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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
Every time I’ve gone to a writing seminar I hear this question, which puzzles me because I don’t believe it’s what the asker wants to know. What’s really being asked is if writers should use some system to structure their work, whether it’s an outline, software, corkboard with index cards, or any other method. I asked several authors, including several of my co-WWG members, if and how they organize their writing.
M. M. Gornell, whose mysteries include the ‘Route 66’ series, doesn’t outline or use any formal system beyond a character list. “I ‘wing it,’ develop, build, and go back to fill in as I go.”
Andrea Hurst, author of The Guestbook and Tea and Comfort, varies her approach with each novel according to what she feels is needed. “On my first book I knew the beginning and the end and did deep character and setting work. On my second book I knew only the very beginning and end and it just poured out. On my third book, I have outlined in detail the scene points and overall plot ahead of time and it seems to work well.”
G.B. Pool, whose novels include the Johnny Casino Casebooks and the Ginger Caulfield P.I. series, favors some organizing techniques, but adapts them to each project. “I have used an outline before and it worked fine, but I usually just write as I go. I do maintain a timeline to keep the action straight and it keeps the characters from bumping into each other unless I want them to do that. And I do write biographies for my main characters.”
Bonnie Schroeder, whose work includes Mending Dreams and the upcoming Write My Name In The Sky, works with ‘The Snowflake System’. Although she didn’t purchase the software, she follows the general approach. “You start with the germ of an idea and gradually flesh it out through several iterations, including detailed chapter and character summaries. The most valuable thing I got from this was the ‘Scene Spread-sheet’, which has really helped me see where everything happens and where there’s no conflict, etc.” To learn more, go to: www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/
Rowena Williamson juggles two historical fiction series – Castle Caorann and Ryan and the Redhead – and is working on a sequel to her popular YA book, Escape To The Highlands. Despite her substantial workload, Rowena doesn’t use any system. “I can’t really plot without getting feedback from my characters.”
“I outline my stories in my head and I always know where I’m going,” said Audrey Mackaman. The Legend of Cavall, the first novel in her middle school series, will be published by Harper Collins next year.
Jackie Vick, of the Frankie Chandler Pet Psychic mysteries and the newly released Civility Rules, always uses an outline. “With a mystery, there is too much backtracking to clean up clues etc. without one. And it’s too easy to go off on tangents and get away from the plot.” She begins by taking notes and making up a style sheet – a quick reference tool for things she always needs to look up. “It helps keep track of names, places, grammar problems that pop up for me personally, hard to spell words, etc.” Although this system has worked for her in the past, she recently decided to try out Scrivener software. “I’m going to give that a shot with the next mystery I write. It’s gotten good reviews!”
Mike McNeff, author of the popular Robin Marlette thriller series, always has an ending in mind when he starts a new story. “I don’t how I’m going to get there, the characters figure that out.” Mike uses the writing software Scrivener. “If you use the tools in Scrivener, it organizes all aspects of the book for you as you go along. I particularly like the feature of breaking the book into scenes. It makes it easier to review each scene to make sure they move the story forward.”
“I think it’s very individual, this writing process,” said Heather Ames, whose publications include the romantic suspense All That Glitters, contemporary romance The Sweetest Song, and Indelible, the first in her mystery/suspense series. She tried using an outline to give her writing group an idea of where Swift Justice (the sequel to Indelible) was going, but the story strayed in another direction. “I’ve never used any of the writing programs. I’m a freewheeler.”
What about me? I began writing the first novel in my APetal In The Wind series with the idea of seeing if I could do it. I had no plan or outline, just a character, an incident, and a vague sense of the plot. I’m pleased with it now, but it took over a decade to finish. I’ve often thought outlines would speed up the writing process and now begin each book with a synopsis of the story, but I rarely stick to it. I rebel against micromanagement, even self-imposed. My second novel took only four years to complete, so I guess I’m getting faster. I hope so, as I haven’t finished book three yet and still have one more to go.
From this small sampling, it appears there is no consensus. Some writers deem systems necessary to keep them on point, or on deadline. Others find them inhibiting; they prefer to let the story flow. Many hybridize the process; they use timelines and biographies to keep the details straight, or work with a beginning and an end, and let their creative instincts fill in the rest. And a few do whatever they find works best for a particular project. Maybe that’s what draws us to writing stories that appeal to us rather than taking on assignments. We prefer having the freedom to follow our muse and only use organizational tools if we need help keeping our characters or plotting on track.
It should be noted that neither I nor any of the authors interviewed have hard deadlines for completing a book, which may in part explain why so many of us prefer the story to evolve on its own. Having that luxury of time allows the development of more complexity, more originality – in short, better writing – as opposed to having to bang out a formulaic manuscript to fulfill an annual requirement. Or as Rowena Williamson put it, “I couldn’t hold to a book-a-year schedule. My books would go downhill if I did that.”
An earlier version of this article appeared in the February 11, 2015 edition of writersinresidence.blogspot.com