Essential Basic Tools for Writers by Mike McNeff

No, I’m not going to talk about computers and word processing software. There are other important tools that writers need to have at their fingertips that relate to the craft of writing. They are a dictionary, a style guide, and a grammar reference.

I know what you’re thinking—those are tools for the editor’s job. No, it’s your job we’re talking about. A writer needs to be an expert on proper spelling, word choice, phrasing, sentence structure, grammar and a million other rules. Knowledge of these things comes with writing every day, but writers can’t remember everything about these subjects. I know I can’t.

Luckily, there are references you can buy to keep you straight. The first one is a good dictionary. Merriam–Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th ed. is a good choice. Not only does it give the correct spelling of words, it has sections containing foreign phrases; the correct spelling of the names of many notable people; important geographical locations; signs and symbols; and a handbook of style. When you buy the desktop hard cover, you get a code to get free access to the online version.

The Chicago Manual of Style 16th ed. is the premier style guide for writers. What’s a style guide? Don’t know if you should use a hyphen, en dash or an em dash? Can’t figure out what order adjectives should be placed in a sentence? Confused about whether you should spell out a number or use numerals? A style guide sorts through these issues for us and sets forth the most accepted answer. The Chicago Manual of Style is the reference most used by publishers, editors, proofreaders, and authors.

Chicago has in depth sections on publishing, editing, proofreading, copyright, grammar, word usage, punctuation, capitalization, proper use of offices and titles, historical and cultural names, scientific terms, brand names and trademarks, titles of works, abbreviations, bibliographies, and indices—and that’s just the highlights. It is a required reference for good writers. You can subscribe to the online version for around thirty–five dollars a year which, will keep you up to date on changes without waiting for a new print edition. The online search feature is very helpful.

Even though you can find most answers to grammar questions in Chicago, a grammar reference is still a good idea. The Gregg Reference Manual, 11th ed. is a great resource because it is so easy to find the answers to vexing grammar questions. The index is comprehensive and easy to use. It has a quick reference guide in the front of the book that is also helpful.

If you are serious about your writing, these references are essential tools for success. The quality of your work starts with you when you write your story, and ends with you when review the proofed galley copy for approval. Use these tools and get it right.

THE WRITER’S JOURNEY by Mike McNeff

Ever have those moments when you say to yourself. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” When I retired in 2009, I started my third career. I became a writer. Since then three of my novels and several short stories have been published. Over these seven years, I have attended seminars, conferences and talked with writers. I would hear words and phrases describing writing techniques and would ask about them and get vague answers.

One day I was talking to one of my writing friends for whom I have high regard. I asked about a description of the sentence she mentioned earlier at a critique meeting. She couldn’t remember what she said, and I was doing a terrible job at describing what she said. Finally, out of frustration I asked her, “What is the most important book on writing?” Without skipping a beat she replied, “The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler.” I bought the book and after reading the first chapter, I knew she spoke the truth.

Vogler explains storytelling. He tells the reader about the Hero’s Journey, the basic structure for all stories in some form or another. The author explains how the structure works, and the different ways it can used. An understanding of this structure is crucial for writers.

He explains the character archetypes and their functions, such as the Hero, the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Herald, the Shapeshifter, the Shadow, the Ally and the Trickster. Through examples of stories in novels, movies and television, Vogler illustrates these archetypes and shows how to manipulate them to make your story better.

Next is the Stages of the Story. These stages consist of the Ordinary World; Call to Adventure; Refusal of the Call; Meeting the Mentor; Crossing the First Threshold; Tests, Allies and Enemies; Approach the Inmost Cave; The Ordeal; Reward; The Road Back; Resurrection and Return the Elixir. You can see the flow of a story in the names for the stages. This does not mean Vogler suggests a formula. Knowledge of how the stages work, will give you the ability to better manipulate them with your own creative power.

I wrote for seven years without the wisdom of this book. My first stories would have been better had I only known. It’s not that I didn’t use archetypes or story stages. I just didn’t understand them enough to use them in the most effective way. Now you know about this book. I highly recommend every fiction writer read A Writer’s Journey, Mythical Structure for Writers (Third Edition) by Christopher Vogler. Your storytelling will improve if you do.

 

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: 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, A Tale of Two Cities

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

A FEAST FOR THE SENSES by Ann Adams

Rowena Williamson’s “Sheila,” in the WWG anthology Take Our Words for Whidbey, is such a  sensuous story that the reader hears, sees, touches, and smells what the viewpoint character hears, sees, touches, and smells.

SOUND

“Her answer confused me. Sheila, perhaps? But not quite. The sound that waves make over pebbles.”

“What language was this, this sibilant, whispering tongue?”

“’It’s an Orca, a killer whale,’ I said, suddenly aware that my own words were full of sharp peaks and edges.”

“‘Orca,’ she said, and laughed at herself. The ‘c’ in the word came out in a guttural throat clearing.”

“In the night, through my open window, I heard seals barking in the water below. Then in my half-sleep, I heard my door squeak open and felt one side of my bed lower.”

“I heard her coming up the path, singing that tune in a wild minor note that sounded like a lament.”

“She continued to walk the beaches, often, at low tide, even at night, to a certain point below the house where there was always a whisper of sand and pebbles slipping down the bluff.”

“I heard a keening cry that might have been a gull.”

SIGHT

“I turned my head on the pillow, and looked at her sleeping face, surrounded by tangled black hair, long lashes fanning out on her high cheekbones.”

“I picked up my binoculars and looked down at her and saw, as she turned her profile to me, the track of tears on her cheek.”
 
Color:

“She lay on some sort of rug, not a beach towel, dark brown, nearly black, the color of her hair and eyes. Her skin was very white, blue veins showing, and her lips were red.”

“I knew that the sky would stay pale, almost green, till well past ten o’clock.”

“The big windows to the west caught the last of the sun and framed the reddening clouds. Pink light filled the room.”

“She watched, her black eyes taking in the turning on of the stove, the blue flame of the gas.”

Shape:

“She stood naked behind me, her dark eyes shadowed, her smile showing pointed teeth.”

“The tide was going out, and the wild race of waters wound the kelp in swirls and tangles.”

“I turned the glasses to Sheila and watched as she strode into the water, the waves curling around her calves.”

“I nodded, then looked beyond her through the window, where the last of the tattered clouds hung in red rags.”

TOUCH

“She moved easily over the pebbly surface.”

“I could feel the wild pulse in her wrist.”

“I inhaled the scent of her and felt her hand trace my face.”

“I held up the pelt, the softness of the fur rubbing against my skin.”

“That night we made love and I held her to me, my face buried in her hair, and I felt her wet cheek against my own.”

SMELL

“The house was surrounded by huge round pellets of new-mown hay, its scent colliding with the smell of the drying kelp on the shore.”

“The scent of the heating soup began to fill the kitchen.”

TASTE

There is no description of taste in this story, but don’t we all agree that these passages are delicious? Aren’t they a feast for the senses?

WHY DO WE WRITE? by Avis Rector

Why do we write? Because we have something to say, and everyone who publishes a book or has stories in the anthologies, wants people to read them.  Customers like to meet and talk with authors. We all need to help at the markets.
Below is one of several responses I’ve received from our customers. Sometimes I might be a bit too pushy, but it’s fun to make new friends. I’m glad I have my email on my card so they can respond.
Hello Avis,

On Mother’s Day weekend, my husband and I were visiting our daughter and husband who live in Lynnwood, and we came over to Whidbey Island for the day. We planned to have lunch in Coupeville at the OysterCatcher. We just happened to park by the Farmer’s Market and decided to walk through. I was lagging behind the rest of my family, looking at something, when a charming and beautiful lady walked out of a booth, and said, “You look like you need a new book to read! I have just the book for you!”

Well, as you probably remember, that lady was you, and I don’t know why, but I took a chance and bought your book. Just finished it today, and truly, truly enjoyed it! I have only been to Whidbey Island twice, but it just seems like a wonderful place. It was good to take a historical fictional tour of your island in the 1930s. Thank you for writing it, and thank you for stopping a stranger, who looked like she needed to read your book. You were right!

Blessings to you, Pam

MAKING SHAPELY FICTION by Ann Adams

There must be thousands of books on how to write, and most of the ones I’ve read are really bad. But Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern, is one of the really good ones. Until his death in 1996, Stern was director of the creative writing program at Florida State University. Like Marian Blue and Wayne Ude, he must have been a great teacher. His advice cites practical techniques used by writers from Zane Grey to Henry James and Flaubert, and everybody you’ve ever heard of in between.

Part I of his book describes 16 “Shapes of Fiction,” some of which are “Trauma,” “Gathering,” “A Day in the Life,” Journey,” “Visitation,” and “Bear at the Door.” It’s fun to try to guess what each shape will be like before you read it. Is “Gathering” about Thanksgiving dinner or the climax of a Hercule Poirot novel?

Part II is “A Cautionary Interlude,” consisting of “Write What You Know” (the way he interprets that maxim might surprise you) and “Don’t Do This: A Short Guide to What Not to Do.” This is a really funny section. We’ve all read stories that are like the ones he urges us not to write. One of my favorites is “The Bathtub Story,” in which “a character stays in a single, relatively confined space for the whole story,” thinking about things, but never does anything – never gets out of the bathtub.

Part III, “From Accuracy to Zigzag: An Alphabet for Writers of Fiction,” is a discussion of technique, subject by subject. You’ll find the usual subjects: “Character,” “Description,” “Dialogue,” “Plot.” But there’s also an intriguing thing called “Fretag’s Pyramid”: the key elements of a plot in the order in which they occur in a well-made drama: exposition, rising action, complication, climax, reversal, falling action, etc. This is a plot form much like the one Miko Johnston describes in “From Screen to Page, Part 3,” on the Writers in Residence blog.

The advice I need most is found in “Cliff Hanger,” “Suspense,” and “Tension.” Those who know me will tell you I’m always screaming, “This needs more dramatic tension!” The terrific thing about how Stern tells you how to do it is that he finds as much cliff-hanging and suspense and tension in Jane Austen and Henry James as he does in Zane Grey. It’s the same technique. Zane Grey keeps you on the edge of your seat with wild western “narrow escapes, daring rescues, and close calls.” “Jane Austen’s novels,” Stern says, “hang on the cliffs of love, marriage, loneliness, and happiness.” When I read Henry James’s “The Spoils of Poynton,” I was on the edge of my seat in agony, wondering how an old British widow could save her furniture from her scheming future daughter-in-law after her husband died and her son inherited her home.

A delicious little piece of advice which I had never heard of before is called “Zigzag,” micro-plotting within a scene. Are your scenes dull and lifeless? Does the reader trudge through them, begging you to “get on with it”? If you do zigzagging, that won’t happen. The reader will live in the scene, breathlessly, the way she does in Bill Wilson’s Stowaway.

Making Shapely Fiction is available from Amazon in paperback and kindle format. I recommend the print edition for this kind of book. Flipping through paper pages is much easier than clicking “go to” for accessing the technique you’re interested in at the moment.

USING A SIMILE TO DESCRIBE A CHARACTER by Ann Adams

A vivid way to describe a character is to use a simile.

How many times have we read that a man was built like an oak stump, or the face of a woman with a long neck looked like a flower on a stalk? When I wrote about a man with a hangover, Nathan sat on the edge of the bed like a shipwreck, I didn’t know whether that was original or a product of cryptomnesia (inadvertent plagiarism; you forget that you read it somewhere) or a case of more than one writer independently having the same idea.

Some similes that describe characters are too detailed to be copies. Tawni O’Dell is a master of the technique. In Angels Burning, she describes a lawyer this way:

He’s a big, bluff guy, gregarious and loud, who gets up from his desk and eagerly comes at you across his office for a handshake like a linebacker heading for a fumbled ball.

In the same book, it’s easy to forget whether Shawna Truly is a blue-eyed blond or a dark-eyed brunette, but neither description makes her as vivid as the way she walks into a police station after her daughter has been murdered and her son accused of the crime:

Like a she elephant grandly walking through a group of deadly big cats to get to the water hole, she has a regal disinterest in her surroundings because she knows nothing can touch her.

 Miranda Truly is as thin as Shawna is large in this implied simile. (You figure out what I mean by “implied.”)

Despite the heat, she’s costumed in a long-sleeved black sack of a dress that falls below her knees. If it weren’t for the presence of her head and a pair of withered, blue-veined hands, I’d think the garment was still on its hanger.

A century ago, in Helen With a High Hand, Arnold Bennett used a different but just as striking simile to show us how thin James Ollerenshaw was:

He leant his right elbow on the back of the seat, and his chin on his right palm. He put his left leg over his right leg, and thus his left foot swayed like a bird on a twig.

 Isn’t that magnificent? Doesn’t it make you want to go out on a limb and find your own pot of gold similes? (I’ll write about mixed metaphors another time.) What are some that you have written? What are some that you have read? Will you post them for us?