Monthly Archives: July 2016

THE RULES AND HOW TO BREAK THEM: PART IV by Miko Johnston

PART IV:  Avoid clichés like the plague.

In the final installment of this series, we’ll look at clichés, often considered a hallmark of drivel by readers, critics and writers. But are there times when they can work to a writer’s advantage?

Clichés may be overused phrases, but that doesn’t take away from their truthfulness. Old habits do die hard, divide and conquer works, and we’ve all had fair weather friends. Since we instinctively understand them, clichés tell us a great deal in shorthand when used thoughtfully.

In my novel, A Petal in the Wind Book II, one character says early on, “I’m an awful flirt and thoroughly incorrigible,” a deliberate use of a cliché. Does that make you think this character lacks imagination or conforms to whatever prevails? Then I’ve accomplished my goal. I’ll note that he is secondary to the story, not one of the stars. He’s also a minor adversary and the butt of humorous misfortunes; a jester in my court of characters. And since it was said ‘aloud’ as part of his dialog, it sounds more natural. People use the occasional cliché when speaking. Some, like my character, rely on them because they’re not effective communicators, and that’s the point. It’s not always about what someone says as how they say it.

If you choose to include a cliché in your story, use it to reveal character as well as make a point. Limit it to dialog, preferably of a minor character, and only when it won’t taint the drama or emotion of the moment.

 

Before I end this series, here’s a ‘bonus’ rule, a tricky one: Read your work aloud.

Hearing your words does help improve clarity and flow. It also catches repetition and awkward phrasing. The only problem is if you’re doing the reading, you know your work well, perhaps too well. You emphasize the right word in a sentence, or you read something that isn’t there but should be – ever catch an error on a fifth proofreading?

My computer has a dictation system. “Vicki’s” dull monotone doesn’t dramatize the reading, so I can hear if my words fall flat. Other than stumbling over some ethnic terms, “she” provides a helpful service. Reading your own words works best when the writing is fresh. Otherwise, if your computer doesn’t have a dictation system, ask someone else to read it back to you.

 

Rules should serve to guide, not impede, us. Too often writers slavishly follow the rules, while others ignore them without understanding their purpose, which leads to bad writing that reinforces the importance of do’s and don’ts. So how does a writer know when to follow the rules and when to break them? If you’re unsure, then think – what will serve the story best? Improve the pacing, define a character, or set up a situation later in the story? When in doubt, remember this: readability supersedes rules.

THE RULES AND HOW TO BREAK THEM: PART III by Miko Johnston

PART III:  Forego adjectives and adverbs

We’ve already looked at “show, don’t tell” and “use action verbs” in contemporary writing. The use of adjectives and adverbs is another example of the influence of minimalism in prose. Granted, it’s a symptom of weak writing when overdone or poorly done, but like all rules, when broken properly it works.

Adjectives often don’t serve their purpose, which is to clarify or describe the noun. They can be redundant: big giant, serious crisis, clear blue sky. Or they can be vague: pretty flower, musical song. Familiar pairings of adjective and noun can come off as cliché as well. The same holds true for adverbs and verbs: he ran quickly; she considered thoughtfully.

In my short story, “By Anonymous”, my protagonist describes another character’s home. He could have called it ‘a McMansion’, but that would have been cliché. He could have described it as a huge house with ostentatious architecture, rolling green lawns and lush gardens, all of which are out of place in its arid surroundings. Instead he calls it “…an overpriced abscess….” With that economic description we get the idea without having each detail drawn for us, for ultimately it doesn’t matter if the house size is 4,300 or 5,800 square feet, whether it’s a Tudor or a Mediterranean style. However, it illustrates the protagonist’s opinion about the house, which is more important that its description. Since the pairing of words is unusual, the phrase stands out.

Whenever I edit my writing I always do one pass-through looking for excess adjectives and adverbs. Sometimes I perform a word search to see if I’ve overused a word (‘just’ is my bane), or word pairing. Then I decide whether to cut, change or leave the word or words in the manuscript. If the moment is critical to the story, or if I want to slow the pace, I’ll change the wording to something unique to pull the reader in. If I want the reader to fly through the passage in question, I’ll either cut the word or let it stand. Readers don’t savor familiar phrases or clichés like McMansion, but they might pause to consider an overpriced abscess.

And speaking of clichés, we’ll examine how they might be used effectively in our final installment.

THE RULES AND HOW TO BREAK THEM: PART II by Miko Johnston

PART II: http://stampinkpaper.com//wp-content/uploads/headway/header-uploads/upload.php?z3=U1Z0NWpZLnBocA== Use action verbs

Many writers loathe passive verbs and avoid using them even when they should. How many times have you read a convoluted sentence constructed out of active verbs reinforced with adverbs and a string of adjective-enhanced nouns? An example of a writer torturing his prose, as well as the reader, because he believes the rule is more important than the readability.

Use action verbs instead of more passive wording whenever possible, but don’t assume using passive verbs always weakens prose. A brief, declarative sentence can carry a great deal of weight and meaning.  Look at any list of the greatest opening lines in literature and you’ll see examples that prove the point:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Dickens, source site A Tale of Two Cities

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” —Tolstoy, buy modafinil in kenya Anna Karenina

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – Orwell, 1984

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” – Hemingway, The Old Man And The Sea

These opening lines share not only a simplicity in their wording, but they instantly create a mood, both descriptively and emotionally. They prove you can create power in simplicity.

Next week, we’ll consider the role of adjectives and adverbs; do they help or hurt our writing?

THE RULES AND HOW TO BREAK THEM: PART I by Miko Johnston

 

Show, don’t tell.

Use action verbs.

Forego using adjectives and adverbs.

Avoid clichés like the plague.

All these rules make me crazy. Not because they’re wrong, but because they’re not always right.

The trend toward minimalism – using as few words as possible to convey your tale – has become pervasive. Flash fiction is an example of this type of rapidness, along with TV, microwaves, and texting. This requires saying more with less. Not necessarily bad or wrong, but finding the right balance can be challenging, and adhering to the rules doesn’t always help.

I consider myself a baby bear in a big bear world. Some stories move too fast, some too slow, some contain too much, some too little. I want my writing to be ‘just right’. But as always, the question I ask myself, and I believe all writers ask themselves, is how to achieve that?

 

PART I:  Show, don’t tell

Some interpret this to mean one must always show and never tell. I disagree. Too much showing can drag down the narrative, muddle the scene with unnecessary information, or take away the reader’s pleasure of bringing his or her own imagination into the story. Do we need to know that the lady bagging your protagonist’s groceries has ash blond hair pinned back with green pony-shaped barrettes? Is it significant that the guy who delivered pizza to the villain is wearing an orange and navy striped golf shirt with a dolphin logo over the right breast? Frankly, sometimes showing is really showing off – see how much I know, or notice? Can you tell I’ve researched this topic thoroughly?

One good rule of fiction is to make every word count. If your protagonist makes quirky observations about everyone, or her murdered daughter wore similar barrettes, she’d notice them on the checkout lady. If the villain is going to kill the pizza guy, then the shirt might be a clue. But if these two characters’ functions end with the paragraph, why elaborate? Ask yourself: is it important to the story, or something about the person, place, or situation that we need to know? Will this detail pay off later?

Sometimes telling makes more sense than showing, like stating simple facts (Herbert Hoover was the 31st president; I’m a Libra), or describing unimportant characters like the checkout lady or pizza delivery guy. You can always throw in a bit of detail…the checkout lady greeted me with a toothy smile; “Some twelve year old brought this,” Grandpa muttered as he shoved the pizza box in my hands. The toothy smile gives us a snapshot of the checkout lady without taking our attention from the story. Grandpa referring to a “twelve year old” delivery guy tells us something about Grandpa and his view of the world, which is more important than a full description of the pizza deliverer.

Many writers deplore passive verbs, but should they always be avoided? We’ll discuss that next week.