Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Most Useful Tips for Authors

Lots of writers share their best tips or rules, and here's a very good list from Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander and a writing prof at USC. Some of her ideas are different, such as "torture your protagonist." If you're interested in becoming a better fiction writer, take a look.

1. Write the sentence, not just the story
Long ago I got a rejection from the editor of the Santa Monica Review, Jim Krusoe. It said: “Good enough story, but what’s unique about your sentences?” That was the best advice I ever got. Learn to look at your sentences, play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences. The music of words. I like Dylan Thomas best for this–the Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait. I also like Sexton, Eliot, and Brodsky for the poets and Durrell and Les Plesko for prose. A terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone’s writing who has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your own words for theirs, and see how they achieved their effects.

2. Pick a better verb
Most people use twenty verbs to describe everything from a run in their stocking to the explosion of an atomic bomb. You know the ones: Was, did, had, made, went, looked… One-size-fits-all looks like crap on anyone. Sew yourself a custom made suit. Pick a better verb. Challenge all those verbs to really lift some weight for you.

3. Kill the cliché.
When you’re writing, anything you’ve ever heard or read before is a cliché. They can be combinations of words: Cold sweat. Fire-engine red, or phrases: on the same page, level playing field, or metaphors: big as a house. So quiet you could hear a pin drop. Sometimes things themselves are cliches: fuzzy dice, pink flamingo lawn ornaments, long blonde hair. Just keep asking yourself, “Honestly, have I ever seen this before?” Even if Shakespeare wrote it, or Virginia Woolf, it’s a cliché. You’re a writer and you have to invent it from scratch, all by yourself. That’s why writing is a lot of work, and demands unflinching honesty.

4. Variety is the key.
Most people write the same sentence over and over again. The same number of words–say, 8-10, or 10-12. The same sentence structure. Try to become stretchy–if you generally write 8 words, throw a 20 word sentence in there, and a few three-word shorties. If you’re generally a 20 word writer, make sure you throw in some threes, fivers and sevens, just to keep the reader from going crosseyed.

5. Explore sentences using dependent clauses.
A dependent clause (a sentence fragment set off by commas, dontcha know) helps you explore your story by moving you deeper into the sentence. It allows you to stop and think harder about what you’ve already written. Often the story you’re looking for is inside the sentence. The dependent clause helps you uncover it.

6. Use the landscape.
Always tell us where we are. And don’t just tell us where something is, make it pay off. Use description of landscape to help you establish the emotional tone of the scene. Keep notes of how other authors establish mood and foreshadow events by describing the world around the character. Look at the openings of Fitzgerald stories, and Graham Greene, they’re great at this.

7. Smarten up your protagonist.
Your protagonist is your reader’s portal into the story. The more observant he or she can be, the more vivid will be the world you’re creating. They don’t have to be super-educated, they just have to be mentally active. Keep them looking, thinking, wondering, remembering.

8. Learn to write dialogue.
This involves more than I can discuss here, but do it. Read the writers of great prose dialogue–people like Robert Stone and Joan Didion. Compression, saying as little as possible, making everything carry much more than is actually said. Conflict. Dialogue as part of an ongoing world, not just voices in a dark room. Never say the obvious. Skip the meet and greet.

9. Write in scenes.
What is a scene? a) A scene starts and ends in one place at one time (the Aristotelian unities of time and place–this stuff goes waaaayyyy back). b) A scene starts in one place emotionally and ends in another place emotionally. Starts angry, ends embarrassed. Starts lovestruck, ends disgusted. c) Something happens in a scene, whereby the character cannot go back to the way things were before. Make sure to finish a scene before you go on to the next. Make something happen.

10. Torture your protagonist.
The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Grammatical Errors That Aren't

By Davilynn Furlow

Here is an excerpt from an excellent piece by Mark Nichol on the Web site Daily Writing Tips. These are four of seven grammar fallacies he shattered. I found these the most compelling.

7 Grammatical Errors That Aren’t

By Mark Nichol

There are two types of grammar: Descriptive, which describes what is customary, and prescriptive grammar, which prescribes what should be. A tension between the two systems is inevitable — and healthy; it keeps us thinking about what we’re saying and writing.

Allowing mob rule at the expense of some governing of composition is madness, but a diction dictatorship is dangerous, too. As with any prescription, an overdose is contraindicated. Here are some hard pills to swallow for language mavens who require a strict adherence to rigid syntactical patterns at the expense of, well, language:

1. Never split an infinitive.
It isn’t wise to always ignore this fallacious rule against dividing the elements of the verb phrase “to (verb)” with an adverb, but to blindly follow it is to prohibit pleasing turns of phrase — one of the best known of which is from the introductory voice-over from all the Star Trek television series: “to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

2. Never end a sentence with a preposition.
This rule is ridiculous, to start with. If you believe it, please tell me what planet you are from. What are you striving for? Give it up. Am I getting my point across?

The stricture against closing sentences with words that describe position stems from an eighteen-century fetish for the supposed perfection of classical Latin, which allowed no split infinitives — for the excellent reason that Latin infinitives consist of single words. English, however, being a distant relative of that language, should be allowed to form its own customs.

3. Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
And why not? For an honorable tradition of doing just that exists. But some people persist in prohibiting this technique. Yet we defy them. Or we simply ignore them or laugh at them, neither of which they appreciate. Nor do they understand our attitude, though we try to convince them, and will continue to do so. So there.
The words beginning each of these sentences are conjunctions... Every one is perfectly acceptable at the head of a sentence. As is obvious from the previous paragraph, however, a little goes a long way.

4. Distinguish between while and though.
Petty prescriptivists would have you reserve while for temporal usage only: “While I agree, I resist,” they say, should be revised to “Though I agree, I resist.” I freely admit that I often change while to though, and while I understand — I’m sorry, I can’t stop myself — and though I understand that it may seem pedantic, I think though reads better.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Inspiration for Beginning a Book

By Bill Furlow

In a recent post, we mentioned that author John Irving said it often takes him seven months to a year to develop the first sentence of a novel.

I don't know how long it took my friend and former boss Dale Fetherling to come up with the first paragraph of his 1973 biography of "Mother Jones," but it's a dilly. Dale died last month at the far-too-young age of 69. He had spent the first two-thirds of his career as a journalist, principally as the editor of the now-departed San Diego County Edition of the Los Angeles Times, where he hired me as city editor in 1980. Then he became a successful author and collaborator on about 20 books for other people.

Read this opening to Mother Jones: Miners' Angel for inspiration in how to begin a book.

The fire, at times a 100-foot-high wall of flame, hurtled down streets, burst through buildings, and engulfed whole blocks. It bore down with heat and smoke and ash on the refugees and sightseers who jammed the city’s streets and bridges. To many of those who fled, the scene may have seemed like the preacher’s most spirited description of Judgment Day. Block after block was aflame. Wagons, carts, wheelbarrows, and buggies piled high with personal effects became stalled in a sea of pedestrians rained upon by blazing embers. Desperate owners and would-be looters tossed valuables from upper-story windows. Horses, dogs, and children ran through the streets in search for their masters. Bearers of makeshift stretchers jostled with the crowd in an attempt to move the sick and the injured. Toppling walls, the crackle of flames, and a strong wind competed with the screams of the frantic and the whistling of tugboats pushing sailing ships to safety. It was 1871. Chicago – ‘’the Gem of the Prairie’’ – was being destroyed by the then-most-destructive fire in American history.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

No One Said This Is Easy

By Bill Furlow

Let’s be honest: The ratio of just plain awful self-published books to decent ones must be at least 100:1. Okay, if you eliminate erotica from the equation, a little balance is restored, but if you change “decent” to “excellent,” it goes way out of whack again.

So what separates the inexperienced authors who can produce reasonably good books the first or second time out from the legion of those who cannot? Talent is part of it, of course, but my guess is it’s also about hard work and the desire to make something great rather than just get it done and see it in print.

A blogger posed a question about how long it takes to write a page. Nearly every author responded in a range from 15 to 30 minutes. Wow! Depending on the quality of the writing, I often can’t edit a page that fast.

Elizabeth George, who’s published 13 best-selling novels and a book about writing, says she writes five pages a day. John Updike said he’d write three. Stephen King writes a hare-like ten pages a day, but note that he does it every day, including holidays

John Irving said it takes him from seven months to a year to reach the point of writing a novel’s opening sentence. Barbara Kingsolver said, “I may rewrite the first paragraph of a novel fifty times before I’m satisfied.” Richard Price writes his novels by hand because it’s more labor intensive and forces him to think through each sentence very carefully.

If you think some or all of these folks write better than you do, you might consider spending a little more time pruning, polishing and exploring alternate ways to maximize the impact of each sentence and paragraph. As John Irving said, “Revision is more than half of my work as a writer.”

Here are a couple of almost-randomly-selected paragraphs from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna and Richard Price’s Lush Life:

“The mother of Jesus, similarly sloe-eyed, bade us sit on a log while she dipped beans from a cauldron that must bubble eternally on the fire outside her hut. Her name: Maria, naturally. Her lath house, like every one in the village, had a tall, peaked roof of thatch, open at each gable end for ventilation. Inside the open doorway, a knot of motionless brown limbs, presumably sleeping children, weighted a hammock into a deep V shape, the reverse of the roofline…” BK

“Restless, agitated, trying not to think about the thing that didn’t happen, Matty found himself still in the empty office an hour after she left…,perusing the day’s mayhem, sorting them into kickbacks to patrol and squad-worthy; felonies obviously but domestics, too, always potential starter-kits for something more serious…” RP

If you can churn out writing like this in 15 or 30 minutes a page, it’s time to quit your day job and turn pro. If not, though…

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Word Best Forgotten

By Davilynn Furlow

Here’s another little writing tip that was inspired by a discussion from a LinkedIn group we belong to. The question posted was, “Are ‘compose’ and ‘comprise’ interchangeable?”

The person who started the discussion actually knew the answer and shared some academic thoughts on the subject, including some in defense of allowing a sentence like, “The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary.”

Every right-thinking writer and editor, however, knows that to say “was comprised of” runs the risk of causing a fingernails-on-chalkboard reaction among educated readers. No matter how many times “comprised of” is used, it’s still wrong, and to let it go unchallenged is to contribute to dumbing down the English language.

The correct use of the word “comprise” is as follows: “The union comprises 50 states.” To say, “Fifty states comprise the union,” or “The union is comprised of fifty states” is flat wrong.

Bill’s response to the posted question was to advise writers to leave “comprise” alone and never use it. Used incorrectly it’s annoying, and used correctly it is awkward. When I come across the rare proper use of “comprise,” I automatically say to the writer, “good job,” which means the flow has been interrupted.

One person responding to the LinkedIn post pointed out that the Latin root word for “comprise” means “comprehend,” “contain” or “include.” You can’t turn those words around and get “fifty states comprise the union.”

Another suggested also forgetting about “compose” in favor of “consists.” “It is instantly recognizable…and is so commonplace the reader tends not to notice it – for either good or bad reasons,” she said.

So, are “compose” and “comprise” interchangeable? Of course not!

Thanks to Erin Brenner, Rosanne Dingli, Kathleen Much, Curt Mattson and Benjamin Lukoff, whose comments are represented here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Don't Go THERE

By Bill Furlow

Of the many variables that help determine which books get selected by agents, publishers or readers and which sell only a few copies online, one of the most important is whether a book reads like a professionally crafted work. An agent or publisher can flip the pages reading random paragraphs and quickly spot writing that doesn’t make the grade.

One sign that a work was written by a hopeful amateur rather than a skilled professional is the repeated use of the word “there” to begin sentences. Sentences that begin “There is/there are” usually indicate that the writer either is too lackadaisical to search for a more interesting way to make a statement or doesn’t recognize the weakness in his/her own writing.

We’re not talking about “There he goes,” where “there” refers to an actual place. Rather this is about what I call the “lazy there,” the practice of using the word to begin a very boring sentence. Think high school term paper.

I thought about this when reading an article on how to improve the chances of a blog getting found and read. The paragraph began, “There are many millions of blogs that currently exist on the Web.” What an awful sentence on a topic that’s really important to anyone with a blog. Better would be, “Many millions of blogs exist on the Web today.” Or, “The Web today hosts many millions of blogs.”

Usually “there” sentences can easily be rewritten to make them more compelling. Here are a few examples quickly pulled from books found on smashwords.com.

“There was no music on as she preferred the quiet of her thoughts when maneuvering through traffic.”
She preferred the quiet of her thoughts when maneuvering through traffic, so played no music.

“There was a finch at the window and you had never seen one before.”
A finch sat on the windowsill, and you had never seen one before.

“There is a nude beach less than a hundred miles from where I live. I went there once in a while to get an all-over tan…”
Once in awhile I drove to a nude beach less than a hundred miles from home to get an all-over tan.

“There is a movie where the lead character says: ‘Every once in a while you've got to get a little bloody.’"
She remembered a movie character who says: “Every once in awhile, you’ve got to get a little bloody.”

Beginning sentences with “lazy theres” may not be a mortal sin, but it’s at least venal. If you want your book – or any other writing project – to be read by those who matter to you, read back over the work and find ways to eliminate them wherever possible.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bore-geous for Bore-geous's Sake

Novelist Ayelet Waldman discusses a problem nearly all writers have in an excellent little piece in the Nov. 27 Wall Street Journal (Beware the Trap of ‘Bore-geous’ Writing).

Waldman defines bore-geous witing as “meticulously constructed writing that bores even its author…A bore-geous novel is one that is packed with gorgeous, finely wrought descriptions of places and people, with entire paragraphs extolling the slope of one character’s nose, whole chapters describing another’s perambulations through a city…Bore-geousness happens when you are writing beautifully but pointlessly.”

Sound familiar?

Every writer we’ve ever worked with – or ever been – has fallen in love with a phrase, an image, a coined bit of language so clever that it seems impossible to leave it out despite its lack of value or appropriateness to the overall work.

To quote Waldman further:

“When rewriting, I inevitably find passages that aren’t necessary
to the plot…Usually I’m convinced that these passages are among
the most gorgeous things I’ve ever written. It’s then that I remind
myself of Faulkner’s painful advice: ‘In writing, you must kill your

“Good narrative writing must defend itself. Every sentence, even
every word, must be there for a reason beyond its beauty. It must
move the story along, pushing it toward what comes next. Good
writing can and should be beautiful, but it must never be only beautiful.
Bore-geous is always too much, and never enough.”

One final point on Waldman’s writing lesson. Note when she discovers her writing excesses – when she’s rewriting. More on that topic later.