Monday, August 23, 2010

I Kan Spel Gud

Nothing says “amateur” more than egregious typos in your query letter. (Ok, maybe neon colored fonts and seizure-inducing backgrounds.)

It’s no secret that spelling errors are often seen as indications of a less-than-standard intelligence. There are an incredible amount of people who are too stupid to spell right. They call that texting (ooooh, snap! Just kidding.) However, there are plenty people who are cavalier about spelling.

Then there are those of us who are writers and who love words enough that we don’t want to mangle them. Or we’re doing the query slog and for once we’re paying attention to spelling.

No matter where we are on the spelling adventure (that is an ironic moment fyi) it’s also true that every single one of us has #spellingfail moments.

For some it’s certain words or grammar rules that we just never get right. I mean, I know the “I Before E” rule, but the word piece always causes a near meltdown. If I didn’t have spell check automatically correcting it… well, you’d be reading a lot of peice.

I have a copywriter friend who goes into foaming fits when she sees apostrophe misuse (its vs it’s). Others will tell you the grammar rule or handy mnemonic as if you hadn’t already tried to batter the typos to death with logic.

You can’t escape typos. You won’t remember every grammar rule, keep every homonym straight, you won’t always put hyphens in the right spot. So instead of beating yourself up, just make sure you do due diligence. (I said do due)

The short and skinny is: spell check first, but don’t stop there because spell check is not always trustworthy.

Have a person look it over who can spell (and who likely already corrects your grammar).

Any words or phrases you aren’t entirely ABSOLUTELY certain about check in a dictionary.

I recently learned I was misusing the word prevaricate. (Some of you have never even heard of that word, much less misused it.) I once got the meaning of preclude turned completely around in the crucial argument of a term paper.

And lastly: READ. Read a lot. (not alot, which according to Allie Brosh is a gentle creature who is much maligned by people.)

Immerse yourself in words spelled and used correctly and you’ll start correcting your typos automatically. Except peice. Piece. Crap.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Writing Dialogue: The Art of Sidestepping

Dialogue is one of the pillars of writing fiction. But we all have written our fair share of clunky dialogue to know how hard it can be to make our imaginary characters speak in a realistic and compelling way.

I want to focus on the trick called “The Sidestep.”

Simply put, “The Sidestep” is when the dialogue of one character to another is not direct to the preceding dialogue.

Let’s say a character asks a direct question. “Hey, what happened to our TV set?”
The roommate answers: “You ever get the feeling we watch too much TV?”

This is certainly more realistic than for the roommate to launch into an expository plot dump of well-thought-out narrative material. “I sold it because I was worried about our watching habits, thus I have meddlingly started a chain of conflict with you that will carry through the rest of the story.”

People rarely answer questions directly, and they rarely say what’s on their minds, and lastly, people rarely see right to the heart of the matter and say it.

Sci-Fi writers sometimes screw this one up whenever they need the science and the fiction to mesh.

“The explanation for the disappearance of the TV is this: It turns out that our living room is a warp nexus for interdimensional wombats who utilize fractal quarks to enmesh simple objects in their nefarious plans to destroy human life. Do you want a bagel?”

Using the sidestep is a great way to keep your characters from info/plot dumping in dialogue.

It is also an excellent way to add more conflict. Characters that misunderstand, mislead and miscommunicate are much more compelling than those who say what they mean.

Most humans communicate obliquely, so why aren’t your characters?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

It Sounds Nice, but There’s Nothing More to It

Stephen over at had a recent post that made me sit up and shout “What he said!” (I think I scared the cat.)

The gist is that you can learn all the tricks of writing, polish and revise and caress and nudge and wipe each chapter down with a wet rag; but if your unique voice doesn’t shine through, what’s the point?

And I really started jumping up and down with frothy-mouthed exultation when I got to his solution:
When you finally do go back to your manuscript, forget the rules. Just (re)write as you hear the story in your head. You already know craft – that will come naturally now. This time, listen to your inner voice, follow it. Trust your instincts with word choice, pacing, rhythm, attitude. And here’s the real key: have fun.

Can I get an amen? Or at least a huzzah?

There is no writing advice out there that can compete with having a compelling voice. You’ve read all the plot/character/adverb-slash/pacing/revising/critiquing blogs and books. Time to just write.

All that other stuff is now in your palette; you can write like yourself now. Honest.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Punch Rejection in the Face

Rejection. It’s certainly a big part of life for writers.

We get rejection letters, for crying out loud. Think about that. (Puts junk mail in a whole new light)

I read this very honest post by author Jody Hedlund and among all the excellent facets of perspective she brought to this painful subject was:

“Rejection reminds us that pursuing publication is NOT for the faint of heart.”

Just like opening yourself up to critique, starting to put your work out there for consideration by editors and agents = lots of bruises on your ego. And maybe some broken bones.

So you have to ask yourself, “Do I really want to be published?”

Maybe you don’t. There’s no problem with writing for yourself, or your family. There have even been some incredible writers who’ve gone that route. (Emily Dickinson for starters… and there are plenty more)

But if it’s publication you’re after: There’s no prize for also-ran.

If you believe that you have something to say that the whole world ought to hear, you’re going to have to face the pain of rejection. Lots of it.

There’s no consolation for this pain except perseverance and raising the quality of your writing (and querying) until the right person finally takes notice and says: “This is it!”

But chocolate helps.

Is there anything you do to take away some of the sting? (Like a special "anti-rejection ointment" or something?)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I’m Ready Coach, Put Me on the Field

Way back when I was a lad I wanted to be a writer. And a director. And an actor. But mostly a writer. I never could understand the kids who had to act out a scene from the movie instead of making up a new storyline.

I wrote screenplays in crayon on scratch paper my dad brought back from the office, (on the flip side were ordering reports and interoffice memos) and I dragged the neighborhood kids out to our "studio lot" next to the garage. I learned firsthand that I’d never make it as a video editor.

But I learned that I loved to write. All through jr. high and high school I churned out short stories and half-written novels. Many exhibited some degree of natural talent; all were full of the melodramatic pathos of a greenhorn teen writer.

I learned a lot about storytelling, creating mood, characters, etc, etc, but I still wasn’t really a writer.

I could write, but it was frivolous, impulsive. My stories were muscled through on raw talent alone. There wasn’t a conscious honing of the craft or conceptualizing of themes and narrative arcs. I thought I was pretty good.

Then I wondered if maybe I could get published. So I started a critique group with a friend from another band. We met in a Las Vegas bar after midnight. So clandestine.

But the thing is: he challenged my writing. Actually challenged it! He didn’t immediately concede I was an unstoppable literary force who could do no wrong… No, he pointed out flaws, identified clich├ęd characters and plot points, noticed an overabundance of adverbs and descriptive purple prose. In short, he told me “You can do better.”

He was right.

Now our critique group has grown, I am privileged to meet with accomplished, dedicated writers, and we raise the literary bar every week. Now when I write I can hear their expert advice and foresee their possible critiques. “Why is the character doing that? Is that plot point strong enough? How many adverbs were you thinking of putting into that sentence?”

Each of us has a unique style. Each of us has a range of “voices” that we comfortably write in. But none of us are content to stay where we are. I want to grow as a writer, try more daring voices, experiment with style and characters and genres.

Now I feel, though I’ll always have room for improvement, that I’m ready to be a writer. Now I’m ready to get off the bench, put down the test pastiches of copying my favorite authors, not just dabble, but give it my real attention.

In short, I’m ready to write like I mean it.

Are you?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Happy Birthday to my Face

So I'm digging this shiny new blog of mine.

It is a birthday gift from my awesome wife.

Now I have to generate some content. Stay tuned.

The Mason