Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Say It Like You Mean It

This week at the critique group I attend an interesting topic came up. It appeared as the group was critiquing the submission of one of our members. He (in the interests of back story) is a newer member of our group, both in terms of attendance and writing experience. He is a novice and has no pretensions of being anything more. As such, we are all more than willing to help.

The particular issue in this writing sample was a marked tendency he has to qualify his statements in his writing. To his credit, he’s writing a genealogy, so there is a great deal of murkiness surrounding the historical data he’s working with. Yet, as the author of this genealogy—or any work—(we told him), he needs to cut back on the qualifiers accompanying his statements.


There are a few reasons. First, it detracts from the power of the prose. “The car drove down the road.” Is a much more powerful statement than, “A car, or maybe it was a truck, but the evidence points to it being a car, drove down the road.” It dilutes the message of the statement: that a vehicle drove down the road. In the English language simple is powerful.

Second, it makes the prose overly complicated. Take the second example from the previous paragraph: “A car, or maybe it was a truck, but the evidence points to it being a car, drove down the road.” Now imagine reading a paragraph composed of four or five sentences like that. It will have two immediate effects, none of them good. It will bring the pace of the narrative (even in nonfiction there is a story being told) to a full stop. It risks confusing the reader.

Perhaps most important of all, it damages the author’s authority. If our authority as authors is lost, we have lost our readers. It’s over. Might as well hang up our word processor and play solitaire.

Why is this so important? Because the reader of our works needs to believe the author of the book (or article, story, or poem) is more knowledgeable about the subject than they are.

Think about it. How often do you go to the bookstore or library for a book about something you already know? How many times have you bought a book by someone who has no qualifications to write it? Probably not often. I know I seek out books that either increase my knowledge, provide new experiences, or both. I’m looking for experts. I’m looking for authorities on the subject matter, whatever it is.

I think it’s pretty much universal. (It’s one of the reasons new and self-published authors have so much trouble selling their books, no matter how good they might be; they have not established themselves as experts).

All writers need to be authorities on whatever they’re writing about. They need to be experts and their writing needs to reflect this. They need to write with authority. They need to write like they know what they’re talking about.

This is true for fiction writers as much as nonfiction. I have personally had to fight this (which I take as a manifestation as self-doubt) myself, most often in description. Often in first drafts I will find myself using two or three similes to describe something, like I wasn’t sure the first one was effective and added a second for insurance. It isn’t that I doubt the readers’ ability to understand my simile; I doubt my ability to effectively communicate with the simile, so I play the odds and add another, or maybe two.

This only makes the writing weaker. As an author, I have to be the ultimate authority. If I choose to use a simile, I need to use the best one I can devise to communicate the idea and then go with it. The reader—whatever image the simile conjures in their imaginations—will assume that is the image the writer wanted.

And we can live with that.

Because there is a little secret you need to know. Most devout readers would really like to be authors themselves, but either don’t have the talent, or haven’t put in the work needed to become one. So they already admire you. Write like you deserve that admiration.

You have something to say. You’ve worked hard on the skills you need to give your ideas form and structure. Now take what you have to say and say it like you mean it.

writing, Writing advice

Writing Tips From Umberto Ecco

Last month we lost yet another accomplished writer in Italian Umberto Ecco, most well-known for the medieval mystery, The Name of the Rose. In 1977, Mr. Ecco released a writing manual, designed primarily to help his University students write academic essays, but with a section devoted to advice on the process of writing itself.

I thought them interesting so decided to share them.

You are not Marcel Proust. Do not write long sentences. If they come into your head, write them, but then break them down. Do not be afraid to repeat the subject twice, and stay away from too many pronouns and subordinate clauses.”

You are not e.e.cummings…he used commas and periods with great thriftiness, he broke his lines into small pieces, and in short he did all the things that an avant-garde poet can and should do. You are not an avant-garde poet.”

You are not J.D. Salinger. “Do not play the solitary genius.”

As the above three quotes point out, there is a difference between admiring and even borrowing techniques from an author one admires, and trying to “become” them. For one thing, no one is ever going to write like Proust as well as Proust does. No one can write poems the way e.e. cummings did as well as he. The object is to be the best writers/poets WE can be.

Are you a poet? Then do not pursue a university degree.”

I have seen this position from many accomplished authors, including William Styron, John Gardner, and, to an extent, Stephen King. As one writer explained it to me, the writing programs in most universities are born out of the Literature Departments. In other words, they are much more geared toward analyzing what had already been done, then explaining how to create something new. As Hemingway put it, if you want to be a writer, “go somewhere and write.”

We either use rhetorical figures effectively, or we do not use them at all. If we use them it is because we presume our reader is capable of catching them, and because we believe that we will appear more incisive and convincing. In this case, we should not be ashamed of them, and we should not explain them. If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader and idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.”

In his characteristic brusqueness, he tells us to have faith in ourselves and our readers. Don’t second guess. Make your statement; make it as clear as you can, then trust it to do the work.

Just some thoughts.

Until next time.

writing, Writing advice

15 Steps To Becoming a Better Writer

I’ve just received the corrected proof (part two) of my new novel this week, so I’ve been spending most of my time going through that. (Going through proofs is a good definition of tedium. Looking for typos, grammar and formatting errors and the like in a book-length manuscript you’ve already re-written at least a dozen times is enough to make your eyes cross. I know how it ends.) Since I was busy with that, I didn’t have much time or energy to devote to this week’s post.

So I decided to go simple and easy.

I full disclosure, I based this post on an idea I found somewhere on the web. (For the life of me I cannot remember where that was, or what the exact post was. My apologies to the original author.)

So, this week’s post: simple, yet profound.

15 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer:

  1. Go home and write.
  2. Go out and write.
  3. Read something.
  4. Write a lot.
  5. Write some more.
  6. Read some more.
  7. Write when you feel like it.
  8. Write when you don’t feel like it.
  9. Read a lot.
  10. Write when you have something to say.
  11. Write when you don’t have something to say.
  12. Read some more.
  13. Write something.
  14. Write every day.
  15. Read every day.


Writing advice, Writing and Editing

What’s in a Name?

One of the hardest part of writing, in my humble opinion, is naming things. Characters, places, businesses, musical acts, it makes no difference, finding an acceptable name can be torture. I struggle. For some reason, titles are different. They can be difficult also, but they belong in a different category; they are added (in my case anyway) after the piece is completed and, unless you are working against a deadline, there is all sorts of time.

Characters are different. Place names are different.

I have been known to bring my writing to a skidding halt when the narrative calls for a name.

Why? Because each name, whether it’s that of a major character, or the street where the final shootout happens, or the nightclub the bad guy uses as a front is not only important. It has to be perfect. As perfect as I can make it.

Names are important. They are part of character.

Think about it. A man named Mark is going to have a different personality and life experience than a man named Elmer; a woman named Melissa will have a different experience than one named Gertrude. It’s why prospective parents spend so much time and energy discussing and deciding the new baby’s name. It’s important that the name be perfect.

I think it is the same with a name in fiction. Whether it’s a major character, a minor character, or the name of the street they live on, each name has to be perfect. It has to match the personality you’ve created (and enhance it) and each must be distinct enough that the reader will not get confused. (As in having characters named Jenny, Jeanie, and Janine in the same story).

Even more important, everything—absolutely everything—in our work, including the names, must serve a purpose. If your character’s name is Dan, ask yourself why? Why “Dan?” Why not Mark, or Tom? You may not have the answer to that question, but you should at least be thinking about it.

For instance, the protagonist in my first three novels, The Ni’il Trilogy, is named Dan. Why? Because I wanted him to be just an ordinary guy, strong, but flawed. I wanted him to be your next door neighbor. As a reader pointed out, “Daniel” is also my father’s name, though I didn’t consciously pick it for that reason.

Back to my problem with names bringing my creative narrative to a stop. What did I do about it? Two things: I created a database listing the top ten surnames of every nationality with a significant presence in the United States (since almost all my work involves Americans and is set somewhere in the country). Why surnames? Because otherwise I will end up with the same last names in all my fiction.

Second, I began using placeholders in my fiction when I come upon the need for a new name. I’ll just type in “XX” or “YY” and continue with the story. Later, when the first draft is completed, I can go back, database in hand, and decided on names.

It seems to work.

At some point, I would also like to compile a database of interesting business names, street names and other such things, but haven’t been able to get to it yet.

Other writers, such as Henry James and Charles Dickens were known to keep lists of names in their notebooks. Again, so they could reference them when needed. Dickens, especially, is famous for coining names that reflect the character’s personality, such as Ebenezer Scrooge.

However you decide to handle your characters’ names, take them seriously, as seriously as you would naming a child, because it is just as important. At least it’s important to your fiction.


Writer’s Block Revisited

This post is going to be a tad more personal than usual.

I have been struggling with a period of writer’s block of late. As most folks who write know, this is not that unusual. It’s frustrating as hell, maddening even, but not that unusual. Personally, I fight it a couple of times a year, sometimes more.

Writer’s block. So why does it happen? I don’t think anyone really knows for sure. (I don’t think anyone really knows why our minds do most of the things they do). On occasion, we creative types just have to deal with a period—sometimes short, sometimes agonizingly long—when the creativity appears to dry up. Usually, I have so many ideas and images floating around my mind that my primary task is to decide which ones to nurture.

Now, I can’t seem to come up with any worthwhile ideas at all. Or I do find an idea, but cannot come up with any details needed to develop it. Today, my imagination is populated only by the sounds of crickets and the smell of ancient dust.

I have some theories as to why writing blocks occur in my life. Often, they show up when I have just finished a major project like a novel. In that case, I look at it as my creative well having run dry and the block is a way for my subconscious to let it refill. (It also keeps me from writing multiple works that are all essentially copies of the novel in question).

That is relatively rare though. (I haven’t and don’t write that many novels).

Another type of block is a psychological one. It is very difficult to be creative when you are in a state of emotional turmoil, or physical exhaustion. Some people are very good at walling off the creative part of their life and preventing their day-to-day issues from affecting them. Honestly, I’m just not very good at that. If I’m angry or depressed or discouraged, it interferes with my creative process, which seems to work best when I am centered, level-headed, neither overly happy, nor overly sad.

I think that is the type of block I’m working through now. My father passed away at the beginning of July. As his oldest son and executor of his trust, most of the work of settling his estate has fallen on my shoulders. For those of you who haven’t experienced it, the process is emotionally and intellectually draining. You are forced to operate like a business while still going through the grieving process yourself. When I sit down at the end of the day and face my word processor, I have nothing. My mind is as blank as the page.

It is surprising just how much intellectual energy it takes to create something.

So what am I doing about it? Nothing.

You’re kidding, you say. You’re not doing anything to defeat the writer’s block?

Exactly. See, the way I look at it, the worst thing one can do when in the midst of a writer’s block is panic and try to defeat it. You cannot defeat writer’s block any more than you can defeat depression, panic attacks, or the sadness felt when a loved one dies. In each case, it is what it is and the worst thing one can do is pretend it doesn’t exist. The second worst thing you can do is to fight it.

The best thing to do with writer’s block (in my opinion) is to handle it like you would a mild depression: acknowledge it, try to keep it from getting worse, and know that eventually it will end. The best thing you can do is know that it will end. You can and will wait it out.

Sooner or later, the writer’s block will end and my creative well will be full again. All I have to do is wait.

And have some faith.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Writing Manuals

A short time ago, a friend who also happens to be an accomplished poet asked a question on a social media site to which we both belong. It seems she’s thinking about branching out into writing fiction and she wanted her prose practitioner friends to recommend the best fiction writing books/manuals.

I, of course, recommended my personal favorites. But more on that later, what piqued my imagination for this post was one of the responses my friend received to her question. The person in question (who I don’t know) posted something like this: “And did you learn to write your poetry from a book?”

An interesting question. Can you learn to write fiction or poetry from a book? Can you learn how to write from a book, period?

Well, if you’ve ever read an issue of Writer’s Digest, or been to their web site, you know right off that they think you can. Or they have created an industry of selling lessons to people who believe they can. And Writer’s Digest isn’t the only one. There are thousands of how-to books on everything from basic story mechanics, to the details of every genre, to the business aspects of writing.

You might have read a few. I know I have. Do they do us any good? Are they worth the cost of the money we shell out to purchase them and the time we spend reading the advice they give?

Like many things in this life, the answers to any of the above questions are more complicated than simple “yes” or “no.”

Can you learn to write from a book on writing? Sure. But if you have never read a single piece of fiction or poetry in your life, then pick up a book on how to write a bestselling novel, you probably won’t be able to immediately write one. Not a good one, anyway. By the same token, under the same circumstances, taking a creative writing class at your local college wouldn’t help either.

The only way to truly perfect our craft, whether it’s fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, is by reading and studying the masters, then trying to create our own works, using the lessons we learned in our readings.

That being said, we can save a lot of time spent in trial-by-error by learning some general guidelines from those willing to teach us. That’s where the writing guides can come in handy. We could write a hundred stories over ten years of practice before we realize that adverbs are generally not our friends. Or we could read it in a book of writing advice and immediately improve our writing noticeably.

The real value in reading books on writing advice, just like creative writing classes or workshops, is not that they can really teach those who cannot write to write. That is a difficult challenge for any book. The real value of these books is in helping those of us who have already gained a working knowledge of the writing basics to improve our game. Faster. Not all books will help us all. Many will have little or nothing for us, but some will have tips or approaches we have not thought about before.

So yes, by all means, pick up that book of writing tips by your favorite author. It might not have anything that helps you improve your craft, but you won’t know until you read it. Will you?

Now back to the question my friend asked: what are my favorite advice books for fiction writers?

On Writing, Stephen King (Scribner 2000)
Technique in Fiction, Robbie Macauley and George Lanning (St. Martin’s Press 1987)
Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Josip Novakovich (Story Press 1995)

There are others, but these are the three that helped me most. So far.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

“Don’t Describe the Sunset”

I recently began reading a fiction self-help book called The 38 Most Common Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham (Writer’s Digest Books, 1992). It was on sale and I’m always looking for new ideas and different critical eyes with which to examine my work. This is an entertaining read so far. The chapters are fairly short and easy to digest and most of the mistakes he mentions I have made or am currently making, so the time invested is worthwhile. I recommend it to anyone wishing to improve their fiction. (And don’t we all?)

One chapter in particular captured my attention. It’s entitled “Don’t Describe Sunsets” and deals with something I believe every writer has to fight at some point or another: the siren song of beautiful prose because of the beauty of the prose.

One of the more powerful reasons to take up this frustrating avocation of writing is that most of us love the music of language itself. We love rendering a poignant and poetic description, a memorable turn of phrase, or a metaphor that stops readers in their tracks. It’s only natural. At some point we’ve fallen in love with the power a well-rendered combination of words can have. This is especially true when we are the ones creating those combinations.

Which is exactly what Mr. Bickham warns us about. Why? In Mr. Bickham’s own words:

“…when they stop to describe something at length, the story movement also stops.”

This is not good. One of the central principles in Mr. Bickham’s work is that fiction is about movement, not necessarily physical movement, but the story has to always be moving. The central character is struggling to overcome obstacles in the pursuit of some goal. Every single word has to be depicting some aspect of that struggle, particularly in short fiction.

I can hear someone in the back grumbling: but I need to be able to describe my settings, my characters, don’t I? Absolutely, but Mr. Bickham (and I agree) maintains that description must be in proportion. A hundred words about your hero’s dashing good looks is probably too much.

“But I worked so hard on this,” another complains. “It’s so beautiful.” Absolutely. It’s gorgeous, the rhythm, the metaphors and word choice. It’s a masterpiece of description. It just doesn’t belong in the story because, though beautiful, it brings the story to a halt. It needs to be cut.

Modern readers want you to move the story and move it quickly. They want to know what happens next. They don’t want to stand around waiting while you paint the sunset.

Still, we writers do need to get some information to the readers. There are several ways of doing this and each has a different effect on the flow of the story. They are:

Narrative Summary
This is the fastest form of all. A gunfight that might take six or seven pages to render moment-by-moment, is summarized in a paragraph. Use this for something to important to leave out of the story, but not important enough to concentrate on.

Characters talking with very little action or interior thought. It can be slow and relaxed, or, when the characters are under stress, extremely taught and fast. Even when relaxed though, dialogue moves the story quicker than the following three.

This is your characters doing things, like on a stage. Much of the story involves narration, whether it’s spies approaching a questionable drop, or two lovers entering a high school dance. Narration moves swiftly and continuously.

Very slow, so be careful. While you’re describing the character’s living room, nothing is happening. While you do need some description, use as little as you can get away with.

The slowest method of all. This is the straight delivery of factual information. Story-wise, nothing whatsoever is happening. It’s like a paragraph from a math textbook, pure data. Some of this may have to go into your story, but there is absolutely zero movement during exposition.

All of us have used each of these techniques at one time or another, I know I have. However, most of my usage has been through instinct, rather than conscious thought. I felt that the story was moving too slow, or too fast, so I instinctively slowed it down or speeded it up by changing the method I used to create the scene.

It’s about pace, the speed at which your reader experiences the story. If you think your story is moving too slow, you can change the method of telling it. If you’ve used narration in the scene, try using dialogue. It will speed up the movement.

In the same way, if you feel your story is moving too fast you can use these tools to slow it down. Say you have a car chase in one scene and a shootout in the next; you may want to insert a short descriptive scene between them, just to give the reader a chance to cool down.

Description is an essential tool for fiction. It is how we ground the reader in the time and place of the story. We can’t usually do it without description. However, it is crucial that the description (or exposition, narration, etc.) be there to serve the story, not the other way around. Description is one way we tell the story. The story is everything.

Keep it moving.