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Archive for the ‘Writing Well’ Category

I’ve been writing book reviews on Amazon for a couple of years.  The following are things that are detrimental (sometimes deadly) to the reader’s enjoyment of your work.  These are culled not just from my reviewing but from other reviews by real readers who perhaps didn’t get what they expected.

MISTAKES—Mistakes in grammar and spelling is distracting and, more importantly, interrupts the reader’s involvement in the story.

CREDIBILITY—Research, research, research.  Assume nothing in your writing.  Fact check everything.  If your reader finds anything in your work that they know to be untrue or suspect, you will lose them nearly immediately.  You risk having them put your book down and never reading another thing you write.

TIMELINE—Readers hate a timeline that doesn’t work, and they will either consciously or subconsciously recognize this fact.  You can’t fool them.  Make sure your timeline of events is physically possible and logical in its execution.  Don’t confuse your readers.

PREDICTABILITY—Unless you are writing romance novels, which are expected to be predictable, avoid formulaic plots and story lines that any intelligent reader with half a brain will see right through.  About half of Amazon reviewers mention this, when they encounter it, as being detrimental to their enjoyment of the book.

BAD ACTORS—Characters acting unbelievably and/or against what the reader would reasonably expect based on how the author has portrayed the character.

CONTRIVANCES—Annoying plot devices that are unrealistic and obviously written only for the purpose of forcing the story to work.

RABBIT HOLES—Extraneous information that doesn’t contribute to the story and makes the reader wonder why the author has included it.  Will aggravate a reader who searches in vain for some ultimate purpose or meaning and finds none.

BADLY PLACED NARRATIVE—Too much too early, telling in places where you would do better to show, information dumping, etc.  Weave in your details a little at a time.

EXCESSIVE NARRATIVE—Danger…beautiful prose ahead.  Just because you can write it, doesn’t mean you should.  The reader just might detour around it and then feel guilty that you made them do it.  Too much of anything is a bad thing.  Don’t drown your readers in endless narrative.  They don’t want to be held underwater until the important parts of the story resume.

ABRUPT ENDINGSAbrupt endings, tied up neatly with a bow, angers readers.  They have put a lot of time into reading your work—don’t short-change them because you are in a hurry, have a deadline or are just plain tired or out of ideas.  Don’t draw it out, but don’t quit too soon.  THE END IS AS IMPORTANT AS THE BEGINNING.

STOPPING THE ACTION—A pause button is a useful tool on your remote control but has no place in your writing.  Once an action is underway, slowing down or stopping it prior to its culmination, is like throwing cold water on your reader.

CLICHES—Yes, they can be used sparingly in dialogue, but they are trite and jump off the page, annoying readers.  When they’ve paid good money for a book, they don’t want to see and read something they’ve heard a hundred times before.  It is possible to be more creative than that and readers deserve it.  Best idea is to avoid them.  Create your own.

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I just wrote a review on Amazon that prompted this post.  The review was for a new novel called The Bet.  While a fairly talented writer, the author didn’t seem to know his own characters.  The result was a mystifying mess of a story where credibility was lost as his characters continually acted contrary to the expectations of the reader…in other words, they acted out of character.  Intelligent people were suddenly written like imbeciles to further the plot.  A successful young man looking forward to his future, suddenly decides to commit suicide?  A woman deeply in love does nothing to stop her husband from  endangering his life.

This was all quite perplexing as you can imagine.  It did serve, however, as a cautionary tale – to thy characters be true.  Know them, inside out.  Know their motivations.  Know their thought process.  Know what they are capable of and what they are not.  Know their physical limitations.  Know their needs and wants.  Know their financial situation.  Know what they will do for money.  Know their moral compass.  Know what they like to eat for breakfast.  Get inside their heads, and you will be less inclined to make the mistakes the author did in the above-mentioned novel.  You will be less likely to have your readers scratching their heads instead of being immersed in the story as they should be.

If you must have your characters repeatedly act against their own nature and intelligence in order to make the story work, you had better re-think your plot and make changes.  I say repeatedly because, on certain occasions, that duplicity is important and necessary to the plot.  Just be very careful when it isn’t.  You want your readers to identify with your characters, not wonder if they are all schizophrenic.

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For a long time I’ve been pondering whether this subject was worthy of a blog post.  It seems like a no-brainer, especially to a writer, but then again, I’ve only been keeping a journal for two years.   So, maybe I was brainless before?

There are a plethora of reasons for journaling and just as many variations on the theme.  As a writer, it’s an indispensable aide, and an insurance policy against ever having writer’s block.  As a mom or dad, you might just want to keep a running log of those milestones and little quotables the kids spew out every so often (like when a sibling is being baptized and they ask you quite clearly why they are being appetized).  Grandparents might want to leave a memento of family history for their descendants.  You might want to record historic events you’ve lived through.  You might want a diary to explore your deepest thoughts and dreams and never plan to share it with a living soul.   Whatever the reason, it’s a valuable endeavor.

My grandfather kept small, hand-written journals which are a fascinating insight into him, the family, life in the thirties and forties, and historic events.  They contain mundane events such as the June 17, 1941 entry telling me my father started work that day on the ice truck for George Etter, and when my uncle was born on August 22, 1941, two stitches in wife’s insides were required, doctor cut baby’s tongue (eewwww), and the fee was $20 instead of $25 because boy was born already (when doctor arrived).  On December 7, 1941, you see the only entry written in red pencil in all of his journals – scrawled in large letters:  “Sunday, December 7, 1941, Japan bombs PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii & Philippines & Declares War on U.S.”  The next day, back in #2 black:  “Monday, December 8, 1941, USA declares war with Japan”.  I love that I have these – from his hands to mine, and eventually to my son.

As a writer I keep a completely different sort of journal.  You should always have a small notebook with you.  Things to jot down:   dialogue and bits of interesting conversation you overhear; interesting characteristics of people you see around you; scenes that play out before you; descriptions of places; memories.   Anything you see and hear that is memorable is a possible story idea.  Days, weeks or months later you can flip through your notes and have an amazing cache of wonderful things to write about.  They could develop into poetry, flash fiction, short stories or novels.  Inspiration is all around us, but recording it with even a word or phrase is important.  Remember my post on Memory Writing?  Sensory memories only last one half to four seconds.  They disappear like smoke.  Don’t lose them.  Journal them.

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If you want to be a better writer, you need to read.  Read voraciously and read judiciously.  If you want to write good fiction, read good fiction and a wide variety – classics, best sellers, modern authors and revered folks like Hemingway, Dickens, Mark Twain and Jane Austen.  If you want to write a memoir, read those of others who have been successful in this endeavor.  If you want to write non-fiction, read respected non-fiction best sellers.   If you want to write poetry, read and study Frost, Longfellow and others.  The point is – Read what you want to write.

The best writers are insatiable readers.  It cannot be otherwise.  There are thousands of wonderful works, not to emulate – but to learn from.  You will find your own writer’s voice;  it will expose itself and be unique, but through reading, you will, almost by osmosis, discern what is bad writing and reject such poor efforts – and revel in what is good and incorporate what you like, what moves you, into your own writing.

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How inspired to create would you be if you were sitting in a jail cell day after day?  How stimulating would it be to look at the same four walls hour after hour?  The answer, of course, is not very.

You may be able to sit in your desk chair eight hours and accomplish menial tasks and routine work, but if you are a writer, doing so is likely hampering your ability to be imaginative, creative and productive.  Writing is life, and life is all around us.  It is not on the wall in front of your computer screen.  It is said Dickens always wrote in front of a window and watched the world outside and gained inspiration and insights from the activities beyond the glass.

We are not chained to our vinyl, swivel chairs.  We are not locked in a cell (at least I hope you aren’t).  We do not have to look at the same four walls.  We have laptops.  They are movable.  We have diaries and writing journals.  They are even more portable.  To gain new perspectives and improve your writing, try out new locations.  Experiment to see what changes of scenery inspire you.  They may be calming, quiet and bucolic places.  They may be busy coffee shops or pubs where you can people watch.  They may be spiritual and reflective locations.  The options are endless:  by a lovely stream; the whispered silence of museums; private or public gardens; the mall’s atrium; a music festival; public parks; the banks of ponds and lakes; the beach any time of day; by a campfire.  Walk, bike or drive yourself to your new office.  If you can’t leave the house, try a different room, the porch, the garret in the attic, the floor, a big easy chair, your bedroom.  If you’ve never tried this, you will be amazed at the result.  Ideas will flow.  You will write.  You will wonder why you didn’t do this sooner.

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My skin was warm from an August day spent out of doors.  I noticed this as I lay in bed reading, legs crossing back and forth over one another, calves touching.  The smoothness and internal heat jarred loose a memory of summer nights from my childhood when my legs touched under the bedsheet in this exact same way, and the warmth had felt good and comforting.  I remembered how I would then fall into the blissful sleep of a young person, as yet untroubled by the concerns of adolescence or the worries of adulthood. 

This was a sensory memory.  I don’t know why, but I recognized this fact immediately, and I began to wonder if we could train ourselves to conjure up these kinds of memories at will.  If it was possible, I felt it could be hugely helpful in our writing, not to mention just an enjoyable pastime.  If you want to write a memoir, it could be crucial.  I googled sensory memory and found out some amazing things.  My interpretation here is from a laypersons perspective.  I’m not a doctor.  The only brain I’ve ever considered studying has been my own.

There are three types of memory – sensory, short-term and long-term.  The first thing I discovered is that everything comes to us by way of sensory memory, which is involuntary, and, are you ready for this, sensory memories only last from one half to four seconds.  They come and they go faster than a sneeze.   I presume it’s the brain’s way of making room for millions more sensory memories as we blithely move through our day.  So, how is it we retain anything?  Well, by paying close attention to something, we can move that fleeting sensory memory to short-term memory, but even that is (hence the name) short-lived, perhaps only minutes.   So how does it make it to long-term status?  Basically by being “memorable”…by the amount of time we pay attention to it.  Apparently my nice sun-warmed legs felt really good when I was falling asleep many decades ago.

We have five senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.  Almost all sensory memory enters our brains via sight or hearing.  The others are less common, and I suspect touch is the least common.  We see and hear all day long.  We physically touch things of significance much less often.  As an example of smell and taste, most of use have retained all aspects of baking and eating Christmas cookies.   We could imagine that chocolate chip delight in our mouths with little effort. This memory was so pleasurable and also reinforced each Christmas, that it is easy to access.

Not everything we have moved to long-term is this easy  to recover.  Sometimes these memories are triggered without warning – like my nice warm legs.  Sometimes they can be accessed through conversation and reminiscing.  I’m sure they can be accessed through our writing.  We know the process of word association.  This is experience association.  I think it should be practiced.  Often, because of health issues, medications, stress, sensory overload, or other physical roadblocks, we cannot retrieve what we have filed in this wonderful organ we call our brain.

I have seen a fellow on television (will try to find his name again because right now my personal retreival system is not firing properly) who has studied and gives seminars on keeping your brain healthy.  It was a mesmerizing show.   He contends negative changes in your brain caused by age, illness, poor diet, smoking, drinking and otherwise just abusing yourself, can be reversed with amazing results – even for senior citizens.  He has an ample supply of side-by-side, before-and-after brain scans to prove this.  The brain is able to regenerate itself quite nicely.  The bottom line is your writing may be improved when your brain is functioning optimally.  Granted, this does make me wonder how much more awesome some famous authors’ works would be if their brains hadn’t been sloshing around in gin.  I can’t say.  I’m just considering the possibilities of exercising our brains and working to consciously gather, store and retrieve information.

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I decided I had more to say about this subject.  You know how things that used to be taboo are now commonplace?  Have you noticed no one thinks anything anymore of discussing their sex life with strangers, picking their nose in public, wearing shorts to church, or cheating on a test?  This “everybody does it” attitude has permeated our entire existence.  It’s so easy to follow along with the masses, isn’t it?  I don’t like it, but I’ll readily admit it’s tempting to break rules no one is obeying.

This has happened in literature as well.  Authors pushed the envelope over the past several decades.  Gone is much of the lovely, grammatically perfect prose we used to read.  Now fragments of sentences – perfectly acceptable, no quotation marks – perfectly acceptable, missing punctuation – perfectly acceptable.  For awhile I resisted, but lately I’ve caught myself typing fragments, and even after reconsidering, did not correct my text.  I myself observed, “everybody does it,” and I was a little ashamed of myself but still, I did not rewrite.  I’m not exactly losing sleep over this fact, but it does bother me.  Am I on my way to the total disregard of everything I learned in junior high English?  I hope not.

This is just a cautionary tale – that if we continue to ignore what is correct and proper in our writing, we may dissolve at some point in the future into composing nothing more significant than comic book script and winning awards for it.  I wonder, will it still be called literature?

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