What do you have to do to learn how to be a writer?
First, you have to live. Australians have coined a phrase that applies to everyone, but goes double for writers: "Life--Be in It!" Living means getting to know yourself and becoming sensitive to other people. It means asking yourself what makes people tick--what's going on in the life of the scruffy kid in the back of the room who never opens his mouth and is always the first one out the door when the bell rings? It means tuning in to colors, to textures, to shapes, to light and dark. It means listening: noticing differences between voices heard across water or bouncing around in a grove of pine trees; becoming aware of the limitless variations in the ways people speak; understanding your dog or your baby sister. It means using all your senses and asking yourself how things feel, how they taste, how they smell....
You also have to read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Words are the medium you've chosen to work in, and the bigger your supply of them, the better the chance of finding the right ones to express yourself. Reading fine tunes your ear, giving you a feel for the rhythm in the language, and it sharpens your critical skills so that you know not only what works and what doesn't, but more important--why. Reading about writing will help you pinpoint your weaknesses, develop your style, and identify markets for what you write.
And you have to write. No potter ever produced a bowl by dumping a blob of clay on the wheel and letting it sit. No woodcarver ever liberated a dragon from a chunk of driftwood by tossing it on the woodpile. Keep a journal of ideas, feelings, thoughts, bits of prose and poetry that touch you, lines of dialogue you overhear, images you want to save. Write letters to distant relatives, to friends who move away (and unless you really work at polishing your ideas before you click the send key, emails don't count!), and to the editor of your local paper when you have something important to say. Write prose, write poetry, write bits and pieces and full length stories; write descriptions of anything and everything; write for yourself and write for an audience.
Do you have to write only about what you know?
Yes...and think of the enormous range of subjects you do know something about. Everything from teachers, parents, family, friends, your pets, hobbies, sports, music, movies, the cultures and lifestyles of your family and friends, places you've been, experiences you've lived through, feelings you've had, your childhood and adolescence.
And you can find out more about anything that interests you the same way you would if you were writing a paper for history or English. Research it. Find someone who knows about your topic and talk to them; write for free literature if it's available (ask your public library for sources); search out books on your subjects and check out the bibliography at the back for more sources; scan the daily paper for articles on your subject, and the TV guide for special programs. Go on the Internet.
If it's a subject you know absolutely nothing about, like nuclear fusion or baby harp seals, don't be too proud to start your research in the children's section of the library. Books written for young readers have to be as accurate in every detail as those written for adults on the same subject, and when you are a newcomer to any field there's nothing wrong with getting a clearly explained and basic picture to build on. Writers of every age frequent the children's section of their public libraries.
Does it make a book more realistic if you use slang, or include details about rock groups, TV and movies, or current events?
It depends on the kind of book you are writing. If it's a novel based on high school life in the eighties, then the more details you use to recreate that era, the better. You want your readers to experience a specific time and place. But if it's a book about people struggling with universal human problems and relationships, then you will want it to seem as relevant in ten years as it was when you wrote it. Slang comes and goes so fast that, two years from now, today's favorite words are going to seem old fashioned to a reader, and anything from popular music to international events that anchors your characters and plot to a certain year can freeze your story in time and place.
Think about it. Decide which is more important to your story--specific references that submerge the reader in one recognizable era, or the kind of details which will have readers seeing themselves in your story a generation from now--and go from there.
2. CREATING CHARACTERS
Building characters is like working with transparent overlays. On each clear plastic sheet you add another detail or two and lay it down over what you had before, until you have a complete picture. By the end of your book, readers should have accumulated a host of important details about the character and be able to see him or her whole in their minds. One of the best examples of this is Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist, which appears at the start to be a portrait of a rather peculiar and fussy individual, and by the end has become a journey with a thoroughly likeable man and his dog through the depths of their grief for his lost son and back again into the world of the living.
The focus of your story should be on the character to whom events happen. The story can be told through someone else's eyes--Sherlock Holmes and his bewildered but loyal friend Watson are the classic example--but beware of having crucial events happen off stage. The reader wants to be there when things happen, not hear about them after the fact. Compare John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, which has a strong narrator in the thick of things from start to finish, to the same author's The Kraken Wakes, in which, with one dramatic exception, everything happens in some other part of the world.
It seldom works to tell readers that one person is wonderful or that another one feels desolate. You must show the wonderfulness and the desolation in the things they do and say, and in the ways they respond to people and events. Katherine Paterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins is about a girl who tells the reader one thing, but means something else entirely. The more skilled you are at listening to people, at asking yourself what they really mean, the easier it is to read between the lines of her narrative. Beneath that tough-talking exterior is somone with a tremendous need for loving and being loved.
Names can be revealing. Think of the differences in your mental image between Joseph and Joey, Francois and Frankie, Bobby Joe Shiflett and Edward Dillinghurst Hallenbeck, III. Names like William Two Eagles, Quan Thi Chi, Maria Alvarez, Sean Kelly, and Hans Guttmacher may tell you something about a character's cultural background as well.
Verbs are excellent character builders. You know a great deal about a character who fidgets, races, crashes, flings and hurls himself around, and flops into his seat. The minute he walks into a china shop, the tension begins to build. A person who sidles, slides, vanishes silently, waits to be noticed, stays in the background, whispers, blushes, and stammers, is also clearly recognizable. You never have to label one of them hyper and the other one shy. Start building your own thesaurus of descriptive verbs by finding five or more that describe your closest friends.
3. COMMAS and CLARITY
Commas are absolutely essential for clarity, and clarity is absolutely essential if you want your reader to understand exactly what you are saying. Don't go overboard and sprinkle them everywhere just in case; too many commas can be as confusing as too few. When in doubt choose clarity over strict adherence to the following guidelines (which, I am sorry to say, represent a fraction of those in existence.)
You need a comma before "but", even when the two clauses share the same subject: "His lab partner confirmed that the teacher meant what he had said, but rescued Matt by promising him her tabby's latest catch..."You don't need a comma before "and" when the two clauses share the same subject-- "He wolfed everything down and was ready to go indoors when the children came romping out from their naps."--but you do need a comma before "and" when the subjects of the two clauses are different. "Somehow things had come to a head last night, and Matt had lost."
You need a comma after both "where" and "when" clauses which begin the sentence. "When you start believing he didn't do it, then you'll see him the way he really is..." "Where the road split, they took the left fork." You also need a comma before a "where" clause in the middle of a sentence-- "He stared across the yard at the sandbox, where Michael and Jenny were playing..." --but not before a "when" clause. "...he began with the bleak, rain-swept night when the sheriff had knocked on their door and told him about the car going off the road."
Serial Commas My sixth grade English teacher, Mrs. Paddock, told us that you need a comma before the final "and" unless you want the last two items closely linked, and in the past 63 years it has not once occurred to me to doubt her. I can see some sense in writing "cereal, juice, ham and eggs", but I like "horses, dogs, cats, and budgerigars" better. If you are striving for the smallest number of commas in your sentence, leave it out. If clarity is what you're after, put it in. (And if you have a Mrs. Paddock for English, do what she tells you.)
Remember--"When in doubt, go for clarity!" When a sentence needs several readings to decipher the meaning, a comma (or possibly a rewrite) is probably called for. Try adding commas where needed in the sentences below:
"Later that night lying in his bed and hearing the murmur of voices in the Prados' bedroom next to his Matt faced the fact that coming home with the sergeant had solved a lot of his problems but it had created another one at the same time."
"As stubborn and determined as Matt she had managed somehow but Matt still thought that at seventeen Meg was too young to have three half-grown kids and a house to take care of especially when she was going to school at the same time."
"When she called Cricket took off in the opposite direction."
"We have already eaten Matt."
Every time you see one of these in your manuscript, see what happens if you cut it out. Sometimes you will have to rewrite the sentence to avoid using the word. Remember, though, that many of these words will appear natural and correct if spoken by a character, and now and then--maybe two or three times in a manuscript--some of them will have their uses. Feel free to add or subtract from this list.
said (You need about one third of the "saids" you think you do. See the section on Dialogue for a demonstration, or one of your favorite books.
it is, was, would be
There was (Take the noun following the phrase and make it the subject of your sentence--"There was a vicious dog waiting for them in the bushes" becomes "a vicious dog was waiting for them...". Instead of "There were some hurdles stacked on the far side of the field", try "On the far side of the field, hurdles were stacked.")
just ("I just want you to understand.")
still ("I still want to sing.")
whole ("the whole world knew")
so ("so mad; so pretty; so hard")
down, up ("he fell down;" "she gazed up")(But keep if you are making the point that one person is much taller than the other.)
to him, to her, to you
really ("It was a really big hole.")
and, but (especially at beginning of sentence, except where absolutely necessary)
had had ("He had had too much to drink.") (On encountering several of these in one manuscript, young John told me he felt as if someone were shooting at him.)
some ("Some kid said to wait over here.")
even ("He didn't even tell me why.")
either (especially at the end of the sentence--"I don't want to go, either.")
though (see "either")
own (It's my own fault.")
s/he felt or thought (unless needed for rhythm or emphasis.)
of the ("the keys of the typewriter"--change to "typewriter keys.")
who is; who was ("someone who was years older"--change to "someone years older")
a lot ("I like you a lot." "There were a lot of people in the hall." Change to "...the crowd in the hall...the crowded hall...people were packing the hall.")
that ("He told me that you would be here." Caution: sometimes you will need a comma in its place.)
too (see "either" and "though")
already ("They were already waiting when we arrived.")
anyway (See "either", "though", and "too")
got ("He has got a lot of nerve." "He has nerve," says it better. "Got" does have its uses in extremely colloquial dialogue--"I've got to go.")
deep (as in "deep inside someone". "Inside" is enough.)
such a ("Such tremendous zest" sounds stronger than "such a tremendous zest".)
pretty ("It was a pretty rough day for sailing.")
kind of; sort of ("It was kind of a mess." "She's sort of weird.")
a whole other (You are splitting "another" into two words here. It should be "a whole nother" which sounds okay when spoken but looks ridiculous on the page. Let's not do it at all. (See "whole")
Avoid using "said" too often. Also avoid using too many adverbs describing how people say things: "said jokingly, laughingly, happily, angrily, softly..." Adverbs, like curry, should be used sparingly.
Dialogue between two characters. The following passage illustrates minimal use of "said" and the tennis-game effect of back and forth conversation without having to identify each speaker every time. Of course, the reader will appreciate a reminder now and then.
....Grieve studied Matt in silence. "Hey, man," he said suddenly. "I got an idea--a proposition. Won't do us no good in the record books, but it could settle who's best once and for all."
"Let's us meet somewhere, some night this week, and race. Just you and me, nobody else."
"I don't know. Some place with a long run and a short one, where we ain't gonna be hassled."
Matt was beginning to like the sound of it. "Any suggestions?"
Grieve considered the possibilities. "Only one place out where I live--"
"Catch me on your turf after dark?" Matt grinned. "No way!"
"I ain't coming up where you live either, that's for sure," Grieve said, returning the compliment.
"Some place in between, then. What about that high school--What's its name?--next to the golf course?"
"That's it. We can use the oval for the short race and work out the distance around the golf course for the long one."
"You're on, man. When do we go?"
Matt thought ahead. Next Saturday's race was the only problem. "How about Tuesday or Wednesday?"
"Tuesday's okay. About eight-thirty? It gets dark by then and we don't want no interference."
"Okay. I'll bring a couple of flashlights," Matt was saying, when both Dunstan and Grieve's coach descended on them and broke it up.
Everything you have ever learned, consciously or subconsciously, about choosing which words you want to use and the order in which to use them to get your exact meaning across to your reader, is called grammar. What follows are a few common problems I ran into with my own grammar that I learned to recognize and correct while editing my manuscripts. As you read and write you will add many observations of your own about our subtle, beautiful, and exasperating language.
Make statements positive rather than negative. Not "He was not on time," but "He was late."
Make statements active rather than passive. Not "The child was carried by the man," but "The man carried the child."
For emphasis, put the pronoun in the introductory clause and name the character in the main one. Not "As if Matt had been there, he saw it all," but"As if he had been there, Matt saw it all."
You may start a sentence with and or but, but do it sparingly and never if the preceding sentences are full of them.
Watch out for long independent clauses joined by and, but, while, etc.--especially if each clause has its own subject. Consider two sentences: "Racing up the front walk, he pounded on the door, and an eternity went by before it creaked open like the door to a crypt." See what happens when you eliminate the and and make two sentences out of the original.
Me and I--No matter how many people come between "to" and "myself as a recipient", it is always to...me, never "to...I." "The committee gave awards to Harry, Angie, Paul, Grace, Veronica, Pat, and me." I is the subject pronoun, "You and John and I will go." Me is the object pronoun, "Throw the ball to me...at me...for me...by me..."
s/he and her/him You can substitute she and he--the subject pronouns--in the sentences above for "I", and her and him--the object pronouns--for "me". The rule is the same.
Grammar in Action
When there are several verbs in one sentence, changing the verb endings has a decided effect on meaning and emphasis, giving more importance to one action over another as the scene unrolls. You have to decide which version describes the scene exactly the way you want it to.
"Matt dropped his books and, catching his little brother in mid-leap, carried him into the house."
"Dropping his books, Matt caught his little brother in mid-leap and carried him into the house."
"Matt dropped his books, caught his little brother in mid-leap, and carried him into the house."
"Dropping his books and catching his little brother in mid-leap, Matt carried him into the house."
Sentences That Need Rewriting:
Which sentence says he was desperate to write?
"He wanted very badly to write."
"He wanted to write very badly."
(Sometimes when you can't get rid of an ambiguity, find another way to say it, such as "He was desperate to write.")
Which sentence sounds as if it's describing Stephen King's homicidal car, Christine?
"Realizing that she was going to be late, the car speeded up."
"Realizing that she was going to be late, Meg stepped on the gas."
(A participle phrase has to agree with the subject of the sentence, or your reader will get some unintentionally funny messages.)
Who's doing the talking?
"They sat on the pine shavings in Cricket's stall, watching the gelding slobbering enthusiastically over his alfalfa meal and talking quietly."
(There are several ways to rewrite this one so Cricket doesn't appear to be a talking horse.)
At whom is Don's foster mother smiling?
"If Matt hadn't been watching her, he would have missed the proud, fleeting smile Don's foster mother sent him."
(Again, watch the pronouns and to whom they seem to be referring.)
7. SPELLING ODDITIES (You will be adding to these lists all your life!)
aboveboard/ absentmindedly/already/ anybody/ anymore(any longer)/ ashtray/ telltale/ nonstop/ setback/ molehill/ stopwatch/ boyfriend/ wristwatch/ streetlight/ tabletop/ armrest/ doorknob/ shirttails
figure eight/ head start/ X ray(noun)/ all ready/ any more (in addition to)/ brightly wrapped/ good night
new-mown/ full-length/ x-ray (verb)/ T-shirt/ close-knit/ brand-new/ good-bye or good-by/ frosted-glass/ light-headed/ bull's-eye/ 7-Eleven store
plow/ napkin/ disastrous/ medicine/ gray(usual)/ subtly/ inquiringly/ delirious/ harassment/ skiing/ skied/ exuberant/ maneuver
Choose one and stick with it
blond or blonde/ toward or towards/ afterward or afterwards/ gray or grey/ good-by or good-bye
a.m./ p.m./ P.E./ P.A.
Tricky Words and Word Pairs
'd = would, not had. "He'd have gone backpacking if he could." Very colloquial. Used in dialogue or thoughts, it can mean had, but use sparingly.
unique = the only one of its kind. Can't be more or less, or sort of, or very unique.
while--use in sense of "during the time that...", not as a substitute for "although, and, or but". (Strunk)
different from (not different than or different to).
as--use when following clause has a verb: "He ran as he had never run before."
like--use when following phrase doesn't contain a verb: "He ran like the wind."
Don't use like as a substitute for as if or the way. "He ran as if the hounds of hell were on his heels" or "He ran the way a sixty year old runs." Exception: In dialogue or thoughts, where you want the characters to sound natural, you may sometimes use like: "If he really had killed a little girl, like they thought, he wouldn't be out here on the track where they could get at him with their insults and their lousy threats."
But avoid when possible.
beside = next to
besides = in addition to
disinterested = objective observer, not personally involved
uninterested = not interested
anymore = any longer ("I don't like you anymore.")
any more = additional ("Are there any more people waiting?")
fewer = numbers or countable items. Use with plural nouns. ("Fewer than fifty chairs were brought in.")
less = size or quantity. Use with singular nouns. ("I have less material for my project than you." "Less rain means fewer flowers.")
Finding the right word (and the right place for it).
Nouns: Be as specific as you can. Don't settle for describing someone as a man, if the fact that he's a professor or a professional wrestler is important to your story. Look what happens to your mental image when you read the following:
horse-- Black Stallion/ Appaloosa/mustang
dog-- chihuahua/St. Bernard
boat-- kayak/jet ski/Titanic
house-- shack/cottage/mansion/ castle/fortress
Verbs: Use one verb to do the work of an adverb/verb combination. Instead of walked slowly try strolled, ambled, sauntered, limped, meandered. Instead of ran fast try raced, sprinted, sped, tore. (Is this a good time to remind you to spend quality time with your indispensible Thesaurus?) BUT watch out for raising the intensity level of your action unecessarily. If his mother asked him to run down to the corner store for some milk, you don't want to give his errand overtones of life and death urgency.
Adverbs: You can usually find a single verb that will combine the meaning of a verb plus adverb (See Verbs above.) Also, eliminate very from your list of favorite words. Instead of intensifying the meaning of the words it modifies, it dilutes their impact. "It was quiet" has an ominous stillness about it that "It was very quiet" loses. Other discardable adverbs include so, really, finally, suddenly, already, pretty (as in "pretty nice).
Adjectives: Like adverbs, adjectives should be saved for the occasions when they are absolutely indispensable.
Adjectives stand out more when used sparingly. "She took Meg's cold hands in hers."
Weigh the effects of two adjectives on the tone of your sentence. Will one do as well? Is either one necessary? "In Matt's drug-clouded mind was a fuzzy memory of a conversation between the two of them." (Because it was essential that the reader understand Matt's confusion about his conversation with Ryder, and the reason for that confusion, I decided I needed both of them.)
Color words give an unexpectedly vivid visual image that makes a scene stand out in the reader's mind. Use only when you want that particular scene to stand out. "He discovered himself a moment later on a collision course with a plump matron in a purple jump suit."
Using ALL the senses. Smells, tastes, sounds, the feel of things--all are as important in taking your reader into your world as what can be seen.
Which passage really puts you in the scene?
When the car stopped in the Maitlands' driveway, Matt did not move for a moment. He was unprepared for the pain of seeing all the old familiar landmarks: the two-story white house; the chickens wandering around the yard; Uncle Frank's gelding grazing in the pasture behind the barn; and the pack of dogs coming towards them, ready to welcome them or warn them off....
Once the engine was turned off, it was a moment or two before Matt became aware of sounds he had almost forgotten: a horse whinnying in the pasture across the creek; a bee zinging past with a self important hum; the chickens making pleased, soft clucking sounds like old ladies talking to themselves in the supermarket as they hunted and pecked their way around the yard; the thunder of the Maitland dogs barking a warning and wagging a welcome at the same time. The air had its own smells, too...a faint, sweet mixture of dust, new-mown hay, and freshly baked pie.
To revel in the astonishingly visual power of words, read Dorothy Dunnett, Joan Aiken, Ruth Park, Hesba Brinsmead, L.A. Meyer, and Leon Garfield. Their writing leaps and soars and rushes the reader breathlessly from one vivid scene to the next. What's their secret? Read them and decide for yourself. Adverbs and adjectives have a part in it, but a much smaller part than you'd expect.
Word Baggage--some words come with built-in sounds and connotations of their own. Choose carefully. Take, for example, rock wall and stone wall. Rock with its musical connotations and stonewall with its suggestion of preventing someone from achieving their goal, may cause confusing echos in the reader's mind.
Intensity--Words have varying degrees of intensity:whispered, said, called, shouted, yelled, bellowed, screamed, shrieked.... On a scale of one to ten, use words at the appropriate level of intensity for each scene you are describing, and vary the intensity. A scene written only in nine and ten level intensity words becomes like crowd noise at a sporting event. Nothing stands out or catches your attention, and after a while you tune out to preserve your sanity. One or two high level words in a scene that is mostly lower intensity will have greater impact.
Some words are off the scale. Avoid: terrible, dreadful, awful, horrible, hideous, desperately, frantically, incredibly, fabulously.
Chapters: Do they all end on an up note? On a down? Are they all the same length? Do you tend to treat chapters like short stories, tying up all the loose ends before moving on? Don't. You need variety in mood and pacing, and the way you handle chapters plays a big role. Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is a superb example of solving one problem while raising another in every chapter. The reader can't stop until s/he knows how it turns out.
The place for the punch line is always at the end of the joke. The last word in a sentence, the last sentence in a paragraph, the last paragraph in a story can be the most important. Save that spot for your most important words.
In each of the following pairs, which sentence ends with a bang and which with a whimper?
A)"He's going to look like the Scarecrow of Oz in about a month, if he keeps up this pace."
"If he keeps up this pace, in about a month he's going to look like the Scarecrow of Oz."
B) This untouchable quality was infuriating to the other four, who did not know him.
To the other four, who did not know him, this untouchable quality was infuriating.
C) What would happen if they never did, he wondered?
He could not help wondering what would happen if they never did.
D)"He said yes--given your uncontrollable temper and the circumstances."
"He said--given the circumstances and your uncontrollable temper--yes."
Which one is best for your purpose?
Omniscient: Author as narrator.
Choose this one if you have a cast of thousands engaged in global or inter-galactic conflict and you have to be able to keep the reader posted on what everyone is doing and why. You can still go more deeply inside some characters than others to engage the reader's sympathies and understanding, but you are basically playing the role of bard--singing of great deeds done by others. Tolkein is a master at this.
First Person Narrator: "I..."
Choose this one if your narrator is a strong character who will be in the thick of the action, or if
s/he is the best friend of the central character (a la Holmes and Watson). It is not useful for a plot involving a large cast of characters, all of whom are having adventures simultaneously, since your narrator can only be in one place at a time, and you can't include anything the narrator doesn't personally know about. Good examples are the novels by Dick Francis, James Herriot, Harper Lee.
Third Person Objective: "She,he..."
Choose this one if you want to tell your story mostly from one character's point of view, but also--as the author--want to give your reader background information about that character or others that you can't realistically put into his or her thoughts. Especially useful for stories with small children as the main character, or with historical or geographical background that is important for the readers to have.
Third Person Subjective: A combination of "she, he..." plus "I..."
Cynthia Voight's The Runner is an outstanding novel using this viewpoint, and it's the one I like to use. Choose if you want to tell the story from inside the characters. You may get inside more than one character, but the story is always told from the characters' point of view. Rarely, if ever, are you aware of the author's voice explaining or describing. I like it because it gives you the intimacy of the 1st person without the self-centeredness. Everyone has a point of view, not always clear to the rest of us, and I like being able to give each character a chance to reveal more of himself to the reader.
CAUTION: Scenes in Third Person Objective don't mix well with intense Subjective thoughts. You have to slip reader inside character gradually. In the following passage you start outside and, taking small steps, move progressively further inside the character:
"Matt was shaking uncontrollably. He wished he had never come, wished desperately that this old man had died without anyone ever knowing. He needed to be able to go on hating the guy who killed Katie so he could live with her death. He needed someone else to share the blame. But this whole thing was another mistake, another lousy accident like the one that killed their parents. It never should have happened. If he had been there...if he hadn't left her there alone. Oh, Katie..."
(By naming a character, "Matt...", you put a distance between him and the reader. Using the pronoun--"He wished he had never come"--you move closer. With no pronoun at all--"But this whole thing was another mistake....It never should have happened"--you come closer still. And with inner dialogue--"Oh, Katie..." you are inside the character.)
10. RULES for a GOOD READ
A good plot is built on causality, not coincidence. If one thing happens, it will cause something else to happen. Because that happens, something else will happen. This is why it's a good idea to know where you are going before you begin, or you could end up just about anywhere.
The protagonist should change and grow.
Begin where the action begins and go from there.
Try to keep focus on intimate, human scale rather than working with a cast of thousands engaged in global conflict.
Style should never be so quirky and unusual that it intrudes on your reader's consciousness and distracts from your story.
In suspenseful scenes, don't slow the pace with long sentences. Short and swift races reader along with story. As Strunk says, brevity produces vigor.
I'll give Woody Allen the last word. He sees in sports the distillation of good drama:
unexpected or unpredictable peaks and valleys.
the inability to foretell the outcome, yet knowing that one or the other is going to win.
The last is the essential thread drawing spectators through to the end of each game and readers through to the end of each drama, story, or book.