Writing Police

Writing Police

Screenshots of Grammarly

Pop Quiz time! Hands up everyone that has never made a single spelling or grammar mistake in their writing. Everyone with their hand up – go to the closest chalkboard or pad of paper and write 100 times: “I must not tell lies.”

No one writes perfectly – EVER.

It’s a simple fact of life. You misuse words, use the wrong word, overuse adverbs, slip into passive voice too frequently, get fixated on one word through a single paragraph, and go into comma overdrive. And while you review your work, it’s still your work. Since you know what’s supposed to be there, you overlook mistakes and miss things. It’s why writers use beta readers to catch those errors.

There’s nothing wrong with admitting the mistakes. We’re HUMAN. If you think your favorite author types out perfection, boy are you in for a surprise. Editors exist for a reason (and, no, it’s not simply to reject you). And even they miss things. It takes an effort of sheer will for me not to grab a red pen and start marking up some of the books I read. (Don’t laugh – I’m not the only person who gets that way)

However, there’s a line.

If you want to be taken seriously, you can’t hand in work that resembles The Eye of Argon. (Anyone who’s ever attended a Con knows that novella) Which means you need someone or something checking behind you. It also means having enough brains and maturity to admit you USE some kind of checker in the first place. You’ll gain more respect for the honesty.

Anything I write – be it work or fiction – gets a minimum of four reads from start to finish. (Yes, blog posts are an exception. You get these straight off the cuff) And, yeah, I catch things each time. Sometimes it’s just rearranging words or eliminating a sentence I don’t like. Other times it’s a mortifying realization that my brain checked out on me.

Fiction sits for weeks between readings, letting the story mellow and settle in my brain. Which was why when I went back to “Everapple” I realized my brilliant idea to leave the main character unnamed at writing made a confusing mess at the first re-reading. I had to scrap that “genius” and give her a name to untangle the confusion. Had I plunged into my editing immediatley, I wouldn’t have caught the problem.

I don’t have that same chance with work. I still catch problems, though. I also use Grammarly (and, yes, I sprang for the Premium version). You have the advantage of deciding the tone of your work, the level of your audience, and several other parameters. It’s a deeper check than the standard spelling and grammar review you get with your standard word processor. And it watches over your shoulder in EVERYTHING:

  • Word processors
  • Online (you can upload documents there, too)
  • Email
  • Even here in blogs

It won’t solve ALL of the problems for you, but it coaches you through most of them. Which is nice, since it builds your writing in a better direction. My initial articles leaned heavily on passive sentences. Since I turned to Grammarly, they rarely make an appearance. I naturally made the switch. It’s a subtle writing guide in addition to a checker.

However, Grammarly doesn’t get to touch my articles until AFTER I’ve completed the first two reviews. I trust myself over the AI, and for good reason. Grammarly is computer-smart. It does see things and pick up on errors I miss. It also goes off-the-rail crazy and tries to fix style choices and quirks that make my writing voice unique. It is, after all, a program. And if I were writing…okay, I’m actually not sure what I’d need to write to make it completely happy.

We get into arguments sometimes, which devolve into my screaming at the computer screen (always therapeutic). And it’s HORRIFIC when I try to use it with my fiction. Teaching Grammarly to tolerate pathos, alien dialects, and fantasical turns of phrase is an effort in futility. But it flags the things I’m worried about (to-be verbs, adverbs, etc.). It lets me tighten my prose between bouts of shaking my head.

Whether you adopt Grammarly or another tool, check your writing. And tell your clients you use the programs. They appreciate the extra effort you use to police your writing. It isn’t an admission of failure, it’s a mark of professionalism. And it saves them some time. They’ll still edit your work, but it won’t take them hours of sorting through your bad day.

And happy editors are GOOD things.

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.

Running Log

Running Log

Screenshot of my Excel Tracker

If you decide you’re only ever going to write one thing in your life, maybe you won’t need this post. Just kidding – you still will. Plus, who wants to only write one thing? That’s just plain madness. Writers are infected individuals – consumed with a never-ending need to to create. And once our creations are complete and polished, we have to send them out into the world.

Which is where things get complicated.

Now, I spoke about my passionate love of white boards already. Frankly, I don’t know how I’d live without them. But they have their limitations. While a quick glance over my shoulder tells me where my short stories are right now (and how long they’ve been there), the board can’t tell me everywhere they’ve BEEN. Markets today have strict policies regarding submissions, and woe-betide the writer that fails to follow the guidelines. One of the biggest is that, unless they specifically request a rewrite from you, they don’t want to see anything twice.

While I have a great memory, it isn’t perfect. There’s no way for me to remember where every story has been. I mean, there are currently nine stories listed on my board, with more being written all the time. Recall where each one’s been?

Madness!

Asking my white board to do that is just as insane. (I’m not sure they make white boards that big). I also have personal essays, magazine articles, and novels to keep track of. While there’s some appeal to living in a house made of white boards, I don’t think my fiance’s is going to go for it. (Nor does he want to deal with the meltdown that would ensue if something got erased)

This is where Excel became my best friend. It took me all of five seconds to create a tracking spreadsheet. With one glance, I can see what genre a story is (newsflash: not every market takes every genre), the length, where it’s been, how long the response time was (helpful in case I’m considering holding out for a certain market), and my reference numbers. I never end up accidentally repeating a submission, I don’t accidentally send a simultaneous submission (some markets allow this, but most don’t), and I can see which markets have sent personal rejections over form letters. I log tons of valuable information for myself. All from a few minutes of my time.

And it takes no time to update!

Screen shot of the Market tab of my Excel tracking spreadsheet

Best of all, I keep a running list of markets. I know who accepts what, word limits, editor names (hint: never send a cover letter to “Editor” – use their name), and which markets are currently on hiatus.

Yes, setting up the Market tab took a lot longer. It’s worth it, though. I know when reading periods are. I know what restrictions are in place for various markets (i.e., must be clean, must contain a required science element, must have an animal, etc.). When I’m ready to submit one of my stories, instead of having to run through my bookmarks, hunting for a suitable match, I just consult the tab. (And, yes, I have the payment information right at my fingertips)

Wait – am I discussing organization again?

Of course I am! Organization is a writer’s best friend! You can definitely try to do everything by the seat of your pants. I wish you luck. When I first started, I just had file folders. And I wasted time combing through them, trying to figure out where a story had already been. I had to constantly read guidelines and search for markets. (Granted, this was also back when you sent submissions via snail mail) It SUCKED! I had to learn the hard way to be smart and make my life easier.

There are apps and programs available that do this for you, and you can definitely take advantage of them. Personally, I like Excel. I already own it, so it doesn’t cost me anything, and I can set it up however I want. As long as you find a system that works for you and keeps things on track, that’s what matters. You’ll be happy, I promise.

More to the point, the markets you’re submitting to will be happy.

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.
The Modern Note Card

The Modern Note Card

Screen captures from Evernote

For those of us who lived through school without Google, there’s nothing quite like savoring the joy of shuffling our thoughts together via color-coded note cards. We were trained to think that way when researching, and a lot of us carried that training through to our writing (assuming you’re not an organic writer like myself). Character traits, plot points, scenes, quotes you dreamed up and didn’t want to forget: plunk them on a note card and then shuffle them into the appropriate order.

Nothing wrong if you’re still doing that!

However, if you have your own demon with a penchant for stealing note cards, I have an advancement for you: Evernote (available via the Apple Store and Google Play – and, no, I don’t receive any kickback from this). Evernote is the equivalent of those note cards, gathered into nifty notebooks, with the added bonus of being available to you 24/7. You can utilize the app on your computer (desktop or laptop) and your phone, so when you wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, you can grab your phone and type/write it out without needing to find a light source (or, as I’ve done, attempt to decipher what you wrote in the dark). The image above is a screen capture from my story idea notebook, the handwritten scribble from one such late-night idea. Best of all, with one account, you can link both devices, and they’ll sync with each other.

Sometimes, technology gets it right!

On the research side of things, Evernote has a great “clip” feature which allows you to save website clippings – complete with the original page, in case you need to refer back to entire page at some point. This works beautifully for me when I’m doing research. Since each “Note” functions as a standard document, you can also format it any way you want (hello, color-coding?). I use it to keep my work documents organized by contract and then assignment, noting deadlines at the top, as well as any particular notes the client has requested.

Evernote has a selection of built-in templates you can access, including several geared toward writers. I’m not a personal fan of them, but you can create and save your own. For one of my regular contracts, I’ve done just that since the same notes apply each time. If you’re one of those writers that DOES prefer to plan, the templates are a great option.

Best of all, you can set up your own tags for each Note, making it easy to keep track of your work. So if you set up a Notebook for your novel, you can then generate Notes for everything you need within, from character profiles, to background profiles, to plot points, down to world-building details, and then use your tags to link everything together. You can also rearrange your Notes into whatever order you need, as many times as you want – the equivalent to shuffling those note cards around on your wall.

Evernote is really user-friendly, and while there are paid versions available, I’ve been able to function with the basic free edition quite happily. It gives me the organization I need for work, while also giving me somewhere I can scribble writing ideas down – without a risk of losing them (not to mention being able to decipher them).

A writer held responsible for their work is a writer that gets work done!

Color-Coding, Erasable, Visible – Oh, My!

Color-Coding, Erasable, Visible – Oh, My!

The two white boards I use for my writing life.

Behold – the greatest invention in the entire world! Yes, lasers and jellybeans, I mean the humble whiteboard. This little piece of erasable genius is pure perfection. If it weren’t for the fact that white is insanely boring and only meant for institutions, I could quite happily exist in a house made completely of whiteboards. (Side note: I promise my writing room is actually painted one color – just so happens the morning sun shines on one wall and not the other, so it looks like two in those pictures)

I use whiteboards for both sides of my writing: the work part and the fun part. I am an organization FIEND, and they’re one of the tools I use to:

  • Stay on track with my goals
  • Make sure I know where projects are
  • Leave notes for myself (I have a great memory, but no one’s perfect)
  • Plan out blog entries

No matter what kind of writing you’re doing, if you don’t have a visual representation of your goals somewhere you can see it daily, it’s harder to meet that goal. When it’s in your face every day, you find yourself with a greater drive to be able to mark the box – and the satisfaction of getting to do so is IMMENSE. Even if the box is minor – i.e., writing up to two Goodreads reviews or writing 1000 words a day. When you put an X or a check through that box, a sense of achievement/fulfillment comes over you.

Unless you only have one short story or novel that you are submitting – and if that’s the case, shame on you! – you need to know where your work is currently sitting and for how long. Things still get lost in this digital age, and editors/first readers aren’t infallible (they’ll be the first to admit that). While I do have an Excel file that has detailed records for every short story and novel (more about that in another post), being able to quickly glance at a whiteboard without having to pull up the computer is easier. It tells me where each story is currently at and how long it’s been there. It also tells me whether or not I’ve updated my Excel file.

I’d love to say I’m one of those people that never forgets anything – and if you’ve screwed me over or made me mad, I remember every word (not kidding). However, if I’m trying to remember where my can’t-possibly-forget-it hiding place is or didn’t-need-to-write-it-down item for the grocery list…yeah, no dice. Especially if it’s work-related, and especially because SOMEONE likes to steal my pen, the whiteboard becomes the catch-all for notes. (Thankfully, Tonks hasn’t figured out how to get to the whiteboard marker)

I do plan out my monthly blog entries – at least my weekly posts. I take time into crafting them, figuring out images and such; on my other blog, I take time researching quotes I want to use. This means setting out my schedule in advance so my brain has time to digest my topics.

Whiteboards let me do all of this, and then I erase what I don’t need and start again. Nifty, right?

And because I’m one of THOSE people, everything is color-coded. How else am I supposed to tell different tasks apart? How else am I supposed to tell different genres apart? It all makes my little organizational heart go pitter-pat.

I used to make do without the whiteboards, and things were more difficult. I had to turn the computer on (this was before my SSD – torture!), or I had to flip through a physical calendar to find things (I always had multi-color pens, so that wasn’t so bad), and trying to keep track of Post-It notes or scraps of paper – even without a tiny demon – never seemed to work well.

Now, everything is within a couple of steps, it’s easy to see, it’s easy to use, and I can add or subtract without a fuss.

It’s so easy, I added an additional whiteboard to help with the wedding planning…much to my fiance’s chagrin…um, “delight.”