Carbon Copy

Carbon Copy

Time for a trip down memory lane! Your teacher assigned a term paper. You know the kind I mean: at least ten pages (double-spaced), cited with references, usually on a topic NOT of your choosing. Maybe you get a few weeks to work on it (outside of class; no self-respecting teacher’s going to waste class time hauling your butt down to the library). And – if you do things properly – your research involves a giant stack of index cards, with one quote or important fact scribbled down per card so you get those citations written properly. If you reported to a stern teacher, those note cards went in with the paper: proof of your research AND evidence that you didn’t plagiarize a single sentence.

Sound familiar?

If you don’t come from Generation X (or older), probably not. Because the internet hit the scene when we ventured into college, and the notecard died a slow death. Better for the plunder of trees to create those rigid paper rectangles, but for intellectual property? Yeah, the beginning of an upward battle. Instead of spending hours writing out information and laboriously integrating quotes, facts, and details into papers, people discovered the beauty of ctrl-C and ctrl-V. Research time dropped to a fraction. And plagiarism? It turned into an epidemic.

You SHOULD have learned about plagiarism in school. (I admit, it’s been a fair amount of time since I attended, and I’m not familiar with the curriculum anymore) Just in case, let’s review the definition, shall we?

“The act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person.”

~Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Now, I’ll skip over the fact that “ideas” is a tricky concept. (There are NO unique ideas out there. That’s a different topic for another day, though) When you lift someone’s words and plop them into yours without a citation (guess what – that quote above demonstrates the technique nicely), you’re STEALING them. And it’s a violation of copyright. You know, the information at the front of the book you usually flip past to get to the first page of interesting text? Plagiarism is an offense, and if someone catches you, that copyright can come with prosecution.

That rigmarole with the notecards? It was how they hammered the lesson into our heads when I was a kid. You could write the direct information down (putting the reference material on the back), but – unless you planned to use it as a quote – you then needed to manipulate the text into YOUR words. They wanted to coach us to express the same concept in a new way. And when you think about it, it’s a fantastic exercise in creative writing. Can you look at a sentence, find the “meat” of the message, and write it in ten difference ways without losing any information? A writer worth their salt doesn’t have a problem doing so. A lazy writer plagiarizes the sentence and moves on.

And plagiarism is RIFE on the internet.

Writers, I think, are sensitive to the subject. Let me rephrase that: COMPETENT writers are sensitive to the subject. We take the time to research, review, and edit our work. Words are sacred things, dominating our world. The work we put out holds meaning to us. So when we come across blatant plagiarism, our little writer senses start tingling. (Side note: I love Stan Lee as much as the next nerd, but “tingling” is one of the WORST words in the English language and why Spider-Man makes my head hurt) No one polices the internet, allowing so-called writers to copy-paste content without a second thought. Those quick keystrokes have proved to be migraines for schools and even colleges. It’s why plagiarism checkers exist – though they have their faults. (Grammarly’s is TOO sensitive. It often yells at me because of words showing up together that people often combine, such as “breed of dog.” I can’t do much with that)

I stumbled on a site plagiarizing one of my editing clients. My blood pressure hit the roof. Paragraph after paragraph that I was currently revising scanned under my eye. Granted, I ended up making changes to the original site, but I wanted to beat the down the metaphorical door of the imposter. And the more I looked, the more content I found listed en masse from other sites. Meanwhile, their Privacy Policy insisted all of the material on the site was “original.” I reported the site to my client. I wanted to do more, but I’m nothing more than their editor; I don’t exactly have “stake in the game.” It made my blood boil that someone could be THAT lazy, though. And, even worse, they posted a bio claiming they were a WRITER?!

A writer doesn’t engage in plagiarism. Even if you’re tasked with writing about a topic someone else has already tackled, you DON’T steal words. Feed your writing brain the information and spit out new sentences. We’re all creative, right? That means we can come up with a different way to say the same thing. And if you can’t? Quote the person! It’s the fair (and lawfully correct) thing to do. After all, sometimes people put together sentences so beamingly beautiful and succinct, you can’t improve on them. Their words stop you in your tracks and make you sit back. Giving a person credit for their words doesn’t make you less of a writer.

Stealing words? Engaging in plagiarism and patting yourself on the back for churning out dozens and dozens of content faster than others due to your theft? Yeah, THAT makes you – well, I’m not even willing to call you a writer. You’re a copier. A machine that mimeographs someone else. And, frankly, no one’s going to admire you.

The Long and Short of It

The Long and Short of It

Patchwork elphant
Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

Have you ever come across a paragraph (or, worse, a chapter) so droll and monotonous, you feel yourself going cross-eyed? I’m not talking about textbooks, either – though they usually suffer from this problem. You go back over the same sentences over and over, trying to focus. And it’s frustrating because these passages crop up in plots that were – up to that point – fascinating. But now you’re falling asleep at the wheel for some reason. If you “step back,” you’ll usually pinpoint the problem: a complete and utter lack of sentence variety.

You’ve entered the monotony zone.

Every writer slips up and falls into this pattern now and then. Usually, it grabs onto the brain when you hit a patch of writer’s block or need to go over a part of your story that doesn’t capture your interest. (Or, let’s admit it – it’s a chunk of your worldbuilding you didn’t devote much time to) You’re bored. So you put on your best Science Slide Show voice and put your readers into a coma. All because every single one of your sentences have the same number of words, written in the same pattern.

Sentence variety drives a narrative forward. It’s also a reflection of the way we speak and think. Don’t believe me? Sit in an area and listen to the cadence of the conversations around you. Keep a notebook and make tick marks for the number of words in each sentence. You’ll see a wide variation based on the type of engagement. Anger and excitement? They’ll come out on the shorter end of things. But find someone who’s eager to describe something they’re passionate about? Well, you might need an extra piece of paper. Emotions dictate the flow of words we use.

And writing isn’t any different.

You have the chance to create emotion within your reader, simply by manipulating your sentence variety. Want to have them breathless and on the edge of their seat? Chop up your sentences. Even read silently, shorter bites of information speed up the heart rate and cause you to breathe faster. It builds suspense and tension – something mystery and horror writers exploit ALL the time. And you may not even realize it, you’re so captivated by the action. But stop and look at the sentence structure next time. Watch everything grow shorter and shorter and SHORTER the closer you get to something powerful.

On the flip side, when you want to draw out and latch onto the heart of your reader, you stretch your sentences as long as possible. (Note: this does NOT mean you have permission to write run-on sentences) Your stream-of-conscience monologues provide the chance for a reader to delve into the characters and their thought processes. You give them all of the twists and turns of the agony they’re experiencing. It’s your chance to break out your carefully selected adverbs. And it advances character development.

A well-written piece of writing? Moves back and forth. Because, of course, you’re progressing along a story arc. And – unless you’re writing about the most boring characters in the history of existence – you have a cast of people with emotions. Your sentence variety allows them to demonstrate those feelings in a natural manner. If you fail to inject an ebb and flow, you get a flat textbook. While I don’t want to knock the textbook writers out there, I’m guessing the vast majority of wordsmiths out there don’t wake up in the morning with aspirations of publishing the next organic chemistry volume.

You WANT to use variety!

Now, every now and then in writing groups, you’ll see a favorite exercise come up in which you need to craft a story using a specified number of words for every sentence. This flies in the face of everything I just said. But it’s a USEFUL exercise. Whether they throw out ten words or four, your brain goes into overdrive cobbling together a coherent plot with a “limited” vocabulary. It teaches you how to use the emotions tied to those sentence lengths, though – especially if you’re struggling to get the concept of sentence variety down.

For instance, I tackled a flash fiction piece with a limit of four words one time. Four words? Could you consider four words a sentence? (At the time, I didn’t) Over and over, I failed to construct my usual stories. It took me most of a week to finally get a SINGLE sentence written: Five minutes until midnight. Staring at the words on the screen, I brainstormed different emotions I could assign to that sentence. And once I settled on the emotion I wanted, the story built itself. It took trial and error (not to mention cursing as I reworked sentences that exceeded the count), but the story I finished I was happy with. And I learned to use those short sentences to my advantage down the road.

The same with another flash fiction – this time with a ten-word limit. Yeah, I thought four words was a pain? TEN exceeded annoyance. More ISN’T better. (Plus, I spent half my time tapping a pen on the screen to check my count) I needed to find a way to write coherent, REASONABLE sentences that didn’t hit that run-on boundary. At the same time, I couldn’t figure out something dramatic or introspective for a flash piece. But long sentences? They can work for flights of fancy, too – if you handle them properly. And that’s where “The Storyteller” ended up taking me.

These exercises HELP.

Once you learn the FEEL of varying sentence lengths, mixing them together is a cinch. And before you know it, you break the cycle of stilted, monotonous writing. Your readers don’t get bored. Even better, they don’t lower the book and check the cover to make sure they haven’t accidentally picked up a reference text. So go sit and listen to people and the way they speak. Think through the emotions they’re experiencing (or NOT experiencing). Then start to apply it to your writing. You’ll find your stories coming alive.

You can always write textbooks on the side – you know, if you have that aspiration.

Star Trek Disease

Star Trek Disease

Comma defintion
Image by TungCheung from Adobe Stock

If you’re a writer, what are the most important things you need to think about? Spelling, grammar, and punctuation. (And, you know, imagination and creativity. Those are intangibles that someone can’t get taught, though) Your odds of success go down dramatically if you can’t manage those three things. Of course, in this era where you have Grammarly available, it’s not an excuse to turn in work riddled with such errors. But I digress. Because even electronic grammar machines aren’t flawless, and they’ll fail you from time to time. That means you have to dredge up that elementary and middle school knowledge (or break out your Strunk and White: Elements of Style). Sounds easy enough. So why do I stumble across posts, articles, and even stories that read like scripts from the William Shatner era of Star Trek?

You find, commas, in all, the wrong, places!

Delving into a refresher course on commas would lead to an encyclopedic post. If you recall your lessons, you know there are different situations for them to make an appearance. You have rules for dialogue, structure for various clauses, and the all-important Oxford comma debate. (Don’t worry – there’s plenty of time for me to get into all of those situations down the road) What drives me up the wall, though, is when I’m reading through something and finding myself stuttering through sentences because someone dropped a bag of commas into the sentences. That’s what we’ll confine this post to: the OVERUSE of that tiny little mark of punctuation.

First, though, let’s review the official (basic) definition of a comma:

“A punctuation mark indicating a pause between parts of a sentence. Also used to separate items in a list.”

~Oxford Languages

That word PAUSE is the key to using commas in your writing. You’re providing your reader with a chance to catch their breath. It’s not an excuse to write run-on sentences (that’s a different topic entirely), but it DOES allow you to craft complex thoughts. If you need an example, pick up any of Victor Hugo’s novels. The man’s thoughts can easily cover a couple of pages before you hit the end of the sentence. But because you have appropriate pauses to breathe and collect the concepts he wanted to present, you don’t think anything of it. So you get a thorough history of the Cathedral de Notre-Dame or a lecture about the French Civil War embedded into the plot of the novel, and you never bat an eye. He uses commas appropriately.

Then you come across other works that make you feel like you’re hyperventilating. If they happen to be horror or mysteries? It can work. The author’s creating the same tension and panic in the reader that the character’s feeling. But since I don’t read either of those genres (not often, anyway), those aren’t the pieces I find myself wincing over. Nope, I’m finding blogs, articles, even the occasional short story or novel that look like the Comma Fairy dumped her entire quota out on the page. The marks show up EVERYWHERE! And I have to wonder if the editor fell asleep, missed that chapter, or didn’t comprehend the definition of a comma in the first place. Reading is like trying to watch the Tin Man run (or, you know, imagining that as I’m not sure he ever actually runs in The Wizard of Oz). And trying to read the page aloud? It makes me sound like Captain Kirk.

Which is an easy way to PREVENT the problem.

The best way to edit your work is to read it aloud. Skimming something on a screen? There’s too much risk of your eyes bouncing over an error. And your brain likes to automatically correct things – even if they’re WRONG. (This is why you’re better off letting someone else edit your work, of course, but I recognize that isn’t always an option) When you start reading out loud, though, you find yourself catching more mistakes. And the start and stutter speech of an abundance of commas? That stands out right away. (Incidentally, so will a LACK of commas as you fall out of your chair, running out of breath) Suddenly, you expect to see Spock walk through the door or hear Scotty complain about a lack of power. (Okay, those are major clichés. I’m not a Star Trek fan, so I’m limited on my ability to crack jokes)

And while you’d think Grammarly would pitch in and help you weed out all of the unnecessary marks, the program bails on you. I’ve even watched the window suggest EXTRA commas to me! (As I’ve mentioned before, we have a love-hate relationship where I spend at least half my time arguing with a computer screen) Blindly accepting everything a grammar program tells you is probably where these comma explosions come from. But it makes you look like you’ve never cracked open a book in your life (or that you opened the WRONG books). And, for readers, it makes attempting to get through your work a challenge.

Take the time out to read your work – OUT LOUD. If you have a significant other or children around and don’t want them to know what you’re writing? (I get it, there are uncomfortable topics and weird scenes we write) Close the door. Or print it out and find a quiet corner outside. (No one needs their neighbor calling the police because you’re mumbling about burying a body in the middle of the forest, three miles from the lake) But find a way to speak your sentences where you can hear them so you can make sure you’re not overdoing the commas. You want pauses that make sense. They should allow you to speak in a normal conversational manner. Do you feel like you’re speaking in your usual tone? Or do you think you’re auditioning for a Captain Kirk look-a-like contest?

Is this the tip of the comma iceberg? More like a single snowflake. But it felt like a good place to start. Commas represent a pause within a sentence. And if you can get past that part of the grammar, you’re already ahead of…well, you’re ahead of a lot of the work I’ve been editing recently. And the more we thin out the comma invasion, the better the written world will turn out in the end. (Don’t worry – we’ll chip away at that iceberg eventually)

Broadening Your Brain Pool

Broadening Your Brain Pool

Shelf of non-fiction books

You’re never going to find a writer that doesn’t read. It’s completely impossible. Writers come from readers. The desire kicks in when we fall in love with the written word, discover our own inner worlds and characters demanding breath, or find out the book we WANT to read doesn’t exist. Enter a writer’s house, and you’ll find a library somewhere. (And usually see books here and there, as well as the obligatory notebooks needed for when ideas strike out of the blue) We’re the literary squirrels of the world. Which is fine – even encouraged. You need to know what’s current in your genre – WHO’S current in the genre – if you have any chance of surviving the publishing industry.

But there’s another category of reading out there.

If you’re not drifting into the various non-fiction sections in the bookstore, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Those books are research GOLDMINES. You can find ANYTHING. And while some are easier to get through than others, they offer foundations in everything. It’s a necessary exercise for any writer. But freelancers? You should have shelves of non-fiction books (that you’ve read – I hope that’s understood) at your work station. Because over half of your work day is what? Research!

No one knows everything about everything. No one knows everything about anything. You have to tease and pull apart details in order to provide a coherent argument. And that means digging into a topic. There’s so much garbage on the internet it isn’t funny. I spend WAY too much of my time gritting my teeth and shaking my head when I dive into research about animal-related topics. Anyone who’s owned or loved a pet declares themselves an expert and runs off with the bit in their mouth. But the information they share is usually skewed – or 100% wrong. And how do I know?

Research.

I spent a year-and-a-half in school to get my veterinary technician degree. Then I worked in the field for over ten years, where I needed to obtain continuing education to maintain my license. I attended conferences and sat through hours and hours of lectures by doctors and other technicians from around the world. I filled pages and pages with copious notes and tucked away USB drives with the complete presentations. I asked questions when I didn’t understand something. I read the proceedings. I worked every day with doctors with DECADES of experience. I asked them questions every day and added those notes to notebooks. I made my observations and had genuine experiences and cases embedded into my brain. And THAT’S the information I carry forward when I write an article now. Oh, sure, I own and adore my Minions, but my expertise? It comes from SO much more than that.

You have to invest your free time into reading non-fiction. Look up the credentials of the authors. Make sure they know what they’re talking about (because plenty of people land a publishing deal and are idiots), and then settle in to add their brilliance to yours. It’s research you’ll carry forward into your writing career. Because when you freelance, you KNOW the general subjects you tackle. They’re things you ENJOY talking about. That means learning about them WON’T end up as a chore.

You don’t have to pick up books on organic chemistry – unless that’s your thing. (It’s not. Like Skyler from Good Will Hunting, I’m going to call your bluff, “Yeah, it’s SO much fun studying organic chemistry. Are you mad? Have you completely lost your mind? Nobody studies it for fun. It’s not a necessity.”) I read books on animal intelligence, animal emotions, real-life cat stories, and, yes, shark books. They give me new perspectives on how to see the natural world. Have I yet quoted from one of them in an article? No. But have I noticed them influencing my writing on certain topics? Yes. Because I gained new information. They weren’t direct research on an article, but they gave me information.

Open brain – insert knowledge.

Research – and a drive to continue learning – is what sets you apart from the thousands (millions?) of other freelance writers out there. Some people prioritize quantity or quality. They slap an article together in a few minutes and pat themselves on the back. Is the information correct? They don’t care. As long as they fulfilled the minimum requirements of their contract, they’re satisfied. But people on the internet believe ANYTHING. And it’s unfair for incorrect information to start circulating.

Take a stand to be BETTER. Do your research. Improve your knowledge. Expand your mind as much as possible. You’ll start to appreciate things in a new light. And those non-fiction books help in the speculative writing, too. Nothing makes you sound sillier than when you try to describe something mundane and get it wrong. (And you can’t dismiss everything as “magic” and get away with it) There are shelves and shelves and SHELVES of non-fiction books out there. And you have plenty of topics that interest you. Look into the writer’s background, and then bring a few home. Your writing will improve. And your audience will appreciate it. Not to mention your clients.

Just maybe not the organic chemistry.

The Death Drop

The Death Drop

Story arcs need to follow a recognizable pattern
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

There’s nothing better than a roller coaster. Whether you prefer traditional wooden roller coasters that whip you around corners and over hills to the point you’re convinced you’re going to come off the seat. Or the latest launch coasters that fling you out at top speeds that water your eyes so badly you can’t see half the twists and loops you go through. Perhaps even hanging coasters where you get the sensation of flight, with the air rushing around your body to the point you can picture the wings attached to your back. Your heart starts racing, blood rushes to your brain, and synapses fire at an alarming rate. And then the car slams on the brakes, and you shudder into the station. Ride’s over, and you’re left with an incredible rush of adrenaline.

Kind of like the feeling you get from an exceptional story.

So imagine the sensation you’d get if someone forgot to finish the tracks on a coaster. You’d drop off the end and plunge to the ground. Not quite fun ride you were expecting. Or you experience so many twists, loops, batwings, and corkscrews that your blood pressure plummets and you can’t see straight. If your brain loses comprehension, your enjoyment isn’t quite there, either. (No one likes getting taken to the ER as a result of a carnival ride) And, of course, if you board a roller coaster that makes a single loop, with NOTHING, you’re going to complain (or wonder if you accidentally ventured into the kids’ section of the park)

Yet people do this ALL the time with their writing!

Regardless of the genre you write, or the form you choose to work in (I’ll exempt poetry because those rules are all over the place), you have one framework you’re expected to build your plot beneath: the story arc. And it’s the most basic skeleton in a writer’s tool box! The story arc contains these basic elements of your plot:

  • The beginning: Your introduction of characters and the problem
  • The middle: The conflict and action
  • The end: The resolution

At it’s most fundamental, that’s what’s required for ANY story. Do most stories resemble a real arc or parabola? No, not really. The best tales – even short stories – have dips and raises, and a few quick hairpins and corkscrews you weren’t expecting. However, the framework exists. If you leave out one element of the arc, your readers wander around scratching their heads. Or they get supremely annoyed. You’re not being clever or “breaking new ground.” You’re being an idiot.

Beginning, middle, end.

Introduction, conflict, resolution.

It’s really NOT that difficult of a concept. Or, at least, I wouldn’t think so. Nor should it get so complicated to realize you need to introduce dips and rises into the middle of your arc. This is an adventure for your readers (yes, even if you’re writing something heart wrenching). No one wants to get on a flat, go nowhere ride. SOMETHING needs to occur. How interested are you to read about someone eating their white bread and mayo sandwich? No one’s picking up that story. Give them a REASON to invest their time. Don’t bore them half to death with the mundane!

And don’t you dare leave everything unresolved and then have the nerve to pat yourself on the back and walk away. I’m not talking about a cliffhanger, either. I understand those; they’re employed all the time by writers intending to write a sequel, trilogy, etc. No, I mean I actually read an epilogue where the writers announced they’d FINISHED a story arc (their words, not mine) despite the fact every single ball was still in the air! NO! BAD WRITERS! You’ve finished NOTHING! That isn’t a story arc. It’s…it’s not even a recognizable piece of geometry. I threw the book across the room. That’s an affront to a loyal reader – and to writers everywhere that slave over their computers or ink pads.

If you’ve written yourself into a corner, go to your publisher and admit you need more time. Don’t decide it’s “good enough” and walk away, dusting your hands. The story arc exists for a reason. It’s a principle of writing that dates back to the ancient Greeks. (Probably further than that, but we can document their work) People get annoyed with incomplete work. They lose interest. They throw things (literally). They refuse to pick up the next thing you put on a shelf (assuming your publisher decides to maintain a relationship with you).

It’s a simple framework to build a story upon. What you do under that arc? That’s completely open to you. So it seems like a small thing to ask you to respect it. Hell, even in my non-fiction writing, I use a story arc. I have a brief introduction, then I flesh out the topic, and then I round everything up with a summary. (Crazy how that works) It’s a respect for your readers. And it doesn’t take much work to follow it.

Use ALL the elements of your story arc. And you can pat yourself on the back that no one will throw your work across the room. At least, not for that reason. (I throw books for other reasons, too)

The Melting Pot

The Melting Pot

Blending all cultures, faiths, sexualities, and races is an author's duty
Image by truthseeker08 from Pixabay

Those of us that dabble in speculative fiction – more so than standard fiction – have a special duty we need to uphold. And now, more than ever. Gone are the days when you could populate your stories with a single race, religion, or creed and find a welcoming audience. Particularly if you enter the realm of science fiction. It’s not believable. (Unless you handle it well – and VERY few authors have ever pulled it off. Hint: they all involved alien creatures that challenged a human observer’s thought processes). If you pick up a piece written in the past decade, or even the past three years, you’ll notice a shift in the cast of characters.

Some of it done well, and some of it done so poorly, your teeth hurt.

True, some authors write from their background. Which is fantastic! You SHOULD read outside of your experience. It broadens your knowledge base, introduces new concepts, and opens your eyes to cultures you’ve never experienced before. It’s the next best thing to working your way into a friendship with someone of that upbringing. (I know, I know – we’re a bunch of introverts) When you come across those books, the writing is genuine and FEELS impactful. The characters come across as more than a stack of cardboard assigned attributes.

Other writers attempt to do the same, with ZERO knowledge or experience, and it shows. They use language that’s inappropriate, details from Wikipedia, and leave you with hunched shoulders, ground-down teeth, and a desire to beat them to death with their own book. The only thing you learn is the person should have stayed a million miles AWAY from their chosen topic – for the good of literacy.

We’re in the twenty-first century. You NEED to include characters in your work that are diverse. That means different races, different religions, different cultures, different sexual orientations. But when you do it, it needs to feel AUTHENTIC. Never describe a character using words you wouldn’t use if they were your friend (unless it comes from the mouth of an antagonist – and you damn-well better justify it). Don’t have a friend that fits that particular character? GO FIND ONE! Talk to the friends you have, explore their circle. Odds are, someone knows someone who can put you in touch with someone. Talk with them and ask questions. Take notes. Figure out how they like to be described, referred to, and WHY things are done or said certain ways. Become an informed writer – and STAY AWAY from Google and Wikipedia.

Don’t make your writers cringe!

Let me give you a nice little example. I’ve read two books recently that included characters of African-American descent. One was written by an Asian-American woman, and the other was written by two white women. The first book used ordinary words to describe the character – pleasant descriptors that explained the character without hitting you over the head. The second book assigned EVERY character as “black” or “white.” My head hurt, and I winced. (And, as you’ve noted from my photo, I’m as white as they come) It was like getting smacked in the face with a 2×4. I’d NEVER describe my friends that way! As a writer, I have an entire toolbox of words available to me! Why choose the most base words?!

The same happens when writers tackle different sexual identities or preferences. If it’s outside of your wheelhouse – TALK TO SOMEONE! Don’t go based on inference or generality! Do your homework! People ARE willing to talk to you and answer questions (in my experience). They want to see an end to baseless rumor and poorly-written scenes, the same as the rest of us with higher intelligence. Plus, education never killed anyone.

If the best you have is stereotype, EXCLUDE it!

We have a duty to do better than what’s been published in the past. We CAN do better. The world’s changing around us all the time. We can continue to shape and change our writing to reflect those improvements. Look at the names of authors on the shelves. More and more people are breaking through, introducing us to cultures we’ve probably never been exposed to. It’s an amazing opportunity. And if you want to find yourself included among those ranks, you need to open your mind and STOP sticking to the same old pathways. Populate your work with MORE. Explore, learn, and do BETTER.

Let’s kick the stereotypes to the curb where they belong.

I Say No

I Say No

Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil skeletons
Image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay

For anyone who reads YA books, you’ve likely encountered this unspeakable evil: present tense. My first experience was Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games. And while I’ve read the entire series, including her most recent prequel (where she thankfully abandoned that annoyance), I loathed the gimmick. Which is all the affectation is for most writers: a trend that makes no sense for the story they’re writing.

So don’t do it!

I’ve read YA for years now (I also write it – so the pairing makes sense), and I have no idea where this sudden surge in present tense came from. But it needs to stop. It’s an obnoxious style choice that lends nothing to any of the stories I’ve read over the years. As a matter of fact, it’s the number one reason I’ll put a book back on the shelf rather than bringing it home. I’ve encountered the fad so many times, I now crack an unknown author (and several known authors) open and skim the first few lines to check for the abomination before I take the risk.

Present tense writing hamstrings the author – and the reader! Both are trapped within the current moment, resorting to countless flashbacks (the bane of the reader’s existence) to recount anything that happened prior to that instant in time. Such books are also limited to first person, denying a reader the chance to explore the thoughts and motivations of others around the protagonist. Sure, you can label chapters with other characters to get around this shortcoming, but it’s still a limitation. It’s why the Hunger Games movies triumphed over the books (something I rarely say). They fleshed out a narrow concept Ms. Collins failed to bring alive with her choice of tense.

Present tense is a worthless evil!

I think authors (or editors – whoever’s making the stupid choice to champion this tense) feel that present tense builds suspense or heightens action. As a reader, I assure you – it doesn’t. Reading present tense is complicated. It bucks the natural rhythm we’re adapted to, especially with those frame shifts as a character has to constantly recall events from the past. It’s the worst roller coaster ride in the history of thrills. You jerk back and forth, falling out of the story constantly. There’s no suspenseful build, no creeping anticipation. Instead, you fight to hold onto the story with everything you have, screaming internally for one concise paragraph.

The affectation falls flat, and so do the stories. I’ve seen magnificent worlds and plotlines sink into the mud of barely readable because of poor tense choice. I’ve dismissed entire series because I barely made it through the first book. I’ve refused to even read some authors because they only work in present tense, and I can’t tolerate one more. The blurb on the jacket is tantalizing, but my brain refuses to swim through the murk.

Your tense choice MATTERS!

Can you use present tense in your writing WELL? Yeah, you can – if it makes SENSE! In Rin Chupeco’s The Girl from the Well, she has a ghost character with a fragmented memory and distant sense of self. (Unhappily, all of her characters use present tense, which is why I never read the second book – much as I adore her as an author) THAT character? It makes sense to use present tense. A ghost adrift in a different age, attempting to regain memory? They would only move in the moment. I can applaud present tense use in that situation because it’s justified.

I’ve used present tense myself – ONCE. My short story, “Pains of Glass” features of character stripped of memory. She awakes with nothing. If you have no past, you only exist in the current moment. So I used present tense to reaffirm the loss of a history. It’s the only time I’ve done so.

Give me a REASON for the character to live and breathe in the moment, to race from breath to breath, and I’ll applaud your choice. Otherwise, all you’re doing is following a limping trend that contributes nothing to the story. Bethany Morrow’s A Song Below Water came the closest to annoying me the least with her present tense choice. Her character’s reside so much in their minds, in their thoughts, that the tense felt almost right. And then the action happened, and everything fell apart again. It was close, but not still not right.

Tense matters to a reader.

When you write, you don’t write for yourself (okay, you do – a little). You don’t write to match a trend. You write for your READERS. So think about them, and what they NEED. They need to sink into your world and characters. They need to feel emotion and share thoughts. They need to look up from the end of a chapter and wonder what time it is, what day it is. They need to believe those people and creatures you’ve imagined could be real.

They don’t need to throw the book across the room because they keep falling out of the plot, stumbling between tense changes. So unless you have a good reason for it, leave present tense alone. Let it die already.

“Who Writes Your Story?”

“Who Writes Your Story?”

Typerwriter saying, "Once Upon a Time"
Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

“You can’t save the world.” I spent a few years in a writing group where that was a core principle. In other words, you can’t use your writing to as a platform to enact changes in the outside world. You’re one person, and your words won’t flip the world upside down. Setting out to make your work the next revolutionary piece of fiction that generates thought and conversation – it’s just not going to happen.

And do I agree?

Yes and no. See, I struggled with that concept a lot when I was within the group, and it’s one of the reasons I left. Because theme is such a subjective concept. Sit through any English class beyond elementary school and you’ll understand that much. How often have you listened to a teacher harp about “what the author meant” and wondered if said writer REALLY intended all of those meanings. (Or was their intent much simpler and your teacher’s gone insane reading too much into a handful of words – particularly if the author’s now dead and unable to speak for themselves)

Can you set out to write a Great American Novel that will change everyone’s perspective on something? Sure. Is anyone going to read it besides your mom? Probably not. Such books verge on preachy and dull. And while there IS a section for them, they don’t generate much revenue. I’m not discouraging you if you have your heart set on it, I just want you to have your facts straight.

No one likes being dictated to.

That said, can you explore a theme that holds deep meaning to you? That represents a point of view unique to you or your experience? Sure – why not? Can that theme potentially reflect something going on in the outside world? Absolutely. But are you going to change the world? No. I’m sorry, but no.

Here’s the kicker, though. You might change ONE PERSON’S life. You might influence the way ONE PERSON sees the world. You may flip the world for ONE PERSON. And THAT’S what matters. It isn’t changing the world. You won’t save the world. But you make the difference for SOMEONE. And that difference to ONE PERSON changes THEIR world.

Which is where I see the difference.

I have shelves of books that changed my life. They probably don’t mean anything to other people. Some have never been read by the bulk of the world. They haven’t influenced the world. They don’t change public policy. They aren’t groundbreaking thoughts. But, for me, the words mean EVERYTHING. And not because some teacher lectured about the author’s intended meaning or theme. I don’t even know if the theme I took away is what the writer meant in the first place (it may not be).

This is why we WRITE, though. To give our words to someone out there that desperately needs them. To connect with someone looking for SOMETHING. Someone experiencing the same things we are, seeking the answers we have (or don’t have but are really good at fantasizing). Those are the themes we explore in our books. Not groundbreaking revolution.

I don’t know what Madeline L’Engle intended when she wrote A Wrinkle in Time. I know that, as a smart little girl in the third grade, Meg became a hero. She was smart, too, and she told me that there was nothing wrong with being a smart girl. That’s what I took from that book, more than anything else. I held it close through years of taunting (from guys AND girls). It was my personal beacon and promise. No, the book didn’t change the rest of the world (I know thousands who’ve never read it), but it changed MY world from that point on. I pursued a science major. I refused to dumb myself down so I’d appear appealing to those around me and gain popularity. I embraced my intelligence in a way I may never have otherwise.

Teachers bored me into a stupor, carrying on about the themes and hidden meanings in Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. I held onto one thing: the woman who burned to death in her house of books. That was me – IS me. It’s literally me (there are books in every room of the house), but her determination, her commitment, her defiance – they spoke to me. It’s the most powerful part of the book, for me. I don’t know if it’s what he intended, but it’s what sticks with me.

Theme is critical – but not in the way people think.

You write what moves you. But it may not be what the reader takes away. You may write a single line that stops them cold and forces them to set the book down and cry. You may stun them with a paragraph you felt was a throw-away. Everyone approaches books from different places, and you NEVER understand what their story may be. You may craft the words they needed to hear without any intention. It’s saving a person unintentionally, and it’s beautiful.

My favorite line from Hamilton doesn’t appear on any of the licensed merchandise. I started crying the second I heard it, and it shook me to my core in a way the rest of the musical didn’t (Don’t get me wrong – it’s amazing, and I love it. I just didn’t react as strongly as I did to this line):

“I wrote my way out.”

~Hamilton

It encapsulated my life in a way nothing else ever has. Is it what Lin-Manuel Miranda meant for the musical’s theme? I doubt it. But it changed MY world. Everything stopped, crystallized, and shattered in those fractions of seconds.

Write the theme that’s clawing it’s way out of your heart. Don’t TRY to save anyone. Don’t attempt to fix the world, because it’s impossible to accomplish. Reaching ONE person – however unintentionally – THAT’S possible. You’ll connect to someone in a way that will change their life. It’s worth more than saving the world.

Terribly Horribly Unacceptably Unavoidable

Terribly Horribly Unacceptably Unavoidable

ly bottlecap
Bottle Cap that Thinks it’s an Adverb from Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr

Adverbs. These little pieces of grammar are hotly debated in writing circles. Along with the Oxford Comma, you find people aligned on both sides. You also find people that want to put banning adverbs into The Rules. While there’s some truth to cutting adverbs from your writing, outright banning of the poor things is unrealistic (and kind of impossible).

First off, what is an adverb? Adverbs, in the simplest explanation, are words that modify or qualify adjectives, verbs, other adverbs, or entire sentences. To eradicate the misconception, not every adverb ends in “-ly.” Do most of them? Sure, but not all. Want an example?

Deadpool’s costume is deep red.

In that sentence, “deep” is the adverb modifying the word “red.” It qualifies the color, adding additional meaning. However, (and this is where the debate comes in), it’s sloppy writing. You can do better than “deep red.” Just open a box of crayons, and you’ll see at least ten other options that substitute for “deep red.”

Deadpool’s costume is blood red.

Deadpool’s costume is maroon.

If you know the comic, the first one works from the merc’s perspective. The second appeals to the sensibilities of writers who hate extraneous words. Neither is technically wrong; one just uses an adverb while the other doesn’t. (See where the debate gets into the grey zone?)

Newbie writers tend to overdo adverbs. You read an average sentence and count ten of them. WAY too many. The sentence is clunky and difficult to read. Slicing it apart and trimming those excess adverbs in favor of stronger language improves the readability dramatically. It’s something that’s gained with experience. And, yes, I’m speaking from my own personal growth. When I go back and read things I wrote ten years ago, I cringe. Turn on Word’s tracking, and the paragraphs BLEED. I mean, look at this:

They were strong hands, large-knuckled but curiously delicate; unhappily, at the moment, they were shaking so badly he didn’t dare try to lift the knife to eat his cooling supper.

Horrible! Count the adverbs in there! And just try to get through reading that drivel without stumbling! (I can say this – I wrote it) Awful, terrible, and in need of ruthless editing. However, do I need to eliminate all of the adverbs? No. (Yes, the -ly words all need to go. I don’t know what I was thinking)

And this is where I argue against the “Death to Adverbs” camp. Adverbs aren’t the enemy. They DO serve a useful purpose, even in speculative fiction. The problem comes in when they result in sloppy, careless writing. We ALL use adverbs (anyone who denies is lying through their teeth). I know I was writing when I was tired or out of it when I skim over a passage and see adverbs sprouting like weeds. My brain switched off and let autopilot take over.

It isn’t the end of the world, it just means I need to rewrite and tighten up the language. Prune the worst adverbs out and choose better words. Am I using adverbs in dialogue tags? Okay, then I need to go back and examine the dialogue itself, see what I can do to make sure emotion’s coming through in my word choice so I can eliminate the tags. Have I zoned out and let “very” sneak in? Time to purge it and figure out stronger descriptors. (I will stand with the camp that opts to ban the use of “very” – it’s weak)

Then we get to the grey zone.

How many -ly words are there? I don’t think all -ly words are bad. People use them in normal conversation, so I refuse to ban them from my characters’ dialogue. Unless I’m writing a historical piece, I need human beings to speak like human beings. And guess what? Humans speak with adverbs. It needs to sound REALISTIC! I’ve deleted and then replaced adverbs within my dialogue numerous times, realizing I made my characters sound too formal. Not good.

Can you overdo adverbs? Of course. Can you find better word choices most times? Sure. Does that make adverbs the enemy? Definitely not. If you read over your work with a critical eye, you’ll see where the line is. But never let anyone tell you all of the adverbs have to go. You’ll end up writing like a computer, and no one wants to read that.

The “Rules”

The “Rules”

“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”

~Neil Gaiman

I plan out most of my posts a month ahead of time; this gives me plenty of time to ruminate on what I want to say while also making sure I have some kind of structure for this site between my work assignments. This post, however, was not on the schedule. Instead, it’s a spur-of-the-moment decision prompted by an encounter with a complete asshat who felt the need to spout words I really despise:

“These are the rules for writing/publishing.”

Let me make things very clear for everyone – especially if you’re just starting out in the writing world and trying to get your feet under you:

THERE ARE NO RULES!

When I first started out, I felt victim to plenty of similarly-minded idiots: people who felt the need to rattle off lists and lists of rules I needed to obey if I was ever going to be successful. And I believed them, chasing my tail in circles until I was cross-eyed, exhausted, confused, and getting absolutely nowhere. Why? Because it was absolute crap. In fact, it took talking to people in the industry for me to learn it was crap, and then I felt embarrassed, humiliated…and finally, really angry.

Some of my favorites? You have to use “said” for every dialogue tag. Utter bilk. Are you supposed to bust out the thesaurus and use a different tag for every line of dialogue? No, that’s asinine. However, you can use a sprinkling of other tags without a problem, or you can omit tags altogether and let the dialogue stand on its own.

You can’t kill off a main character. Now, you better have a good reason for doing so, but why can’t you? If it drives the plot forward and contributes to the character development of other characters, execute the bastard! Just be prepared to have readers get mad at you.

You can’t use adverbs. Ugh, this debate kills me – mostly because I’m guilty of overusing them and have to edit mercilessly. There are often better word choices available, but saying that adverbs should be avoided 100% is crap. The adverb was created for a reason, and it does have a purpose. If you’re reading your work (aloud is best), you’ll catch the ones that don’t belong and change them. I refuse to follow the adage that they should be omitted en masse.

Write what you know. I don’t know what moron came up with this one, but they deserve a flogging. Research exists – has always existed – and it’s one of the most valuable tools available to a writer. If you have an interest in something, then write about it! Immerse yourself in it, drown in everything you can lay your hands on! If you only ever write about what you know, you are going to become stale, boring, and people are going to complain that everything you hand them sounds the same.

You’re not [insert author name here]. Follow the rules. I really hope you’re not so-and-so; you should be trying to be YOU. No one else can write like you. No one else has your voice, your tone, your view on a story. Why would you want to be that other person? Don’t you want YOUR books on the shelf? YOUR stories told? If all you want is to be someone else, go write fan fiction (note: I am NOT bashing fan fiction).

The ONLY rule that matters is to write well. Yes, you need to spellcheck and use proper grammar (sad but true), but otherwise, forget the rules. Tell a great story your way – it’ll be a way no one else has done before, and THAT’S what matters.

Want to write something completely devoid of dialogue? Go for it! If you can pull it off, someone’s going to love it.

Want to rack up a higher body count than George R.R. Martin? (First, good luck) So long as those bodies are justified (slaughter for the sake of slaughter is not a good reason), then write it.

Tell the story that is burning to get out of your brain. Write what inspires you. Make it the best possible story, whatever that looks like.

The next time someone spouts rules at you, go look at the books on your shelves. I guarantee that you will find examples that break those same rules.

I leave you with the remainder of Neil Gaiman’s rules for writing (the quote at the top is Rule #8) – they’re the best ones I’ve ever come across:

  1. Write
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.