Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Do's and Don't in Writing

When I began to write fiction, I sponged up all I could about the craft as quickly others were willing to impart their knowledge. Since then, I’ve weeded through the do’s and the don’ts and picked up a few other tips that have helped to strengthen my prose.
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Nothing done to excess is good. We can't take all the "had," "that," and "ing" words out of our writing and expect it to make sense or flow well. Certain words should and can be avoided, but to arbitrarily cut all of the “no-no” words is just as bad as their over-use. The same goes for long stretches of narration or dialogue. If you over-do either of these, you’ll either exhaust your reader or put them to sleep.

Pace: Dialogue speeds the action, narration slows it. Tense scenes call for short/abrupt, snappy dialogue. After such a scene, give the reader a breather by slowing things down with some brief narration.

Passive: the subject of the sentence is acted upon by something else. “The bread was made by the baker.”

Active revision: “The baker made the bread.”Past tense: when an action or occurrence happened in the past. “He went to the store three hours ago.”“Rule” on using “had.”

After reading up on the subject and talking to several informed sources (including English professors) I’ve concluded that, aside from the grammatical use of “had/has” in perfect past tense, my ear must judge how often to use “had” in a sentence before switching to an active past tense.

Example #1: "When Tom was young, he had overheard unsettling talk of the war. His father had served, but he had never admitted or denied killing another."

Granted, this is exaggerated, but technically there's nothing wrong with this sentence. All the events mentioned took place in the past. It is, however, cumbersome and all the "hads" make it redundant.

Revised Example #1: "When Tom was young, he overheard unsettling talk of the war. His father had served, but he never admitted or denied killing another."

So here's the unspoken “had” rule:

1. If the sentence makes it clear that the event happened in the past without using the word “had,” remove it.
2. Leave “had” in if its removal changes the meaning of the sentence.

Example #2: She reached for the small clay bowl from the kitchen table containing a mix of local herbs and other untold ingredients she had crushed into a near-powder consistency.
In this sentence, “she had” indicates an action taken by the character.

Edited Example #2: She reached for the small clay bowl from the kitchen table containing a mix of local herbs and other untold ingredients crushed into a near-powder consistency.
To remove “she had” from the sentences makes it clear the herbs were crushed, but it doesn’t show who crushed them. Since the character isn’t involved in the action, the reader would have to assume the herbs and other untold ingredients were 1) previously crusted by someone, or 2) purchased in the crushed form.

Both examples #2s are technically correct. However, this sentence is from my work in progress and the woman is a healer and engages in voodoo. For the sake of the scene, it's critical for the reader to understand that she is the one who made the concoction. In this case, #1 is the better choice.

Here’s a good explanation for the use of lie, lay, laid, lain.
Lie = the present-tense act of reclining. We lie together and watch the full moon.
Lay = the present-tense act of putting something down. The stranger watches while we lay our blankets near the fire.
Laid = the past-tense act of putting something down (or slang for getting screwed in the past tense). For pillows, we laid our saddles at the head of our make-shift beds.
Lain = the past-tense act of reclining. Before leaving camp, we removed all evidence of where we'd lain the night before.
I've always found it ironic that while we may 'lie' our bodies down, we don't do the same with parts of our bodies; for instance, she lays hands on the sick and infirm or he laid his head on her shoulder.

A Few Good Grammar Links:

“The” in front of a noun: Eliminate “the” when it precedes a noun that could stand alone. Example: “The beams of portable spotlights shone like beacons on the beach below.” Can be changed to: “Beams of portable spotlights shone like beacons on the beach below.”

Tags & Beats
Tags: Stick to “said” and always place the tag after the noun or pronoun. To use anything other than “said” distracts the reader (“said” is invisible). Words such as growled, barked, scoffed tell the reader how the character spoke rather than show it through the dialogue and action.
Example #1: “What difference does it make that she’s gone?” John growled.
Example #2: “What difference does it make that she’s gone?” John said as he slammed the door.

Beats: Beats are a great alternative to tags. They show action and emotion. Here’s the same sentence using a beat instead of a tag.

“What difference does it make that she’s gone?” John yanked open her closet door, grabbed her clothes, and threw them out the window.

When you explain how a character said something, you draw the reader's attention away from the dialogue.

The “it” word. If not used correctly, “it” can lose the reader’s focus.
Be certain “it” refers back to a noun just previously mentioned. If another noun is used between “it” and the noun it refers to, you'll lose your reader.
Example: “The dog chased after a ball into the street. It was hit by a car.” What was hit? The dog or the ball?

A few words to avoid in narration:
That, just, however, therefore, thus, thusly, very, really, suddenly, obviously (if it is obvious, don’t tell--show it).

Anything goes in dialogue: A character can say anything he or she wants including all the words we avoid in the narrative and clich├ęs as long as the author establishes those words in the character’s speech as part of his characterization. The same goes for speech patterns and odd words.

Don’t state the obvious: Near-miss and mid-air collision. If it’s a “near-miss” it didn’t happen. And where else would airplanes in flight collide? Another thing that falls under this category is to not summarize the action. If the scene is written properly and effectively shows the action, don’t summarize what just happened in a subsequent narrative. Doing so talks down to the reader.

Repetition of words or phrases: Look for repeated words within the same sentence, paragraph or in close proximity to one another on a page. Use your thesaurus to find unique words that will add spark to your writing.

Ellipsis: Shows a pause. Three periods with a space after the word it follows and the word it precedes to show a pause or hesitation.
“I can’t remember what … I’ll have to think about it.”

Three periods with a space after the word it follows to show a pause or hesitation at the end of a sentence.
“I can’t remember what …”

Em Dashes: Shows an interruption or show emphasis. Construct the em dash by striking the hyphen key twice with no space between the hyphens and no space before or after the words the em dash separates.

To show interrupted speech:
“You can’t pin the murder on me. You have no—”
“I have your fingerprints.”

For emphasis: “You must attend the meeting on time—no exceptions.”

More advice from Browne & King.

Show don't tell: How to catch yourself telling. (Page 16)
“...telling your readers about your characters’ emotions is not the best way to get your readers involved. Far better to show why your characters feel the way they do. Instead of saying, "Amanda took one look at the hotel room and recoiled in disgust." describe the room in such a way that the readers feel that disgust for themselves."

The “as” and “ing” construction:
Browne & King (Page 193): "One easy way to make your writing seem more sophisticated is to avoid two stylistic constructions that are common to hack writers, namely:'Pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him.'


'As she pulled off her gloves, she turned to face him.’
Both the “as” construction and the “-ing” construction as used above are grammatically correct and express the action clearly and unambiguously. But notice that both of these constructions take a bit of action ("She pulled off her gloves") and tuck it away into a dependent clause (Pulling off her gloves...") tends to place some of your action at one removed from your reader, to make the actions seem incidental, unimportant. If you use these constructions often, you weaken your writing.

Another reason to avoid the “as” and “-ing” construction is that they can give rise to physical impossibilities." (i.e.: "Disappearing into my tent, I changed into fresh jeans." The ing construction forced simultaneity on two actions that can't be simultaneous."

Words ending in “ly”
Replace “ly” verb with action verbs. Instead of: “He angrily punched the pillow.” which tells the reader how he punched it (but in my opinion not to what degree of anger), try: “He slammed a fist into the pillow.”

"Self-Editing..." (Page 196)
"Chances are, as you bang out your first draft, you use the first verbs that come to mind--verbs that are commonplace and comfortable, verbs you don't have to dig too deep to find. Set, for instance, as in:

Then, since the word “set” in the above sentence doesn't really convey what you want, you find the extra nuance you need in an adjective, tack on an -ly to make an adverb, and hook it to the verb. ...when you use a weak verb and an adverb to do the work of one strong verb, you dilute your writing and rob it of its potential power."

What not to do: "She forcefully set the cup and saucer onto the kitchen table."
Better using action verbs: “She flung the cup and saucer onto the kitchen table.”

Don’t explain how a character said something, and draw the reader's attention away from the dialogue.

The acclaimed "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" by Renni Browne and David King (second edition) have this to say about it:

Example 1:
"You can't be serious," she said in astonishment.

Explanation: "If you're like most beginning novelist or short-story writers you write sentences like these almost without thinking . What could be easier than simply to tell your reader how a character feels? ... It's also lazy writing. If you tell your readers she is astonished when her dialogue doesn't show astonishment, then you've created an uncomfortable tension between your dialogue and your explanation."

Example 2:

"Give it to me," she demanded.
"Here it is," he offered.
"I hate to admit that," he grimaced.
"Come closer," she smiled.

"To use verbs like these for speaker attributions is to brand yourself as an amateur--and to stick your character with an action that is physically impossible. No one outside hack fiction has ever been able to grimace or smile or chuckle a sentence.

Said, on the other hand, isn't even read the way other verbs are read. It is, and should be, an almost purely mechanical device--more like a punctuation mark than a verb. It's absolutely transparent, which makes it graceful and elegant.

Don't use speaker attributions as a way of slipping in explanations of your dialogue ("he growled," "she snapped"). As with all other types of explanations, either they're unnecessary or they are necessary but shouldn't be. Your best bet is to use the verb said almost without exception. Even when you use them (explanations and adverbs) with said (we said sternly), they tend to entangle your readers in your technique rather than leaving them free to concentrate on your dialogue."

Another source is the Agatha Award winner, "Don't Murder Your Mystery: 24 Fiction-Writing Techniques To Save Your Manuscript From Turning Up D.O.A." by Chris Roerden. She wrote:

"Attention-getting verbs like "bellowed" and "retorted" don't add meaning; they add distraction. If you want to add meaning, use action and body language.

-- Acton anchors spoken lines in their setting, giving readers something to visualize other than talking heads.

-- Body language authenticates the dialogue's content, offering a physical parallel to the speaker's emotions.

-- Body language shows how a line is delivered, whereas adverbs tell how."

It's acceptable to add action to a tag such as: "Tom, you got one helluva nerve!" Dick said, bursting in."

Better: Use a beat to show action. "I told you to stay outta my office." Tom jumped up, knocking over his chair."

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Marta Stephens writes crime mystery/suspense. SILENCED CRY is available online at familiar shops such as all the Amazons, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million, and Powells. Other locations include, but are not limited to those listed on her website.SILENCED CRY (2007)Honorable Mention, 2008 New York Book FestivalTop Ten, 2007 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery).
THE DEVIL CAN WAIT coming soon 2008.


Unknown said...

Wonderful post! Even when you know all of these rules, it is great to be reminded of them.

Marta Stephens said...

Thanks, Chad. Nice to see you here again!

I keep adding to this list and keep it in a notebook near my computer. It always helps me to put definition in my own words so they "sink in." I thought these were worth repeating.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

What a wonderful comprehensive list! I have the same in my notes - several articles where I've included examples and such, but this beats all of my pieces and I am shamelessly copying it! Thanks, Marta!

pat said...

This is fabulous, Marta! (uh oh ...used a !) I have printed this out and will keep it near. Great breakdown of all the usual...breakdowns in writing! You are a stellar gal...

Marta Stephens said...

Thanks Pat, but I forgot to add SUBJUNCTIVE MOOD!!!

I'll keep adding to this and will include SM in the next round of edits. :)