“We live not for today, but for the ages yet to come, and the children yet unborn.” — Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

Posts tagged ‘writing tips’

Getting there…or not

One of the writer’s tools the English language offers that enriches our prose and poetry is also, apparently, one of the most confusing: prepositions. Understandably, those for whom English is a second language find the nuances that distinguish one preposition’s meaning from another confusing; but it seems we native speakers also can have problems. I suspect some of that arises from regional colloquialisms and speech forms, but as writers we need to get past the way we’re used to hearing words used and fix on what they really mean.
One of the common errors I encounter in manuscripts is the confusion of at, to, and toward. A character will “glance to” another character. They will “walk toward the door and leave the room.”
The word to means “expressing motion in the direction of.” Toward also means “in the direction of.” The difference that requires you take care which you use lies in a nuance.
When you say someone goes to a place, the implication is that they not only moved in that direction but arrived there. Toward, on the other hand, implies that arrival doesn’t happen. “I was going toward the door when the phone rang.” When you read that, note how your brain automatically registers that your progress toward the door was halted by the ringing phone.
So, saying a character is going toward the door when they will actually be leaving the room is incorrect usage. You need to, because otherwise the reader will experience a tiny jolt without realizing why. Their unconscious is expecting one thing while the reality tells them something else.
By the same token, at means “expressing arrival or location in a particular place or position.” More important, however, is that English speakers have developed specific nuances for the phrases “look at” and “look to.” When we say we “look to” someone, we mean that we expect them to perform some act on our behalf: “He looked to the government to make sure he was safe.” When we’re talking about seeing someone, we look at them.
Just to further confuse the issue, we can also “look toward” someone. However, the suggestion that the act of looking isn’t completed holds here as well. “She looked toward John” carries a nuance of impermanence–she glanced at him but then moved on to looking at something else.
It’s precisely the subtleties of word meanings in English that make it one of the richest languages for writing in the world–and the most difficult to master. That very wealth, however, is why it isn’t enough to just look up a synonym for a word in a thesaurus and pick the one that looks cool. You need to understand precisely what each of those words not only means but implies. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

A Confusion of Voice

If the complaints I hear from writers are any indication, the only thing harder for them to get their heads around than show vs. tell is the concept of an author’s “voice.”

Voice is that unmistakable tone in a piece of written work that is unique to its author. No one who’s read Hemingway, for example, is ever likely to confuse him with anyone else. The brisk irony of Jane Austen’s novels is also readily identifiable. And this unique tone runs consistently through all their work.

I recently turned down a submission, citing the usual reason why I do that-—it’s not what I need. (There will likely be a mild rant on the subject of querying a publisher with material they don’te publish at a later time.) Ordinarily, I don’t send critique notes. For one thing, I rarely have time, although I wish I did. For another, all too often my attempt to help is…poorly received.

In this case, however, I did respond to something this particular author had written me, suggesting a change in a major element in the manuscript, advising I thought doing so would make it more marketable. I stressed the suggestion had nothing to do with my decision not to consider the manuscript.

This writer replied that I was rejecting her work solely because I didn’t like her voice. I’m still not clear where that came from, since I said nothing about it anywhere in the exchange. It did, however, remind me of when a writer under contract loudly protested requested changes in punctuation or vocabulary or sentence structure on the grounds I was “ruining their voice.”

One writer with whom I worked cried foul when I insisted her attempts to be clever by using wordplay that made no sense needed to go. She wailed I was going to destroy the book because this sort of thing was what her readers expected. It was her “voice.” Understand, when her wordplay worked, it was terrific, but sometimes it was painfully contrived, and those latter were the instances I requested she either revise or delete.

Both of these instances are cases of writers using mechanical means to achieve what they mistakenly believe to be their unique voice. Yet, neither has anything to do with voice. They are style matters, in the first case, and narrative structure, in the second.

Voice isn’t something you can manufacture. it’s a reflection of who you are as a writer. Dean Koontz and Stephen King both write in the same genre, yet given an anonymous excerpt from both men to read you would immediately know the two pieces weren’t written by the same person. That’s voice.

Writing an entire novel using simple sentences isn’t voice. It’s a style choice (and a bad one–your reader will be asleep by the end of page two). Clever wordplay is just that—-clever wordplay, not voice, and if your reader doesn’t “get it,” you’ve wasted your time. Refusing to use semi-colons has nothing to do with voice (and usually everything to do with the writer not knowing when to use them).

A beginning writer rarely has the experience and expertise to have found his or her voice. A writer who’s switching from nonfiction to fiction may have a voice but may also need to determine if the one they have is going to work in their new category. One of the most common problems I see with journalists and technical writers who essay fiction, for example, is that they can’t get out of “tell” mode.

 They don’t have any practice with being in a character’s head.

Hemingway brought the terse, spare journalistic style into his fiction, and for him it works. Likewise for Glen Cook’s Black Company fantasy novels. However, both use this style because it suits personality and content. However, the style is not their unique voice. No one will likely confuse Cook’s work with Papa’s, and not just because of the genre.

A good editor intuits the voice of a writer, and will do everything in his or her power to ensure it survives whatever stylistic changes are need to make a work as accessible to the reader as possible. A good editor also knows doing so rarely involves comma placement or repetitive sentence structure or whether or not there are dialogue tags.

Style is a tool. Voice is the vital part of a writer that sets him or her apart from every other writer. The first you learn, just as a pianist learns scales, and knowing the mechanics of the writing trade is as necessary as knowing which key matches which note on the sheet music.

But no matter how much you practice, you’ll never be Mozart. And aping Hemingway’s style will never give you Hemingway’s voice. Nor do you want it to. It’s up to you to discover the unique way of utilizing the tools of the writers that, combined with the intangible something that sets you apart from every other writer, creates writing that belongs to you and no one else.

“Self” Expression: Part 1

What’s wrong with this next sentence?

It’s odd Mary isn’t answering her phone, he thought to himself.

If you said “nothing,” you’re probably perpetrating one of the prevalent problems I encounter in manuscripts, that is, the incorrect or overuse of the “self” pronouns. In fact, it’s an epidemic of self.

What’s wrong with that sentence is that unless the speaker—let’s call him Norman—is a telepath, who else would he be thinking to, if not “himself”? The phrase “to himself” is redundant, but you’d be amazed how many people still use it when writing internal monologue.

Okay, how about this?

“Walking the familiar streets, John found himself outside the old drugstore where he had worked as a teen.”

Nothing wrong there, right? Guess again. 

The phrase “found himself” implies that the person doing the action lacks knowledge of either where he is or how he got there. It’s also weak wording. 

The nonrestrictive phrase that starts this sentence—“Walking the familiar streets”—says John both knew where he was and was there by conscious decision. There’s no ambiguity about his being outside the drugstore so he doesn’t, in fact, “find himself” there. He just is there.

Notice how using an action verb increases the strength of the sentence.

Walking the familiar streets, John stopped outside the old drugstore where he had worked as a teen.

Having people “find themselves” doing or thinking things instead of just doing or thinking them is what I refer to as lazy writing. It’s okay to use it in a first draft, but it should be replaced forthwith on the first revision, and it has no place in a manuscript you’re planning to send to an agent or editor.

Better yet, train yourself not to use it at all unless it exactly suits the situation. 

How might we phrase this sentence so that it not only eliminates the incorrect usage but actually provides more information than it already does (which is that John worked as a teen, a fact that we will assume is important either to our knowledge of John or to the story)?

“Walking the familiar streets, John discovered the drugstore where he had worked as a teen was still there, although now the logo of a national chain hung above the glass-paned door.”

What do we now know? We know that John worked in a drugstore as a teen. The use of discover suggests he’s returned to his hometown after having been away for some years. We also know that there have been changes.


”The stores and buildings he held in his memory had been replaced by fast-food restaurants and flashy chainstore franchises. He was both surprised and delighted, then, to discover the drugstore where he had earned his gas money as a teen still nestled unchanged between a Pizza Hut and a Dollar Store.”

Lots more color and information, and John is now finding what he’s supposed to—the drugstore—instead of “himself.” 

Yes, there are times when it’s appropriate to have a character “find herself,” but they are very specific. If she is banged on the head and abducted, she might “find herself” in the trunk of a car. If she’s in a city she’s never visited before, she could go strolling and “find herself” on a little side street where a block party is going on. Or she might move into an ashram and “find herself.”

The problem is, the phrase is so overused it’s a cliché, almost to the point of parody. With the vast wealth of words available, there are always better ways to convey the same idea. Find one.