Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Common Problems (Part 9 of 50)

Don't filter #2. To avoid filtering, we need to be aware of staying within the selected POV. When you are in the POV of one person, readers see/hear/sense only what that POV person does.

When you tell us what s/he saw (or heard or any of the other senses), you pull us outside his/her POV. Don't tell us you felt. Show it from inside.

Here are five examples to illustrate flitering. Each becomes a stronger sentence if we omit noticed, watched, feel, heard, and knew.)

1. Helen noticed he laid his strong hand on Eva's shoulder as he spoke. (He laid his strong hand on Eva's shoulder as he spoke. Helen is our POV person, so anything that happens in the scene comes through her senses.)

2. He watched her cautiously step back. (She cautiously stepped back.)

3. I could feel my surfboard begin to slip. (My surfboard began to slip.)

4. She heard the door swing open. (The door swung open.)

5. Dorion knew precious seconds were ticking away. (Precious seconds ticked away.)

Serious writers seek to become excellent writers.
They remain diligent to avoid filtering.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Common Problems (Part 8 of 50)

Don't filter #1. Of all the principles I teach in writing, this seems the most difficult to grasp. I have not seen this in any writing book, and it's too subtle for those who aren't serious about improving their skills.

Let's start with the principle. When you are in the point of view (POV) of one person, you need to stay there, whether you write fiction or nonfiction. The tendency is to move outside the POV and become the observer of the action instead of the actor.

This shows when we use words such as saw, heard, observed, or noticed. Here's a simple example and the POV is first-person singular: I heard Allison sigh with contentment.

You have moved out of first person and have become the observer of the action. To remain in the POV, you would write: Allison sighed with contentment.

You couldn't hear the sigh unless you heard the sigh. If you tell readers you heard, you're no longer in the first person POV.

Here's a sentence in third-person POV: Anna could feel the floor shake as the opera chorus assembled on stage.

The writer jumped outside the female POV person and told us what Anna experienced. Better: The floor shook as the opera chorus assembled on stage. By describing what took place, readers are aware that Anna felt it.

Because I want to become an excellent writer,
I will avoid filtering.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Common Problems (Part 7 of 50)

Avoid the progressive tense unless you want to emphasize the concept of "in the process of." A good rule is to use the simple past (fewer words) unless you want to emphasize the process. This may help: Prefer the simple past unless it doesn't work.

Last week on a writers' loop, a panelist announced, "Next month I'll be teaching at. . ." It would have been stronger if he had used the simple future tense and written, "I'll teach at. . . "

Here are a few from my students:

• Emily was making eye contact for the first time. (Was that an ongoing procedure? The author probably meant, "Emily made...")

• That day she was sitting at her desk, nervously shifting papers. (True, she stayed there, but doesn't it make sense to say simply, "she sat...?" The emphasis isn't on the ongoing activity of sitting but what she did while seated.)

• Josiah was seeing it for the first time. (He must have stared at it.)

• Gary was screaming at me to call. (My assumption is that Gary yelled one time.)

• Eli was whispering to a lean man. (This depends on the meaning the author wants to convey. In the context, the writer simply wanted to mention that Eli whispered something and moved on.)

• The goat was wandering free, dragging its rope. (What is the action the writer wants to emphasize? Dragging the rope seems obvious. Thus it's stronger to do it this way: The goat wandered free, dragging its rope.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Common Problems (Part 5A of 50)

Barbara emailed that she had trouble putting some of the sentences I used as examples into the active voice.

First, it’s not an evil thing to use the passive voice. So please remember the rule is avoid.

Second, we don’t have to rigidly follow the original sentence. Strive for clarity.

1. After my arraignment, I was transferred to . . .
After my arraignment, they transferred me to . . .

2. All my basic needs were taken care of.
They took care of my basic needs. (“All” isn’t needed.)

3. It can only be explained from the realm of the supernatural.
I can only it explain it from . . .

4. Secret knocks were given and tested.
They/we gave and tested secret knocks.

5. Her hours were filled with the usual phone calls.
She filled her hours . . .

6. The conflict arose because invisible boundaries were crossed.
The conflict arose because she/he/they crossed . . .

Friday, November 18, 2011

Common Problems (Part 6 of 50)

More on the active voice vs. the passive voice. Some writers get so caught up in avoiding the passive voice that they refuse to use state-of-being verbs such as is and was. In a large writers conference, one prominent writer yelled, "I hate to be verbs."

She misunderstood to-be verbs and assumed they were only helping verbs (copula) in the passive voice.

State-of-being verbs are not the passive voice, although they are weak. I can think of no more natural way to write the following sentence: Even though it was October, the grass was green. (Yes, I used two state-of-being verbs). I could have written, Even though October had arrived. . . That's where personal preference comes into writing. But "grass was green" causes no problems to understand. It's brief and describes the status of a lawn.

I sometimes use state-of-being verbs,
but I'm aware of their purpose.
I distinguish them from the passive voice.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Common Problems (Part 5 of 50)

Prefer the active voice. I use prefer because at times the passive voice works when we don't want to identify who did the action.

I've previously blogged about using the active and passive voices, but it's a constant problem with writers. This is the principle: Prefer the active voice; avoid the passive. The active voice uses fewer words and the writing is stronger.

Read the partial sentences below. The passive voice shows itself by the use of what we commonly call the helping verb (is, was) and usually written in the past tense.

• After my arraignment, I was transferred to

• All my basic needs were taken care of.

• It can only be explained from the realm of the supernatural.

• Secret knocks are given and tested.

• Her hours were filled with the usual phone calls.

• The conflict arose because invisible boundaries were crossed.

Because I want my writing to be strong,
I choose the active voice.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Common Problems (Part 4 of 50)

Kill the clichés. They're those tired, overworked phrases that we hear and read constantly. It's easy to write with hackneyed expressions because we don't have to work hard. A major difference between mediocre authors and excellent ones is that the former use the current expressions of the day instead of trying to say it in their own words.

The cliché can be a simple word (utilize instead of use), or a phrase (at the end of the day, at this point in time, or do the math).

Here are a few, and I have several hundred of them. (Or I could use the hackneyed clause, I have literally hundreds of them.)

• The searing pain returned in full blast

• With each passing second

• The last thing I wanted was

• It was marvelous to behold

• To take the edge off

• I was frozen for what seemed like an eternity

• More than I cared to know

• I'll defend it tooth and nail

• Spoiling for a fight

• The defining moment of my life

Clichés work for easy writing;
Clichés also make for boring reading.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Common Problems (Part 3 of 50)

The second purple-prose punctuation problem is the exclamation mark. If you consider the exclamation mark noisy and loud, you'll probably get rid of it. I often tell students, "The most obvious mark of insecure writers is the use of the exclamation mark. They shout a lot because they don't trust their ability to communicate effectively."

(And yes, in my early writing days, I seasoned my manuscripts with exclamation marks.) Here are a few examples from my students.

• It came from below them!

• Jean shivered!

• Of course he would not give it back!

• How luxurious the life of a bride would be!

Don't use the exclamation mark—
unless nothing else works.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Extra Post--Common Problems 1A

Linda emailed a response to Common Problems (Part 1 of 50). She wrote, "But everyone tells you not to use the state-of-being verbs! The writers in my Word Weavers group continually complain about having to overwrite and add sentences to compensate for not using is, are, was and words ending in 'ly.'"

Everyone doesn’t. I don’t say such things and I am a real person. The apostle Paul spoke about zeal that wasn’t according to knowledge. That is the case here. Good writing is natural writing.

The purpose of writing isn’t to be clever or to avoid certain words. The purpose is to say something clearly so that readers understand without having to figure out what you mean.

In the two paragraphs above, I’ve put state-of-being verbs in italics. Did you have any problems understanding my meaning?

If I were writing for publication, I’d say it better.

Did you notice I used were in the previous sentence? That’s how we show the subjunctive mood. That is, something contrary to fact or uncertain. How else would you write that sentence without were and retain the meaning?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Common Problems (Part 2 of 50)

Avoid purple prose punctuation. This shows up in two ways. First is the pause (. . .) which means slow, deliberate thinking. Purple-prose punctuation occurs when writers

• don’t trust their writing

• don’t trust readers to interpret

• make an attempt to be dramatic—and fail

• write the words as they hear them inside their heads, including the pauses between the phrases.

The pause is properly called an ellipsis (. . .). When used as an obvious pause, it's effective. "I was thinking. . . maybe. . . "

Too many writers use it as a dramatic pause. It rarely works. Trust readers to get the point without going melodramatic.

• She hopes against all hope that Ben isn’t dead. . . that he’ll soon return. . . that she’ll finally be able to tell him the truth. . .

• Scenes of my own arrest flashed rapidly. . . my disgrace. . . my loss of innocence. . .

If I write clearly,
readers will grasp my meaning.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Common Problems (Part 1 of 50)

For six years I taught mentoring clinics. I varied their length, but at first they lasted from three days and finally down to one full day, so I could work individually with writers. I found the same problems occurring in many manuscripts.

Eventually I developed a list of common problems. These are the weaknesses that I saw repeatedly. As I deal with them in this series, some will include items I've mentioned in previous blogs, because I still see the same weaknesses.

Avoid purple prose writing. This is a long-used term that refers to extravagant overwriting. It usually refers to descriptions that call attention to themselves. I see this in the writings of insecure writers who are afraid to use simple state-of-being verbs like is, are, and were. So they try to paint pictures with excessive expressions.

The writers want to sound powerful and dramatic, but the sentences become melodramatic and over-the-top prose. Here are a few examples from my students:

• He struggled to tame the pounding wave of thoughts that threatened to blur his focus.

• His throat tightened as fear swept over his brother's face like the shadow they chased across the field behind their house when an airplane flew over.

• The light of day kept my loneliness in the shadows of my mind, but as soon as the lights were out, my thoughts went to that despair.

•The air kept the stillness captive as men held their breath in anticipation.

• Rapidly firing her digital camera, she captured the dress rehearsal fever staining the cheeks of several antsy actors.

• Lib placed a hand over the traitorous butterflies coasting in her belly.

• Rand stood, mouth agape. He snapped his mouth shut. Jaw and neck muscles bulged as he stormed out.

The best writing is the most easily understood.
The meaning is obvious and the words are simple.