Monday, June 26, 2017

Playing with Tense

A popular post from April 2008

by Annette Lyon

Don't. Unless you know what you're doing. Really.

In some of my editing work recently, I've come across an interesting trend among aspiring writers: a huge number of them seem to think that writing in first-person present tense makes their work better or sound more literary or intellectual.

The truth is that it's the author's voice, word choice, pacing, description, and so much more that make them sound good, literary, or intellectual.

If the author has the skill to pull off both first person and present tense, it's a nice layer of icing. But it's not the cake.

Worse, when done poorly, first-person present tense can turn into a real mess, like a lopsided cake with crumbs in the icing and entire chunks missing.

Most fiction, even with first-person point of view, is written in the simple past tense:

I walked, I ate, we drove.

There's a lot of excellent first-person present tense fiction out there:

I walk, I eat, I drive.

In other words, the piece feels like it's happening right now as you read it.

One of my personal favorite books written in first-person present is Lolly Winston's Good Grief. It's a fantastic book, one that's funny, poignant, and abounding in excellent writing all around. In a discussion with some friends recently, one pointed out that it was written in present-tense, and another friend, who counts that book as one of her favorites, had to go pull it off her shelf to check. Sure enough, it was present tense. Huh. She hadn't noticed.

And that's how it should be. The nifty tools you use as a writer shouldn't be out there flashing in the reader's face. They should be used for a reason, and that reason needs to be more than, "It'll make me look good." Because chances are, it won't.

Present tense can provide a different style and feel to your work than past tense. It can make the story feel more immediate. And it does have its place. One of the pieces I edited did it very well—and really needed to be in present tense because of the structure, tone, and events of the piece. But most of the others that used it would have been better off with plain old past tense.

Those pieces felt like awkward toddlers trying to get their feet under them as they try to use first-present present, as if they're declaring, "Look at me! I'm a writer! I really am!" Instead, they should have analyzed why they wanted to use present tense—what effect were they trying to create, and will present tense help them get there? In the vast majority of cases, the answer was unclear at best and a resounding, "NO" at worst.

One major problem that creeps in with trying to write this way is accidentally falling into the wrong tense.

For example, if a writer includes a brief flashback into the past, it's all well and good, if they're now using past tense. You can't stay in present tense for a flashback. Doing so confuses the timeline for the reader.

("Wait. Isn't this a memory? Then why does it say it's happening now?")

Similarly, when you come back from the flashback, be sure to stay in the present tense. It's easy for a writer to accidentally slip into past tense (we're all more familiar with it, after all) and then go back to present tense, but it's very hard on a reader to keep everything straight. The back-and-forth reads clunky and amateurish.

And a lot of times, a story can be told more effectively in the simple past tense. It's a voice most readers are very familiar and comfortable with. A present tense version might call attention to itself . . . in a bad way.

If you do decide to use first-person, present tense, fine. But be sure you can handle it. It's one more plate to keep in the air, and if you let that one fall, it's going to make a huge crash.

The great news: you don't need present tense to be a great writer. In fact, I recommend not using it at all unless and until you have a great handle on all those other plates you need to keep in the air. (Things like plot, characterization, pacing, point of view, dialogue and more . . . that's a lot of plates.)

Don't assume that this is a plate you need to sound good. Some of the best writers in history never gave it a passing glance. Using it well doesn't mean you're extraordinary.

But if you do eventually decide to pick it up, don't do it until you know precisely why it might make your piece more effective and you know—really know—how to juggle it.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Advice from the Experts

A popular post from March 2008

by Heather Moore

This past weekend I attended the LDStorymakers Writers Conference. The name may be deceiving because national publishing was discussed even more than LDS publishing. We had two special guests I'd like to highlight.

Jamie Weiss Chilton: Agent with Andrea Brown Literary. Since I was her "host" I had a lot of time to pick her brain. Probably one of the most significant things she told me was that she doesn't read queries/cover letters first. She doesn't think an author should spend hours and hours working on the perfect cover letter--because it will be your story that sells her. When she receives a submission she sets the cover/query aside and starts reading the first pages of the book. If she falls in love with the story and the writing, then she'll finally read the cover letter to find out more about the author.

Timothy Travaglini: Senior Editor at G.P. Putnam & Sons. He said that his publisher is one of the few big publishers that accept unagented submissions. He said that one of the most important things that we can do is read a lot and know our craft. Also, it's important to submit to the right editor or the right imprint. There are so many imprints under one publishing house that it saves you time and the editor time to research and know which one accepts your type of work. He also recommended approaching a junior editor over a senior editor--the junior editors are actively seeking new clients. He recommended (for childrens writers) to attend the one-on-one conference: Rutgers University Council on Children's Literature At this conference each attendee is assigned to a junior editor for mentoring purposes. Mr. Travaglini also said to spell his name right.

In the next weeks, I'll continue to blog about more tidbits learned from the great presenters at the conference.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

WD Revision Lesson #4

A popular post from April 2008

Yeah, so I haven't posted in, oh, six weeks. I realized this morning that if I hadn't missed so many weeks we'd be done with this article by now. But, hey, I like to drag out the lovin.

So here we are with point #4 from Jordan Rosenfeld in Writer's Digest February 2008 edition.

In this point, Rosenfeld tells us to highlight what she calls "High Voltage" passages in our manuscript. These are particularly well written portions of our story that make us smile, that give us the tingle, the moment of "Dang, that is awesome!" They are the sentences, paragraphs, and even whole scenes that make us proud to have been the one to have written them.

Once you've identified these portions, figure out what it is that makes them so "Poppin" (my kids will be so embarrassed I used that word). Is it the actual event that's taking place? Is it a particularly well-done description? Is the cadence nice? Does the variety of sentence lengths pack the punch? Basically, what is it that makes it so snappy, that caught your attention.

This is cerebral work--really dissecting it in your mind, or on paper, so that you can diagnose the specifics that make it so dang brilliant. Then, once you've figured it out and cemented it in your brain, look for other places in your book where you can apply those discovered elements.

What you've done here is you've found a strength. A lot of writing, and learning to write well, is done through finding our faults and weaknesses. A lot of revision orbits around the same thing--what's broken. This is the opportunity for you to find the sparkle, the shine, the glimmer and figure out how to broaden it to more of your work. It's an exercise in positive affirmation and polishing your skills. Don't deny yourself the chance to see the greatness of your creation. And consider making a separate folder or document where you save these gems. You never know when you'll need that inspiration of knowing you done good kid!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Sunsets are Fatal

A popular post from April 2008

by Heather Moore

In Jack Bickham’s The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (Chapter 6), he warns us not to BEGIN our book with a lengthy description.

When you start describing a pretty sunset, a dark, leafy forest, or a calm blue ocean, the action of the story stops. So you want to make sure that you don’t BEGIN your book with a lengthy description. When you begin a book, you want to start with dialog, action or thought (internal dialog).

Also, watch for cliché descriptions. There are isolated circumstances when lengthy descriptions work. But until you get published, you need to follow the rules and make yourself competitive against the thousands of other writers out there. In fact, in writers and publishing circles, according the Bickham, cliché descriptions have become a hallmark of poor fiction writing—a red flag that signals the “beginning writer”. i.e. “the rosy fingers of dawn”.

Why? Bickham notes: Fiction is movement. Description is static. In other words, to describe something in detail means that you have to . . . stop . . . describe it . . . then move onto the action again.

Ask yourself this question. When you are reading a book, what do YOU skim over? Have you ever “skimmed” over descriptions to get to “what is happening next”?

It's important to find a good balance with description. Of course, you still need description, but you don’t need a page describing the desert terrain, or even a paragraph. Description must be worked in carefully in small doses.

Description isn't just about describing sunsets, landscape, details of a house . . . Description can also include writing about every single thought and every single action a character has. The seasoned writer will describe a little (tell), and demonstrate a lot (show).

Over the past decade or two, readers have changed. Readers today want you to move your story forward, not stand around picking apart the scenery or discussing every little movement.

From Bickham's book (15), I've modified his speed tracker idea below. If your story is moving too slowly, look at the form of writing you are using most, and speed it up with a higher “mph.” Or if it’s moving too fast, you can slow it down.

10 mph: Exposition—slowest of all.
1. Straight log of factual information—biographical, forensic, sociological, etc.

25 mph: Description
1. Some is necessary, but monitor it carefully.

40 mph: Narrative
1. Characters are in the story “now” and their actions, etc are presented moment by moment with nothing left out.
2. Similar to a stage play and what most of your story should be in. Moves swiftly.

55 mph: Dialogue
1. Talking, very little action or interior thought
2. Can be very quick, like a tennis match, when the characters are talking in short bursts

70 mph: Dramatic Summary
1. Summarizing. i.e. by Bickham: “A car chase or argument that might require six pages of narrative might be condensed into a single light-speed paragraph.”
2. Moves the story forward in leaps and bound.

Our ultimate goal as a writer is to keep the story moving. Don't let the description slow you down!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Speed Bumps

A popular post from April 2008

by Annette Lyon

There are moments when a writer feels blocked. No words come. The story stalls. You're staring at a brick wall. Every writer needs their own bag of tricks for overcoming Writer's Block. (One of the best: a deadline.)

Another writerly "condition" is similar to Writer's Block, but it differs in a significant way. We'll call it Writer's Speed Bump.

Writer's Speed Bump slows you down. It can make the words harder to come, but you can still write. This can take place during drafting or during revisions.

The trick, however, is that unlike with Writer's Block, sometimes you really do need to pay attention to the speed bump and back off. In my experience, the "bump" is a moment where you could keep going, but something doesn't feel right. However, you don't know what's wrong or how to fix it.

Worse, if you keep plowing forward, you may just run the story off into a ditch that will require a backhoe to get you out of.

I've learned to trust the feeling that I've just hit a bump. Over the last several days as I worked on a rewrite of my latest novel, I hit many such moments. While I was tempted to drive right over them (I was on deadline, after all), I knew I'd better stop and take a break.

Walking away from the computer at those points was the best thing I could have done. I'd go do something else for a while and let my mind drift and wander to the story. I wouldn't sit down and concentrate on what the problem was. Sometimes I'd pick my husband's brain for ideas. Other times I'd let the issue percolate and simmer.

Stories are like shy animals; you try to grab them, and they'll elude you. You have to wait for them to come to you. Hold out your hand as an invitation, call to them sweetly, and don't make any sudden movements.

Without fail, each time I left the computer and thought a bit about the story while doing something else (nothing exciting--maybe emptying the dishwasher or sweeping the kitchen), I'd have an "aha" moment and know where to pick things up next time I sat down. I ended up taking the story in directions I hadn't anticipated--directions that never would have occurred to me if I hadn't paid attention to the "bump."

The resulting manuscript is a tighter, more focused story that works far better than the original version.

A caveat: Part of the writer brain is hesitant and fearful. Don't interpret the messages from that area as Speed Bumps, or you'll walk away from the keyboard with your fears wrapped around you like a parka, and when you return, you won't have anything new to add to the table.

But next time you're sitting at your computer and you feel that gentle nudge that . . . hmm, something's not quite clicking into place . . . listen. Walk away. Think about it. The answers will come.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Writer's Toolbox: The Semicolon

A popular post from April 2008

by Annette Lyon

To some people, they're an outdated form of punctuation. To others, they're one more valuable tool in guiding a reader through their work so they hear the correct tempo and beat of the words.

The semicolon is a unique animal. It has a pause length longer than comma but shorter than a period. It's similar in length to the em dash, but it has a different feel to it.

The trick is knowing how to use it properly.

First off, what a semicolon isn't:

A semicolon is NOT a replacement for a regular colon. While it does connect two similar thoughts, it does so in a different way. Quite often (but not always), what comes after a plain old colon cannot stand by itself and still make sense. On the other hand, what comes after a semi colon is fully capable of standing alone as a complete sentence.

In other words, don't do this:

Laura peeked through the curtains and gasped at what she saw; at least a dozen cats walking around, cat food tins and cat poop everywhere, and in the middle of it all, Mrs. Porter sleeping on a lop-sided couch with a cat on her chest.

Replace that semicoon with a colon, and you're good to go.

Why? Reread it. While the portion after where the colon belongs is longer than the part before, it's still not a complete sentence. Yes, we need a pause there, but what comes next is just a series of visual details without the handy-dandy subject and verb that make a real sentence.

Another common mistake is using semicolons in place of em dashes. I am a fan of em dashes and use them all the time. Few rules apply to how you use them (quite possibly why they're so popular; they're hard to use wrong). But you can't take a spot where an em dash (and its lovely pause) would go and necessarily replace it with a semicolon.

Remember the rule of thumb: Both sides of a semicolon must be able to stand on their own.

Another wrong example:

The door burst open, revealing Steve's boss holding a clipboard and looking distraught; lay-off time.

Use an em dash there or add more to make it a full sentence: "lay-off time had arrived," or, "it was lay-off time."

One area of semicolon use is often debated: Can you use it in dialogue?

Many people say to forget about it, that semicolons are outdated nowadays and belong only in non-fiction. Instead, they argue, you should use em dashes in dialogue.

It's all well and good if that's your position. But I personally use semicolons in my fiction all the time, and I've been known to do it in dialogue as well. There are just moments where the pause length, the "breath" for the reader, and the feel I'm looking for can be achieved only with a semicolon.

There are other uses for the semicolon (splitting up items in a series that already have commas, for example), which we may cover another time, but for now, keep in mind the basic rule: Both sides of a semicolon have to made sense by themselves.

Think of the semicolon almost like a "yield" sign between two sentences that makes you look both ways before proceeding. You'll find connections and subtleties in the writing that couldn't be there any other way.

Monday, June 12, 2017

No One Likes a Boring Date

A popular post from March 2008

By Julie Wright
Have you ever been on a date where you think you might have been better off going alone? Where sure, yeah, the other person existed, but there was no sense of immediacy about the date? And then horror of horrors, your date tries to kiss you goodnight and for all the zing that there *isn't* you yawn and shrug and head into the house.
I've read books that leave me feeling the same way. on the scale of one to five, they rate a "meh." Life is short. Kisses and writing should have passion.
If you want your writing to zing, make them immediate--make them right now.
One way to do that is to get rid of your telling voice.
  • She felt the knife against her skin./The cold steel blade pressed against her skin.
  • She saw the flag waving over the soldier's lifeless body./The flag waved over the soldier's lifeless body.
  • They noticed the green ooze seeping from the chemical plant./The green ooze seeped from the chemical plant.
  • He was looking./He looked.
  • She started searching through her purse to find the mace spray./She searched through her purse to find the mace spray.
See the words highlighted in red? Get rid of them. Any time you have a verb ending in -ing, you can almost always drop the -ing and the is, was, or were (or your dead word of choice) in front of it to make it active.
I don't know why we write in passive voice. I can't tell you why that feels more comfortable to authors or why we fall into the trap of passive, but we do--a lot.
A highly illuminating activity when you finish a manuscript is to go back and run a search for the word was.
Don't panic if you have a whole bunch . . . that's what rewrites and edits are for. The first draft is to get it down; the second draft is to get it right.
Write (and kiss) with passion.