eye and find yourself reacting negatively to certain aspects, maybe asking “Huh?” or “So what?”

Take that first sentence, that first paragraph.  Will your readers be hooked, I mean really hooked?  As you read further, look for plot problems.  Does the action proceed in a logical manner, making the conflict more and more difficult for your main character?  Do you have tense scenes followed by more relaxing, reflective scenes?  Does every paragraph, every sentence, every word really support your plot?  Delete until that is true.  This is a short story; you don’t have the leisure to go off on tangents.

Consider the setting descriptions for each scene.  In each new scene, the reader likes to be oriented in that setting.  The reader wants to feel he or she is there, with the characters.  You’re looking to provide just enough detail, facts that trigger as many of the five senses as possible.  You can add an occasional new detail as the scene progresses, to remind the reader where the characters are, but the bulk of the description should be early in the scene.

Think about all of your characters, paying particular attention to the protagonist and other major characters.  Are they too stereotyped?  Give the stock character an interesting twist, but one that ties in to your plot or theme.  Do your characters behave and speak in a consistent manner throughout?  It’s okay to have a major character change behavior at the end (recommended, in fact) but the change must be explained by the story.  Look for “data dumps” in the story, where things are explained in narrative, or characters are just talking in dialogue to each other.  Fix that by giving the reader the point-of-view character’s reaction to new developments or significant statements by other characters.  Look for points in the story where you have significant actions without any reactions.

Next, look at your grammar.  Target weak verbs, passive sentences, adverbs, and clichés.  Check to see if your sentences vary in length.  Note I said “target” and “check.”  There are good reasons to keep some of these in your story, especially in dialogue, or in first person point of view narration.  However, you must be consistent, don’t over-use them, and ensure they enhance the story.  One trick with clichés is to give them a twist—take an old phrase and give it a new spin.  As for sentence length, try shorter sentences in fast-moving action scenes and longer sentences in the tension-releasing scenes.

One way to find grammar problems as well as plot, scene, and character problems is to read your story aloud.  I have no idea why this works but you will find yourself stumbling as you speak some words.  That’s a signal something’s amiss.  Your reader will stumble there too.

The last thing to do before sending in your story is to ensure you’ve followed the format specified by the market for which you’re aiming.  Someday we’ll live in a perfect word with a single standard for manuscript format, but we’re not there yet.  Editors will reject you for not following their instructions regarding mailing or e-mailing, attachments or text in e-mail, single or double line spacing, font sizes and types, one or two spaces between sentences, where and how to indicate page numbers, how to indicate italicized words, etc.  You want them to publish your story?  Follow their rules.

Once you’ve done all that, then you can hit send.  This all sounds difficult, but it gets to be a habit and becomes a little easier with time.  Here’s wishing you happy editing, from…

Poseidon’s Scribe