Monday, May 16, 2011

How to Be a Good Writer, Part 3

Last week I posted another blog in a series of highbrow lectures about how little ol’ you can be more like Ernest Hemingway. Not that I have the slightest clue. But these days, who gives a #@!% about whether or not anybody actually knows what they’re talking about? Full steam ahead.

On to the business, then.

Let’s talk about references. When I was earning my wee business degree at a school that I can decidedly recommend against attending, I nevertheless picked up more than one useful thing for all the tedium and money expended. One of these was a grammar guide. It’s laminated and three-hole punched for your convenience, and tells you all about how to use pronouns. And other useful tidbits. I recommend finding something like this at, say, a college bookstore.

Another useful publication that resides happily on my shelf is this: The Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions (Shaw, Harry, McGraw Hill, © 1975). This book tells you when to use farther versus further, the difference between hung and hanged, lay and lie, than and then and so on. These are all handy things to know, and they make you look far more intelligent than you actually are. I use it ceaselessly and obviously to great effect.

While we’re talking books to have on hand, we really need to, as professional writers (or at least people who fancy themselves professional writers), build our own library, starting with our very own reference shelf. To that end, I suggest starting off with a quality dictionary. I mean an actual paper one. The older the better (those old ones have such nicely groomed words in them; they never chew gum whilst speaking). I have one from the 1950’s and an unabridged Webster’s from 1890. At one point or another, you’re going to outgrow the stupid and clunky Encarta tools that Microsoft builds into its Word application, and you’re not going to have anywhere to turn if you’re not prepared. I’m warning you now. These older dictionaries are really handy, by the way, for writers of historical fiction or steampunk.

We can include in this vein of reference materials a quality thesaurus. Contrary to what most ignorant bumpkins might think, these are alive and well, and not in fact extinct. I have a youngish one; it’s paperback and about thirty years old, and already segregated at the binding around the l-m area. So I must treat it carefully. This, again, is an indispensible tool for writers looking to find another word for “suddenly,” or, “therefore.” I’m told by an accountant friend of mine, who was highly irritated as she read through the Twilight books, that she suspects that’s mostly what Stephenie Meyer did especially in books two and three of the series: right click>synonyms in order to make things more interesting. I’ll leave it to the peanut gallery to decide whether or not, as Stephen King has asserted, “She can’t write.”

Now that I’ve worked in a King reference for three weeks straight, I’ll call this a perfect finish.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

How to Be a Good Writer, Part 2

Last week I posted the first in a series of blogs about how to be a good writer. I’d like to say thanks for sticking with me past the sheer presumptuousness of the very idea. And now that my anti-self-aggrandizement clause is out of the way, let’s get down to it.

In keeping with the template, I’ve come up with three more things good writers do all the time:

  1. Write.
  2. Write.
  3. Write.
Point one: write. Keep notes, in other words. Again with the reference to Stephen King here, but good writers always have a notebook handy and that’s something I learned by reading his book, On Writing. You never know when your ideas will come. Well, scratch that. You know precisely when they’ll come. 5% of them will come at extremely inconvenient times, like when you’re driving on the freeway or in the shower scrubbing off the detritus of another sweaty day at the keyboard. The other 95% will come at the moment you are just drifting off to sleep. To minimize blazing fits of profanity, please at least keep your notebook on the nightstand. Try to make a habit of it. And don’t forget the pen. This is very important—writers should always have some way to record their ideas and keep their notes near at hand at all times. You may think, as I have done, that you’ll remember it in the morning. You won’t. Trust me.

Point two: write. Write articles. This is where the rubber begins to meet the road, folks. I read about this little bit of advice in an article (imagine that) on Helium, a great place to get exposure and get feedback. You can sign up to become a contributor there, or on sites like Factoidz or I’ve done all this. And the discipline of writing concisely, clearly, accurately and simultaneously threading in various keywords for SEO (Search Engine Optimization) purposes will only help you in the long run.

And the long run perspective, by the way, is the one you’ll be wanting to adopt as your own. This is a little aside, but writers—or anyone, really—for the most part, do not make it big overnight. Sure, your life can change in a single day, but that normally only comes after years of hard work. So many of us newbies (a moniker I’m only now just beginning to outgrow) have this completely unrealistic attitude that something is owed to us. It doesn’t go well for anyone with that mindset. But I’ll get into that more next week.

Point three: write. Write stories. Now, I’m not recommending that you run off all half-cocked and dive into your magnum opus. I dabbled with that; it’s more work than it’s worth, really. Start off with a 5,000 word short story. Find a professional editor who will give you a read and give you some detailed feedback—you’ll probably pay them about $50-$100 for this, but the investment is well worth it. You might also want to look into joining a local writers’ group, where fellow writers meet perhaps once per month to read and critique their work, and read your stuff there. Your next short story might have a goal of 10,000 words, and you could do a novella, around 20-30,000 words, after that. You can even publish eBook versions of your (finely polished and edited) writing on Amazon while you’re busy working on the next project. It helps to earn rewards for all that work.

Next week I’ll share my thoughts on how to be a good writer a little more. We’ll be covering writing mechanics, plot and character development, and the all-important Attitude. Until then my friends, go forth and write boldly.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Check out my guest post on the Vox

Vincent Zandri, who sold over 100,000 books on Amazon in the last two months, invited me to guest on his blog; the Vox. Check it out here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How to Be a Good Writer, parts 2 and 3 (coming soon)

Just a quick post to let you know that I'll be posting more of my thoughts next week on what makes a good writer. I know, that kind of thing is slicker than a harpooned hippo on a banana tree, but one can always try.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

How to Be a Good Writer

Recently I received notice of an anonymous comment posted to my blog that said simply, “How do I become a good writer?” I’d like to respond with my own thoughts on how I’ve gone about that very thing. Keep in mind that there is no formula; there are no quick and easy steps to take to become brilliant. It’s all about the hard slog.

Now—I don’t want to be presumptuous here—I know I’m not God’s gift to writing—but I know at least enough to offer up three recommendations:

  1. Read.
  2. Read.
  3. Read.

Stick with me. There’s a method to my madness.

Point one: Read. Read books about how to write. I covered this in a previous post (Archetypes), but read Booker's The Seven Basic Plots. Hugely instructive, that. I cannot recommend more enthusiastically a book written by Stephen King, entitled On Writing. You may or may not be a fan, but King is one of the masters of the craft. He’s also been quite successful. Besides, getting outside the boundaries of your preferences occasionally is part of what transforms your writing from ordinary to extraordinary.

Point two: Read. Read history. This is, in my opinion, one of the most important disciplines for any member of society to undertake because the reading of history provides so very much in the way of foundation of character in a person. It’s not to say that you have to go and pick up some dry old tome on the foundations of colonialism in West Africa, either, unless of course that interests you. The key here is to find something that does interest you and then read about it. I personally found Stephan Talty’s book Empire of Blue Water, a gritty and honest thrill ride about the real pirates of the Caribbean and the actual Captain Henry Morgan, to be one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read. It was one of those books you don’t want to finish because you don’t want it to be over. Anyway, read history—for your own good, for the good of those around you, and for the exercise of reading.

Point three: Read. Read fiction. This is something I’ve had to work at. But if you aspire to be a writer of fiction, that is, a storyteller, you can’t get around reading it. The only way to discover how to produce good dialogue (i.e. believable dialogue) is to read how other writers have done it. Some of it will be crap, and some of it will be stunning. You never know until you try. And you’ll never know how to construct a plot, develop a character, devise a good mystery and on and on, until you read enough of them to get some ideas of your own. One book that simply blew me away was Stephen King’s Desperation. Not for the faint of heart, but very rewarding. Another King novel that's not quite so gruesome, and still excellent, is Duma Key.

The idea, and hopefully you’ve guessed it by now, is to read enough different things that your mind is stimulated in new directions and then follow that stimulus on to wherever it leads. For now, remember that the only way to grow as a writer is to grow as a reader. Good writers are always reading. No excuses. On the treadmill. During the commute (if you drive, get into audiobooks). As an alternative to watching the drivel that spills out of the TV. Read several books at once, and on wildly different topics. You get the idea. And one last thing: get to know your public library. That place is amazing.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Vox

Coming up later this week, I'll be guest posting on the Vincent Zandri Vox, so don't miss it. We'll be covering the just-released Airel (with Aaron Patterson), a teen thriller about a 17 year old girl who discovers just how much weight bloodlines can carry--and what it might cost her in the end.

We'll also be chatting it up about writerly stuff like this: is there some law that says all fiction must be written in 3rd person past tense? Check it out toward the end of the week, I'll be linking to it.

Thanks, as always, for your follows.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Warning! Profanity...

We might as well jump in with both feet here. I read all kinds of books; some have blue speech in them and some do not. But what happens when, in the book—in the story—a writer; let’s just say he’s me, is crafting some kind of life and death struggle between hero and villain and he wants the reader to be able to buy in 100%?

Let’s use examples. Which of the following would you prefer?

Jimbo holds a Glock .40 point blank to Harold’s face. “What’s it gonna be, Harold? Are you really willing to die for her?”

“Keep her out of this.”

Jimbo laughs cynically. “I wasn’t the one who brought her into it. And now, my friend, you both have poopy pants.”

Jimbo holds a Glock .40 point blank to Harold’s face. “What’s it gonna be, Harold? Are you really willing to die for her?”

“Keep her out of this.”

Jimbo laughs cynically. “I wasn’t the one who brought her into it. So now, fucko, you’re both gonna die.”

It may be distasteful to you, but I personally believe the second sample is, if nothing else, more realistic. I don’t know of any villains who would use phrases like “poopy pants.” At least not believable ones. Unless, of course, we’re talking about some slapstick comic version of the story. But in a serious drama, if a person is evil enough to threaten to take another person’s life, they’re probably evil enough to use blue speech.

I’ll give ya that Jimbo could have said, “idiot” instead of “fucko,” or even “you’re in deep shit.” It depends on you, your audience, the situation in the story, and whatever religious preferences you might have. And probably a lot of other stuff as well.

All this to say that I have come a mighty long way on my journey out of religion into freedom. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a Christian—but not by virtue of attendance on Sundays. I’m a Christian by virtue of Christ. That’s a post for another day. Some might see a contradiction inherent when I use profanity, whether it be in my writing or in my daily speech. I’ll say this: a lot of it just depends who I’m with. And whether or not I have a cigar in my hand. But that too is a blog for another day.

I’m just curious though, because my rough draft of this novel has profanity in it. Is it something you as a reader would refuse to read, try to muscle through, or enjoy thoroughly? Or something else, possibly?

What I’m attempting to do in my story is show the situation—paint the picture—as honestly as I can, depending upon what's happening. If a character’s decisions are producing mortal peril for him, depending on what hangs in the balance, I’m pretty sure depending on who they are profanity will be a part of it. At least in real life. Your thoughts?