Writeing Mistakes: A Top Ten List
by Jim Howard
Before we get started, allow me to state the obvious: I have never made any of the foolish errors described in this essay. I’m way too smart for that. Oh, I’ve made mistakes in my life, like the time I married my first cousin on my mother’s side, only to find out she was cheating on me with her first cousin on her father’s side. God how I hate this family.
But when it comes to mistakes in my writing? No way, José. Not a chance, fancy pants. Catch me nappin’? Ain’t gonna happen.
I know what you’re thinking: This guy can rhyme!
Please, you’re making me blush…
Actually, I don’t know what you’re thinking. That would be impossible, wouldn’t it? Unless I were a mind reader, that is, which I’m not. But I can imagine what you’re thinking, and I would imagine you’re thinking: Who does he think he is, Edgar Allen Hemmingway? I know, I know, there’s only one m in Hemmingway; I was just going for a cheap laugh. But seriously, what gives me the right to lecture you about punctuation, grammar, and spelling (or PGAS, as it’s known among us insiders)? Honestly, I have no clue. It just seemed like a good idea at the time, something I could have a little fun with—that, and the fact that somewhere in the literary world, the moon is full. (It is, right?)
So anyways, let’s get down to business. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to arrange my list in some logical order. You know, like the most annoying faux pas first, the second most annoying faux pas second, the third most annoying faux pas third, the fourth most annoying faux pas fourth, the fifth most annoying faux pas fifth… But then I figured annoying was in the eye of the beholder, so I just flipped a coin. First up:
1. When something is overused, common, hackneyed, or trite, we call it the Twilight series. We also call it clichéd. That’s clichéd, with a d at the end. It’s not cliché; cliché is a noun, as in, “Using ‘Top Ten List’ in your title has become a cliché.” The act of doing that is clichéd; what it isn’t is cliché. Don’t believe me? Ask a Frenchman. Just don’t get too close; they pinch, you know.
2. Colons: Who needs ’em? Besides most mammals, I mean. My late grandmother once told me, “Jimmy, do not use a colon before a quotation that functions as a restrictive appositive.” I was so moved by that particular admonition that I had it engraved on her tombstone, right below “RIP,” which was her nickname. Long story, don’t ask.
3. Speaking of dead grandmothers, was it an elegy that we read at her funeral? Or a eulogy? Ha! Trick question. I recited A.E. Housman’s famous elegy To An Athlete Dying Young at Grandma’s service. And even though she was neither athletic nor young, I like sports and it was the best I could come up with on short notice. Besides, I think my grandma would have liked that one line about “Eyes the shady night has shut.” Creepy, huh? So yeah, my eulogy was an elegy and vice versa. So sue me.
4. Answer me this: Could I care less? Or couldn’t I care less? If I could care less, then claiming that I couldn’t care less would be a barefaced lie, wouldn’t it? And if I couldn’t care less, then I guess I…couldn’t care less. You know what? Use whichever one you think sounds better. Because frankly, I could care less which one you use, but only because I don’t know you that well. If I did know you, though, chances are pretty good I wouldn’t care less. Or couldn’t, even if I tried. There. I’m glad we cleared that up.
5. How about joint possessives? No, not that kind of joint. Joint, as in owned by both. Here’s a for instance: Is it John and Jane’s doobie, or John’s and Jane’s doobie? Well, convention tells us that it’s John and Jane’s doobie. Especially if a cop walks into the room. Or like, your mom, dude. Want an easy way to remember that rule? Think Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Shit, man. Now I got the munchies…
6. It’s “nip it in the bud” (as with a flower) not “nip it in the butt” (as with…well, whatever). And it’s “test your mettle” (mettle=toughness) not “test your medal” (medal=not toughness). Finally, it’s a “moot point” (moot meaning rendered irrelevant) not a “mute point” (mute meaning silent—unless the judge happens to be deaf and your lawyer signs “not guilty” to that manslaughter plea). I could go on, but I’m afraid you might loose interest.
7. I see this alot, alright? C’mon, there ain’t no such words as alot and alright. Yes, there is an already entry in our dictionary, and an altogether, but no alot or alright. So let’s review… A lot of you think it’s all right to spell these words like that, but you’re altogether wrong. All together now: Enough already! And if your dictionary says otherwise, I don’t care—and neither does any reputable literary agent or publisher. (Some guy from Harper Collins paid me to say that.)
8. Dangling participles and participial phrases are a lot like quantum harmonic oscillators, in that I don’t know what a quantum harmonic oscillator is, either. So let’s move on…
9. Watch out for those commas! And never, ever insert a comma after a participial phrase that appears at the beginning of an inverted sentence. This is how we do it: “Saying that I didn’t know what a participial phrase is was a big fat lie.” And so is this: “Claiming that I didn’t know what a quantum harmonic oscillator is was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” What?! This essay is about writing, not quantum physics. Try to keep up.
10. One may find oneself trapped in a vicious circle. A vicious cycle? Unless a big ol’ Harley Hog being driven by a rabid biker chick is bearing down on you, the term you want is vicious circle. It is. Honest. You can use vicious cycle if you wish, and people will know what you mean, but those same people will laugh at you behind your back as soon as you’re out of earshot. They will. Honest. And if I ever hear you use viscous circle or cycle…let’s not go there, okay?
That’s it! My top ten literary bugaboos, all laid out for the whole world to see, right here on the pages of Menopause Press. Petty? Sure. But so was Mrs. Haydn, my 12th grade English teacher. She used to mark up my compositions with lipstick, for God’s sake! (In her defense, Sharpies hadn’t been invented yet.) But I learned something very important that year: She’d been doing the principal in the faculty room after school, and I had the pictures to prove it. Got an A in English that year, and I’ve loved the written word ever since. And photography.
Building Your Platform
I’m a member of several writer’s groups and web sites. Recently, on one of the sites, a fellow member posed a question about whether publishers and editors are impressed by a writer’s blogging or if they’re put off by it. I thought you might enjoy my answer and learning about platforms:
You raise an interesting point, J. It goes to the college graduates’ lament: Everyone wants them to have experience, but they can’t get experience until they get jobs.
It’s no secret publishers like their prospective authors to have background in the craft, publishing credits, and some experience in marketing themselves. There is an informative book called Get Known Before the Book Deal. It discusses an essential, little-known writer’s tool called a platform. The condensed version: You build a platform through publishing credits, such as short stories in literary magazines and ezines; contest wins and places; speaking engagements at libraries, writers’ groups, and seminars; teaching and/or mentoring other writers (when you’re suitably comfortable with the craft to do so), and writing about writing, among other things. These steps apply to both fiction and nonfiction platforms. Of coure, in nonfiction, one would tend to speak about their specialty as much as about writing itself. For instance, a cookbook writer would no doubt be asked to speak or give presentations on cooking, thus affirming her role as an expert.
So, to specifically answer your query, J, blogging alone isn’t a credit to build a platform. It can be an aspect of a platform if it relates to either nuggets about the craft or a nonfiction specialty or something with a true journalistic approach, but the majority of bloggers are discussing aspects of their everyday lives, etc., and none-too-impressively, so it tarnishes the practice’s credibility.
Another concern for publishers is that in your blog you’re including your fiction or poetry and exposing all your best writing to the world for free. Some editors won’t touch something that’s been in the open on the web. They consider it published, but not in a good way!
The First Page – Handles and Crumbs
How often do we stress or stress over a perfect first sentence, first paragraph, first page, first chapter? “You need a great hook” is often heard in the advice flotsam repeated through the creative process. Axioms like “hook readers with action” or “pose a question they’ll want answered” are empty, non-specific clichés–truncated and parroted versions of larger advice. There are no set formulas–good starts come in all styles and genres–yet they tend to have a few critical common elements, and there are some obvious things to avoid.
- Don’t hang your reader out a window and not tell her why she’s there. One of the biggest mistakes new authors make is leaping so fast into a story, offering some sort of breath-arresting action in mid-act, that they fail to give the reader anything to hold on to. If you’re not writing a crime thriller where every other page has bullets soaring or bastard criminals stalking, why would you want to hang your readers from a perilous ledge and not tell them why they’re there or who they’re hanging with?
- The first page, paragraph, sentence even, sets the tone for what’s to follow. It may take returning and editing the opening after you get further into the novel, but it’s important to not start with one tone or author’s voice and switch it after a couple chapters. You can’t start gritty and frenetic with a burly policeman rescuing your New York, street-smart girl from that ledge and then switch to a leisurely romance in the country with lolling on the grass and pastoral scenes of ivy cottages told in languid, rich descriptions that flow on for pages and pages. The scenery and circumstances might change for your character, but the tone of how you write about it better have consistency. Note that this different from how you approach wild action scenes vs. wooing on a park bench. This is about tone and voice as opposed to pacing and sentence structure.
- Give your readers some handles. When you travel on vacation, you have some basic knowledge about where you’re going before you ever leave your house. If you’re packing for a trip to Germany, you know the people there speak German, enjoy beer, eat lots of sausage, and have road signs written in German. You have expectations in your head from reading about Germany or talking to other people who have been there. Why would you send your reader somewhere and not give her a clue where ‘there’ is? Certainly a novel’s setting or milieu is going to be revealed in bits and pieces throughout its pages, but to drop a reader into the midst of something without the simple courtesy of minimally introducing the milieu, main character, and the main character’s motivation is just cruel. How is a reader supposed to be interested in your story if you don’t at least tell her some basic information?
Assignment: Pull a few novels off your shelves or pop them open in your e-reader. Read the first three to five pages. Note whether or not the writer drops you into bald action with no map or tour guide, or if he or she also brings a basket of bread crumbs and dribbles them around to feed you on the who, where, and why of the story. Drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us what you discover in your research. If we get some great responses we’ll feature them in a future issue of MP! Please be sure to use the code Handles in the subject line of your message so we know what you’re writing us about.
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On Character and Conflict~
Maxwell Anderson: The story of a play must be a conflict, and specifically, a conflict between the forces of good and evil within a single person. The good and evil to be defined, of course, as the audience wants to see them.
Rust Hills: We will find character and action even more inseparably entwined in fiction than they appear to be in life.
Raymond Chandler: The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities.
John Gardner: In nearly all good fiction, the basic–all but inescapable–plot form is: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.
Anthony Burgess: A character, to be acceptable as more than a chess piece, has to be ignorant of the future, unsure about the past, and not at all sure of what he’s supposed to be doing.
Diane Davis has devoted much time and energy to wrestling down the elusive skill of writing flash fiction. Her publishing credits show us just how well she’s done. We proudly present her essay about this popular form of fiction.
Flash fiction, a genre still alien to many, has recently grown to become one of the most popular forms of writing. Many magazines and internet sites are looking for well-crafted stories, where the skill lies not only in the brevity, but also in the writer’s ability to combine those words to maximum effect. Flash fiction can be both fun and challenging to write, and entertaining to read.
How long is flash fiction anyway? Answers vary, but most enthusiasts agree anything up to 300 words is micro flash and up to 1000 words is flash fiction. But word count is only a small part of what flash fiction is all about.
Flash fiction needs to be very tight and lean. Description should be minimal, and adjectives (noun modifiers) kept to a bare minimum. For example:
Instead of: She picked up the small black bag and put in her pink brush, her purple mirrored compact, her favorite ‘cherries jubilee’ lipstick and her brown leather wallet. Next came deodorant, her toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste.
Try: She packed her essentials in a small bag.
Adverbs (verb modifiers) should be avoided. Every time you’re tempted to use an adverb, look for a stronger verb. For example:
Instead of: He ran quickly down the street.
Try: He dashed down the street.
Backstory should be limited to what is essential to the story and can be woven into the action so it doesn’t slow the progress. Resist the temptation to tell and don’t spell everything out. Respect your reader’s intelligence. They love to figure things out for themselves. For example:
Instead of: He came from a very poor family. He never got anything new when he was growing up, and everything he got was patched and mended, used and reused until it fell apart. Now that he had money, he always bought brand new, top notch merchandise. His classmates wouldn’t be able to call him Raggedy Raymond anymore.
Try: He stood in front of the mirror. He flicked a speck of lint from the sleeve of his grey pinstripe jacket. His classmates might not recognize him, but he’d show them. Raggedy Raymond was gone for good.
It’s important to keep dialogue concise and make sure it contributes to the story progression and necessary character development. Leave out ho-hum salutations and irrelevant exchanges.
Character development in flash fiction has to be efficient, so keep it down to a few characters. Any more than that can clutter up the story and confuse the reader.
Keep it simple. Too many scenes can complicate the story. It helps to focus the story on a single scene or even a moment in the character’s life.
The best way to write a flash fiction story is to write without worrying about any of these rules, ignoring the word count limit. Concentrate on developing the characters and plot and setting. Once you’re satisfied with the story as a whole, put it away for a day or two. When you take it out again, read it through once to make sure you’re still happy with the plot and characterization. Then brace yourself and begin to edit.
First, consider each segment of the story. Anything that doesn’t move it forward, cut. Delete redundancies and unnecessary dialogue tags. If detail is included, make sure it is absolutely essential to the story’s development. Don’t waste the reader’s time with irrelevant mundane actions like hanging up the phone, shaking hands, etc. Respect the reader’s intelligence. They don’t need a blow-by-blow of every move the character makes.
Next, analyze every sentence. Be ruthless. Search for more efficient word combinations to save word count. Weigh every word for value. Let me repeat that. Weigh every word for value. Trim out any words that don’t move the story along or add to the plot or character development. Eliminate imprecise words that don’t add to the narrative like very, really, most and the like.
Set the story aside for another day, if necessary. Show it to a fellow writer whom you respect. Give it time to settle before you go back for one last edit. Sometimes it helps to set a goal. Plan to cut ten percent of the words so you will be pushed to cut, slash and hack.
To make your flash fiction story more satisfying, and therefore more memorable, devise a “twist in the tail.” Turn the story on its head and end it with a laugh or a tear—some kind of surprise that gives the reader an emotional response. While the twist isn’t required for it to be considered true flash fiction, it is desirable.
I think every writer should try flash fiction. It’s an excellent writing exercise that teaches discipline and word economy, improving other writing endeavors as well. Challenge yourself and have fun.
This month, my dear friend John Osborne shares the powerful, sometimes painful, journey of writing and publishing his novel, An Ordinary Fairy.
A Fantasy Journey
Dawn asked me to write a few words about my novel, An Ordinary Fairy, and especially the thought process behind my decision to self-publish.
I started AOF in 2006. I spent eight months writing the first draft and then two and a half years rewriting and fixing it, during which time I learned how to write. (Probably should have done that first.) In the fall of 2008, I had a finished file named “WW11D”, my code for the eleventh major revision. I was happy with the story and began the process of finding an agent. As a guide, I subscribed to Publishers Marketplace, a great resource to find agents and editors specific to the genre your writing or your target publishers. I searched the database for agents who worked with fantasy authors (they tend to specialize) and assembled a list of 38 that I decided to contact.
I sent letters and emails (depending on the agent) with accompanying synopses(from “no more than one page” to “at least ten pages”), sample chapters, summaries, blah, blah, blah. The result? Zip. Out of thirty-eight target agents, ten didn’t even respond. Three asked to see more than they had originally asked for, then said “No thanks.” The rest just said “No thanks.” Not one offered any advice or comments beyond “No.”
I like to think I wrote a good story. I followed the rules. Most people who’ve read it seem to really like it. I prefer to think my timing was bad. After all, Willow Brown, my main character, doesn’t have fangs or drink blood, and everything in fantasy at the time needed that to be considered, since the Twilight wave was surging just then.
One of the last places I tried was a publisher called Belle Bridge Books, which publishes books similar to mine, though mostly female authors and southern themes. I gave them a try and sent a submission, a synopsis and the first three chapters. I got a response in just s few days – from the CEO of the company, Debra Dixon. Okay, she said no. But then she went on to tell what could be done with the book to make it better. No one else in the publishing industry had done so. I didn’t understand everything she told me, so I took a chance and sent a follow-up message. She answered the same day.
Well, after agonizing for a couple of weeks, I took her advice and started a major revision to the book. Not the story – that didn’t change at all. What changed was how I presented the story, specifically, I got into my point-of-view character’s head. That revision took almost five months to complete. I liked what I had done, so I sent a sample off to Debra again. She said it still had problems, but I could submit the full manuscript if I desired.
I spent the next three weeks fuming at the arrogance of the publishing industry. It was the fall of 2009 and I was growing impatient. After much soul searching and research, I decided to abandon traditional publishing and pursue Internet self-publishing options. I looked at several providers. Many were limited in distribution potential, while others were pushy and expensive. I signed up with Outskirts Press (one of the pushy ones), but dropped them when their promised review of the story came back a little too fast and didn’t even mention the characters names, so clearly generic that I know they never read the story. I settled on CreateSpace.com, who offered no upfront cost, access to some major book distributors and automatic listing with the number one online bookseller, Amazon. On April 16th, 2010, I was published. Two weeks later I added the Kindle ebook version and a month later published via Smashwords, which distributes ebooks to Sony, Barnes and Noble, and Apple. The paperback version has popped up lots of places, including Infibeam, the Amazon branch in India. The ebook is available about everywhere, but mostly in the US and UK.
So, now it was time to promote. And that’s the hardest part. Sales are not stellar. (I won’t quit my day job for a while.) Reviews are very difficult to obtain. Most newspapers and magazines have a policy against reviewing self-published books. Their excuse is they have to draw the line somewhere, which is just plain bullshit. The real reason is the traditional publishing industries’ belief that all self-published works are substandard, since they didn’t nurture them to brilliance. Excuse me while I throw up. Unfortunately, there is some basis for this. I’ve seen a lot of crappy self-published books, by writers who chose not to have their work reviewed or edited or in some cases, even proofread. (I used a team of seventeen people, including my ace editor friend, Dawn Johnson.)
I did succeed in getting an article in our local paper recently, but it’s not a review, only an article about me and the book. The reporter told me would read the copy I sent her sometime. Online reviews can be had, but they take time. There are some pagan themes in my book, so I submitted the book to an pagan online review service six months ago. Still waiting. I also submitted to a pagan magazine, but after six months of expecting a review, they got back to me and said the book didn’t align with their editorial goals of portraying the pagan lifestyle. Which they could have decided in about two week. Whatever.
I have a good Internet presence. Just Google “An Ordinary Fairy” and you’ll see my blog, my website and my Facebook fan page. My biggest marketing success has been with Facebook. I established a fan page, An Ordinary Fairy by John Osborne, and make regular posts about fairy-related subjects and a few others. I try to keep it light. Willow (the ordinary fairy) posts as much as I do, which gives me an opportunity to introduce her to my fan base. I have almost 200 fans, most of which I bought, so to speak. Facebook ads would be a post unto themselves, but I’ll say briefly that they are a good way to get the word out. You can target who sees your ads by age, location, and interest. I’ve had success with targeting fans of other fantasy and magical realism authors and lately with some music groups.
I’m using some other simple things. I work for the University of Illinois and so have 40,000 eligible readers all around me. Reaching them is a challenge. I’m trying free giveaway books, left lying at strategic spots around campus with high traffic. I’ve had a couple of small library signings, and I have a local women’s clothing store selling for me. (The owner, my wife’s friend, read the book and loved it, then offered to sell it.) I’ll have a signing this spring at a popular local used bookstore. And I have a pocketful of business cards with the book cover and my website, which I post on bulletin boards and hand out to individuals when an opportunity presents itself. You just have to nibble away at it until you get enough people talking that things take off.
So … can I interest you in a good book?
An Ordinary Fairy and its sequels are available on Amazon.com.
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Writing meatier fiction.
Yes, there’s a period after that. It’s a statement. And something most fledgling writers miss when they’re composing. I do a fair amount of critiquing on various writer’s sites. I teach writing classes. I offer editing and critiquing through Word Edge (www.word-edge.com). In all those venues, I see the same thing time and time again: The thing that divides the promising authors from the total amateurs who have a long way to go. That’s not saying the ammies don’t have the fundamentals down, or that their work doesn’t show promise, but it does mean, much of the time, that their writing is shallow, speedy, and lacking real development.
I’ve talked before, here and elsewhere, about ‘new’ writers focusing so much on showing they produce a parade of characters flopping hands like fish, batting endless eyes, dripping tears, and smirking or smiling until our heads hurt. Glances dart, eyes glaze, and hearts palpitate until we feel we need a cardiologist to administer hot paddles to the story. Those things are whipped cream (albeit useful cream to keep things vivid) and too much of it is not a good thing. It becomes cloying Cool-Whip hanging on your tongue. The real meat of a story is within the characters and their development. Feed your readers fine meat and your story will stick to their ribs. They’ll savor the taste, linger over its meaning. They’ll take you seriously as a word chef and think about your story for some time to come. All whipped cream just slides past the lips and goes to their hips. It’s quickly dismissed as they search on (probably in anotehr story or novel) for something more. It’s frivolous fluff.
I have some advice for anyone who wants to be a serious writer: Write seriously.
First, stop believing that Show Don’t Tell will solve all your writing problems. Writing is about balance. If you show, or dramatize, everything, your reader will get weary. (And you’ll find yourself filling pages with meaningless action that fails to serve the characters’ real needs.) You have to tell the readers what you want them to know about the characters and how they develop. You have to share their backgrounds, how they think, what they feel. (Mastering point of view is your best method for this. See below.) You have to allow the characters to think, draw conclusions, move inside themselves, not just outside. And that innerness must be powerful, deep, and without doubt show the processes that change inside that character–even in humor the characters undergo some transformation. How do they face their conflicts and tensions? How do their external triumphs translate to inner development? What in the hell do the characters want? What motivates them to go on and why must they go through these trials to get it?
Second, sit down with a divine novel by a truly professional writer and study how he or she constructs the work. Note how scenes and chapters revolve around tensions, conflicts, and big or little challenges that push the character toward the inevitable ultimate climax. Recognize how things build, ebb and rise. Study how the unimportant periods and activities are either passed over entirely or summarized to bridge from one critical event to another. And then, look into each of the scenes and see how the drama, the fights, the dialogue, the character-to-character interactions are bright-burning propellants between the internalizations of the POV character–this is where character development takes place.
Now, I’ll grant you, not every single novel will do this. I can think of exceptions that are written differently for a very specific effect (Maeve Binchy’s Whitethorn Woods with its individual character studies). I can also think of books that are fun larks, not quite so deep into dramatic characters, where this balance of narrative to action may be a bit different (Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series which relies on fast action and a feisty heroine in tight plot lines). But, hey, those exceptions and deliberate constructions add spice to the mix of fiction. And they’re usually done by accomplished authors who have a plan.
So, you have your charge, my friends! Lets all vow, for this new year ahead, to give our fiction more meat and less whipped topping. Happy New year!
Point of View – Learn the rules before you break them
When we undertake to write, we do so with the knowledge that there are rules to follow. Like driving a car, flying an airplane, or using a computer, certain things must be done, decisions made, steps observed, functions carried out for the end product t be smooth and appealing. We learn rules of the writing road, so to speak, and use them to our advantage to craft something reader-friendly.
Now, that’s not to say there aren’t writing rule-breakers out there. There certainly are. And some famous ones too; even some notable conventional authors have taken unconventional approaches from time to time. But, typically, those deviations are taken with strict knowledge that they are deviations, and thus used as devices to deliver a story in a certain manner, tone, or style. And they’re used consistently, so intent is as clear as the unconvention. On the whole, though, most writers of any merit agree there are ‘requirements’ for the craft–required knowledge in grammar fluency, punctuation skills, character development, plot construction, pacing…the list is an extensive one dealing with topics from mechanics to narration. One strikingly strong knowledge aspect that connects to characters, plot, delivery, and tone is point of view. Published authors have been known to break POV ‘rules’ just as they break other writing rules from time to time. But. Only. After. They’ve. Learned. Them.
Like any other aspect of writing, one should master POV skills, get comfortable within their parameters, and then if your style warrants it, break them willy-nilly if you must. Still, a writer should always remember that how she uses first person singular, third person (limited, multiple, objective, subjective, whatever), second person, first person multiple, et al, is how she communicates a story to a reader. While, technically, there are no POV laws in modern prose, there are structures and conventions for every type–structures and conventions that can be studied and learned. We can and should understand and use them, because to do so half-assed or not at all won’t impress anybody. Not your readers, and most importantly, not an editor or agent, should you be hoping to snag one’s attention with your verbiage. (As everyone knows, understanding is the first step toward successfully utilizing.)
In future issues, I’ll tackle more on the dizzying subject of POV.
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3-D Character Building
If you write fiction, you must come to terms with one important fact: fiction is about people. Even in the plot-driven genre world, characters and what happens to them are why we read. In his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri revealed his concept of building multi-dimensional characters through three facets: physiology, sociology, and psychology. While in some ways this approach is targeted for stage play characters, it works in the context of prose, too.
In this method, a character is defined in three sections, and when combined, they build a well-rounded three-dimensional character who suffers conflicts and some sort of development (change) by story’s end.
First let’s look at the Physiology category. This is less about color of hair and eyes and more about lifestyle and traits that reflect history and personality and hint at or openly state shortcomings or talents; these facets are then shown to viewer or reader through the character’s dialogue, actions, or appearance.
Next is sociology. This dimension deals with showing a character’s social level and socially-related behaviors. How he behaves in public. How he interacts with other characters. Other considerations derive from background and current status: relationships, political leanings, childhood experiences, pastimes, faith, ethnicity, etc.
As for his psychology, much of this relates to sociology, but delves deeper, from external images to internal processes. This deals with the characters desires, disappointments, self-evaluation, denial, acceptance, emotional state, moral compass, drive, response to conflict, and other emotional and psychological processes.
With all these attributes combined, a 3-dimensional character emerges.
For those interested in profiling characters in this method–the three areas AND how the character can or will evolve by story’s end (that’s what character development is ultimately about)–here’s a checklist by category to get you thinking: Physiology: sex, age, height/weight, coloring (eyes, skin, hair), posture, appearance, defects, heredity. Sociology: class, occupation, education, home life, religion, race/nationality, place in community, political affiliation, amusements/hobbies. Psychology: sex life/moral status, personal premise (theme), ambition, frustrations/disappointments, temperaments, attitude toward life, complexes, extravert/introvert/ambivert, qualities, IQ.
To learn more about this method, check out Egri’s book. Click the title to view it on Amazon: The Art of Dramatic Writing
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Carpenters have awls and planers and saws, artists use brushes and pens and paints, programmers create with code and cryptic digital tech speak and the latest in processor technology. All have their tool boxes. Implements required to bring their creative intuition from abstract to concrete. Writers have tools too. The obvious ones: pen, paper, keyboard, dictionary, Internet, thesaurus. And the add-ons: niche reference books. I could go on about this topic for ages. Goddess knows there are references to suit every need, every desire, every little crumb of scientific concept or half-baked ideology. For writers, there are even specialized compendiums for things such as forensics investigation, poisons, monsters, ghosts and spirits, romance how-tos, and who-knows-what-else. Whatever your genre, someone’s published a book to help you write your book. For now, I’ll just recommend two that will be useful for whatever genre you prefer to write in, or even if you’re into non-fiction or poetry.
Both of these volumes are in my personal reference library. They are as entertaining to read as they are handy to use!
The Bibliophile’s Dictionary The back cover says it all: “…an exceptional collection of unusual words and phrases, usefully organized by author Miles Westley into specific categories such as personality traits, religion, myths, and mysticism, and household objects. Each word has a definition, and an example of how the word is used in literature. Enhance your own vocabulary by learning from the great minds of writers.”
Flip Dictionary As the front cover says, “For when you know what you want to say but can’t think of the word.” And on the back: “There’s nothing more frustrating than knowing what you want to say but not being able to think of the word. Or perhaps you have a general word in mind but you want something more specific….Flip Dictionary…goes beyond the standard dictionary format by offering cues and clue words to lead you to the exact phrase or specific term you need.”
Look for both of these fantastic reference books in the MP Boutique. Or just click the links below:
Bibliophile’s Dictionary: 2054 Masterful Words and Phrases
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Book Review ~
From their press to ours.
In the June issue of MP, we featured poetry by Anni Macht Gibson. While in contact with Anni about publishing her poems, she offered to send along a copy of her book, Unfinished and Other Poems. It has been my pleasure to read her poetry and be utterly delighted. Her words and insights are fresh, lively, humorous, and often tender. I enjoyed verse after verse with tears, smiles, and feelings of heart-touching familiarity.
As Mary Pierce Brosmer, founder of Women Writing for (a) Change says: You’ll be happy, as I am, that Anni Macht Gibson “quit her day job” to write poetry! Hers is a capacious intelligence and an even more capacious heart, making sacred in the “small silver sacks” of these poems a range of experiences from airline peanuts accepted “almost gratefully” to the “lonely truth of life’s black and white keys,” “blood the color of salvia outside the double-wide.” Whew!
Melancholy descends like a mother-in-law
peeking through all your cupboards,
in all your most private corners,
until you throw up your hands in disgust,
leave your bagel on the plate
crawl beneath the covers to hide
from the obvious transparency
of all your flaws…
To read the rest of this poem, you can purchase a copy of Anni’s book by visiting the MP Boutique (use the shop! tab above) or just click: Unfinished
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Advice to Writers
Jon Winokur has compiled a delightful and piercingly truthful compendium of quotes and anecdotes by an amazing literary who’s-who. His book Advice to Writers is a must-have for inspiration, doses of hard truth when one suffers from head-swelling, and the chance to laugh at our artistic breed.
Here’s a sampling from the section Reading:
William Faulkner ~ Read, read, read. Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.
Cynthia Ozick ~ Advice to aspiring poets: Poetry is not letter-writing cut up into lines. Become familiar with the poets that are the infrastructure of literature; read, read, read.
Henry David Thoreau ~ Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.
William Safire ~ Eschew the trashy and embrace the readworthy. Remember the acronym GWIGWO: Good Writing In, Good Writing Out.
Dorothea Brande ~ If you are writing a manuscript so long that the prospect of not reading at all until you have finished is too intolerable, be sure to choose books which are as unlike your own book as possible: read technical books, history, or, best of all, books in other languages.
To purchase Winokur’s inspirational compendium, just click:
Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights
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What’s Your Theme?
by Dawn Boeder Johnson
Saying the word theme to a writer is a little like jumping out of a closet and yelling Boo! to a three-year-old. Either instance invokes a flight response. When the word theme comes up, how many of us envision a fourth grade teacher glaring down through rhinestone-encrusted glasses and demanding an assignment? How many of us think of topics like Why do you like Spring? or What do you want for Christmas? and the resulting 300-word dissertations scrawled in paper blue books?
Well, I’m happy to tell you those dreaded elementary school themes are not the type we’re discussing here. I’m talking about themes in fiction, and if you want a story or novel (and yes, even poetry) to have meaning and a stick-with-the-reader quality, you best be getting yourself a theme.
Oh, but wait, before you run off in search of this literary Grail, we should have a chat.
We all know stories have characters, settings, plots, scenes, conflicts, climaxes, resolutions, but did you realize the really good ones also have themes? In fiction, a theme is a statement; it’s what the story is about. Not the concrete stuff I listed at the start of this paragraph, but rather an abstract idea or ideas incorporated into the story. Author Rachel Simon sees it like this: “Theme is what the story is saying—definitively or speculatively—about humanity and the laws of the universe.”
An idea for a story comes easily to most of us. Something in our environment sparks an image or even a sentence that sends us on a journey to create characters and situations—to form a story. In short, idea is more synonymous with content. Theme, on the other hand, is an abstraction subtly revealed by the content.
See, aren’t you glad you stuck around? No, don’t go yet … there’s more. The curious paradox to putting theme in your fiction is it works better if it’s a natural process.
I hear you asking, “A natural process? What the heck does that mean?”
According to Peter Selgin, theme needs to develop naturally out of the work. Forcing it from word one runs the risk of heavy-handedness. Still, it is possible to develop theme first, story second, and many authors of great literature have done just that (and, yes, they’ve been called heavy-handed and preachy despite lofty literary praise), but we’ll explore that topic in another essay. For now, suffice to say you can have too much theme when it “oversteps its bounds and moves from general and abstract … to pointed and prescriptive … when it mutates into a message.” (Selgin) The minimal extreme of this overstepping is labeled premise, and the most weighty extreme, propaganda. At either end of the scale, the reader is forced to sit down and take his medicine along with his entertainment. Just remember, you want your themes to be inferred with grace, not clobber readers over the head. (If you’d like to learn more about these darker dimensions of theme, you’ll have to read Selgin’s book on writing, look them up on the Internet, or wait for a sequel to this essay!)
Although it’s possible that a theme will form itself, whole and hearty, as we write, usually it needs to be teased and encouraged during the revision process. Because we often can’t identify theme until we have the picture formed by a full story, we nurture a theme as we edit. Ideally, theme’s subtle clues worm themselves into our consciousness (whether writer or reader), until we see the story for its greater importance—what the characters teach us by their actions, fortunes, and misfortunes. After all, characters are what any story is really about. They’re what the reader sits down to experience—other lives through the narrator’s words—and it’s logical that those characters should impart something greater to the reader and connect on an intimate level. (Think: theme.) How else can they evoke emotion?
It’s not always easy to discover the themes in our own work. Selgin refers to it as “theme stalking.” Sometimes the best way to conduct a hunt is what I’d call lefthandedly. In other words, you seek the theme by not looking for it directly. Maybe you have that eureka! moment when you’re in the shower or walking the dog or sitting on the toilet. Maybe you read a certain sentence and it sparks a connection to another event in the story. The revelation of theme can come at any moment, but first you must be conscious of the need for it—the need for glue to hold your story together and give it purpose. And then, when you find it, it’s likely to be quite a goose-bump-raising, heart-palpitating, emotional epiphany. Selgin suggests, when you’ve stalked a theme out of hiding, that you label your trophy with one word, if possible, or a single short sentence. This theme summary becomes your anthem as you edit, and you will find yourself weaving its thread throughout the story (if it isn’t already there) through adjustments to dialogue, actions, reactions, and even setting.
In an 1842 essay about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales, Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “Without a certain continuity of effort—without a certain duration or repetition of purpose—the soul is never deeply moved.” In 21st-century speak, that means without continuity of theme in a story, the reader is left unmoved. And that continuity must be present in all aspects of the story: characters, plot, point of view, even the choice of words. Selgin explains, “The fancy term for this is organic unity: the organization of the story’s elements—plot, characters, setting, conflict—around a single theme, such that they enhance, interact with, and inform the theme.”
Although not mentioned in the above quotes, even a title should reflect a story’s purpose. Take that advice as a warning: Don’t get too vested in an initial working title. That short burst at the top of the page, that thing every reader sees first, should be tied to theme as well, and first attempts are rarely on the money. Those which come after your expedition into the wilds of theme are much more likely to reflect it.
Both great and even good works of fiction all possess the quality of theme—some binding thread or threads (a story can have multiple themes or themes can morph from one to another in the course of a story) that draw all the parts together to create an effect. Think of it as the story’s center—the underlying truth or truths that make a connection with the reader.
The good news is: Themes in literature can often be categorized under broad headings, and some of the most commonly used are considered universal, transcending race, gender, creed, and sexual preference. A few are: death and grief, the meaning of freedom, guilt, friendship, love, individuality, innocence, peace, choices, family, etc. These are broad headings, of course, but remember what Selgin advises about seeking a one-word representation of theme. It doesn’t need to completely explain the story, merely summarize its deeper meaning, and remember, theme is inseparable from plot and structure—all three must harmonize.
So, now that you know what a theme is in fiction, how do you know if a story’s got one? First, look at the title. If an author’s done her job, the title will reflect the theme. (Consider how the title The Great Gatsby ties into Fitzgerald’s theme surrounding the lifestyle of the wealthy in post-WWI New York.) Next, look for recurring symbols and patterns, such as a repeated line of dialogue and references to an event or object. Hunt for allusions (indirect references or suggestions) in the story, and look for greater meaning behind the details.
Theme is about emotion—connecting the author’s feelings to the reader’s. Stories with well-developed themes are always more powerful than those without. In fact, when I read stories I wrote years ago, it’s shockingly obvious to me that their faulty element, the thing that crumbles them like overdone cookies, is lack of a binding theme. They’re hollow stories without the depth of character and purpose that only theme can bring.
So, to mix my allusions and metaphors and what-have-yous: Go forth grasshopper, take your first step into a larger world, put on your thinking cap, and seek what your stories have been missing!
“Analyzing Theme” from http://www.learner.org/interactives/literature/read/theme1.html
Selgin, Peter; By Cunning & Craft, Writer’s Digest Books
Simon, Rachel; “The Writer’s Writing Guide: Theme”, www.rachelsimon.com/wg_theme.html
“Theme (literature)” www.wikipedia.org
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Book Review ~
From their press to ours.
If you’ve hungered for a book with answers to your most pressing questions about writing, 179 Ways to Save a Novel by Peter Selgin is your main course. I won’t lie to you, I started reading the book loving Peter Selgin’s candor and style from his previous writer’s companion, By Cunning and Craft. But 179 Ways did not disappoint! In fact, its style and no-nonsense discussion of common problems and solutions for prose writers is worth the modest price of admission. And his advice derives from industry knowledge and experience, as well as his teaching credentials. Above all, the anecdotes and wit keep it real and easy to connect to. Like King’s On Writing and Selgin’s previous book, it should be a dog-eared staple on every writer’s shelf.
Tip #95} Haughty Hobos & Hairy Cassoulets
Style is a nutriment, not a condiment: not the ketchup, mustard, or gravy of good writing, but, as much as subject, the meat and potatoes. Structure, substance, style … except for purposes of discussion, none of these elements can truly be separated from the others. When you can see cracks you need to worry….
Read more about it! Look inside Selgin’s book. Just click:
179 Ways to Save a Novel: Matters of Vital Concern to Fiction Writers
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Get thee a great set of reference tools and spruce up on spelling, grammar, and punctuation (SPAG)!
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You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.
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Click title to show pdf: Every Word is NOT Sacred by Dawn Boeder Johnson
An essay on writing with tips, advice, and examples you can use.