The Three Rules of Writing

I’m not fond of rules and regulations but they are there for a purpose. These three basic rules will help you write with confidence.

  1. Be Honest.  Bare yourself on the paper.  No, don’t give me all the intimate dirty details of your past or present.  What I want is your feelings, your emotions,  presented as actions, in a way that makes me feel them, too.  Like Eliza Doolittle, in the musical “My Fair Lady,” I say, “show me.”  Let your characters experience pain and heartbreak, because I want to see how they deal with it.  Let them grow on the page so I can grow along with them.
  2. Be a Duck.  Ducks sit in the stream or pond and groom or feed or sit no matter what the weather: storm or sun.  Whatever you write will offend someone, if it is well written.  You need to be able to sit in the stream of your work and let the shouts of acclimation and disdain roll off your back as you continue writing.  I recently read two book reviews written by two different authors with very different perspectives.  The book they reviewed was David Mamet’s new book based on his “conversion” from screenwriter and playwright with leftist politics, to one aligned with the political right.  The first review by Christopher Hitchens leaves the reader with no doubt that the book is worthless.  The second review by Andrew Klavan, is personal, thoughtful, and makes me want to read at least parts of the book.  You can expect both reactions from your writing and a duck-like attitude will take you far.      
  3. Revise.  No one’s first written effort is good.  No matter how good it looks to you, it isn’t.  Check spelling, grammar, sentence structure, transitions.  If you pick a simile or metaphor that works, make sure the others you use are consistent with your character and his environment.  Are you deliberately using non-standard structure, non-standard grammar, non-standard spelling?  Why?  In a few cases, there is good reason to break the rules.  But, only if your readers can follow your line of thought.  For most purposes, use correct spelling and grammar, concise sentences, and logical transitions. When you have read it over 20 or 30 times, let someone else read and edit it.  I can guarantee you that they will find mistakes. 

Now that you know the three rules, what happens if you violate them?  Violate Rule 1 and no one will care about your writing.  Your characters will be cardboard cut-outs, two dimensional representations, shadows of reality.  If you violate Rule 2, you will soon stop writing because you can’t stand up to the hurtful comments or you will be so enamored with the positive reviews, that you will never grow as a writer.  Finally, if you violate Rule Number 3, no one will read your writing. If it requires too much effort to follow your inconsistent usage of grammar, sentence structure, spelling, it will not be worth the reader’s time.  So be honest, act like a duck, and revise, revise, revise and you will soon have writing that is worth reading.

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Renovating the Vacation House—Part 2

The second secret of renovation. Unplanned events will ruin your budget. It was around this time that what the inspector didn’t inspect or tell me about rose up to bite me. I arrived one day in that rainy spring, drove onto the driveway, opened the gate, and discovered sinkholes in the gravel drive above the creek. Large sink holes.  Big enough for a person to drop through into the black void below.  I examined them. If I was careful, maybe I could drive the car across and miss the holes. I put my foot next to one. It held. I looked down and my mind turned it into a black hole sucking in anything that touched its edge. But I could see the creek next to the drive and knew it was maybe 6 feet down. This was not a celestial vortex, merely a sink hole.

I contemplated backing my car and making a run for it. I’ve seen cop shows where, during the high speed chase, one car jumps over a large obstacle in the road. Surely with sufficient momentum I could jump the holes. Then I thought about what was even more likely to happen to me. Insufficient momentum would leave my car stuck in the holes 67 miles from home. I envisioned the wrecker pulling my car out with broken tie rod ends or some other major problem. And even if I did somehow make it across the creek, would that crossing enlarge the sinkholes and leave me trapped on the other side? And if they didn’t enlarge, would my car get stuck on the way out when I was tired with night approaching? And what would my husband say? I was afraid he would say that the whole thing had been a mistake. So I left my car at the end of the drive and, in multiple trips, carried my paint cans and lamps on foot up to the cabin for my day’s work.

When I left that day, I stopped at Shelley’s Nursery, a local nursery and landscape business and asked if they could repair the culvert damage. They could and would but they couldn’t get to it until summer when the creek was down to a manageable level and it would cost more than any single item or job I had planned. There was nothing else to do. I put my contractor on hold, put large deliveries on hold, and I tore things apart and ripped out carpet and painted and installed a security system and took care of all of the small things I could. I carried lamps and tables up the hill and carried trash back down. At least I had one working toilet and one working sink (not in the same room as the toilet) and a refrigerator and microwave. It was late July before the culvert was repaired and September before my contractor could get in and finish. I did tell my husband about the culvert the first time he saw the place in November. “How much did it cost?” he asked. “You don’t want to know,” I said. And he said nothing in response so I knew he really did not want to know.

That was the standard for all our renovation conversations. I would tell him about some problem and he would ask, “how much did it cost?” I would say, “you don’t want to know.” And there it would end.

Again, in September I experienced  “first picked bad contractor” rule all over again. My personal warning is that when I start “helping” the contractor by telling them things they ought to already know, I have picked a bad one. I have one other indicator. When the contractor tells me he doesn’t like what he’s doing, I know there is a problem. If I had more sense, perhaps I would have fired the contractor right away for knowing less than I do and hating what he was doing. But somehow compassion (if that’s what it was) won out and I let the contractor continue even after I discovered that he couldn’t figure out how to attach a drain pipe, didn’t know that bathroom circuit breakers aren’t rated for enough amps to run  power tools, couldn’t correctly identify hot and cold water lines, didn’t know how to control drywall dust, failed to answer phone calls, told me he hates working inside, and then walks off with the keys never to be seen again or heard from again.

My second contractor was competent albeit a little forgetful. But’s that’s OK because he laid the laminate floor competently, fixed my electrical problems and told me he wouldn’t do something I asked because it was unsafe and would lead to long-term problems. He was clean, competent and told me more than I needed to know. This is a contactor I can trust. And because he lives in the neighborhood, he tells me things about the area that I would not have learned otherwise. I expect to be able to provide him with many projects over the years to come.

Did you think I was finished with renovations when the floors were in and everything worked? I don’t think renovations ever cease! The word renovation means renew. So from the basics to make the cabin habitable to those less basic things which make it comfortable, they all bring newness to it. I try to make it better than new. This year the floors, next year the roof, and who knows what might be in store for the future!

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The Act of Writing

The act of writing is not a one act play.  It is not a three-act play.  Rather, it is act upon act upon act.  In this article I am going to discuss my writing tools, method, and strategy.  While writers differ in how they work, some of the processes are the same.  Take from mine what will benefit you.  What I have written here applies to everything I write: poetry, short story, essay, novel, but I am writing from the viewpoint of the novelist. 

I use Microsoft Word as my primary writing tool.  Some writers start with an outline: I use another method.  On a clean page, I put in a couple of page breaks and start the work by writing a plot summary below the page breaks that will get me to a certain point in the novel where I still know where the plot is.  (For writings shorter than a novel, I skip the plot summary and go right to the first draft).  I am not a writer who knows the entire plot.  The plot comes to me as I write and think and imagine.  The summary might take me to the end or, more likely, only plot the next the next few moves my characters will take.  In my historical novel, I know the major scenes and the end.  My plot summary takes me to and through the next major scenes.  As I have ideas, I insert them where they would fall in the plot line.  Sometimes I recognize that a plot can go a different direction and I put in possibilities.  I use the term “paragraph” loosely.  Below is the current plot summary for my novel.  As you can see it contains disjointed sentences, misspellings, and is non-grammatical.

After king, Eli and Talib escape to Gilead. Talib leaves Eli at the stream to find work and food nearby. He contacts his family and his brothers do not like what he has become. His mother supports him and gives him food and finds him a farm job with her brother, Eli dreams about Amanda and worries as the stream becomes more and more shallow. He calls on Yahweh. Ravens—eli knows what they eat and his stomach and heart rebel. Yahweh reinforces that the Ravens are to feed him like the quail. This goes on for about 1.5 years. Talib brings him messages and news from Jonathan. Later they are forced to leave Gilead and go to Zareph where they stay with a widow with a son. Yahweh tells Eli to provide for the widow. “You have seen my provision. Now do it for another.” The widow gives him her dead husband’s clothes and makes him a new prophet’s cloak. He and Talib find jobs on a farm. Talib later marries the widow although she is older. The son follows Eli to his next place. Or the son gets mad at Eli and Talib.

When I finish that section of the novel, I delete its plot summary.   And plot summaries are subject to change.  I’m several chapters into the first sentence of the plot summary above, but I am not sure how much of the rest will find a place in the novel.  A new character inserted herself a few chapters ago, and may change the direction.  I have a plot summary for my next novel which covers only the opening, because I simply don’t know where it is going yet.  But to bring us back to the first draft, with summary in front of me, I sit at the computer and start writing.  I write action, dialogue, anything that comes to mind.  I don’t worry too much about style or grammar, although I do write in mostly grammatically correct complete sentences and paragraphs and put a chapter where I think it needs one.  When I come to a point where I need to research something, I sometimes make a note in the document (NOTE) to remind me to research it later or, more frequently, I stop writing and start researching. 

My primary research tools are books and publications, and the internet.  Much of my research springs from the plot summary.  I research places, buildings, people’s names, geography, weather, culture, anything that the novel might need.  In the plot summary above, place names will be researched as will ravens, drought, and farming.  Some things are so minor that they are lightly researched only to give me the ability to describe them.  Others require much research as an integral part of the story.  Research for my current novel includes the Bible, a Bible commentary, a couple of books on archaeology, current guidebooks, timelines, and maps.  I copy some of the most pertinent information and save it in a file on my desktop that contains the novel I am working on; any printed matter goes into a file near my desk for future reference.  The internet provides me with maps and pictures of the places in my novel as well as current archeological photographs, and information such as the research I did on horses.  Since I am writing at a web-enabled computer, I use Google maps and pictures and Bing maps and archaeological society web sites and museum sites.   I research vacation areas and read personal blogs because they list some of the features of the land and describe it in a personal manner.  I keep links to all of these sites in a folder on my desktop with the manuscript.  I subscribe to archaeology blogs and save the emails in a mail folder with the most useful ones flagged.  I use OneNote to save all the other web information.  Does it sound like I am saving things in multiple places?  You are correct, but I can link them all with OneNote (except the paper copies and books).  I have a tab in OneNote for the book and pages with information on People, Places, Timeline, Geography, etc.   I have separate pages for geographic areas and cities that my characters inhabit or visit.  I do as much research as I need, so that I can close my eyes and hear and see the place where my characters live.

After I have written the first draft of part of the novel, whether it be a few chapters or much more, when I get stuck with the writing, I go back and fill in gaps.  I reread it from the beginning or from another point.  What information will readers need?  Find it and write it.  What have I written that only I will find interesting?  Out it goes.  I rework sentences and paragraphs to make them more readable.  I analyze dialogue to determine whether it fits the character.  This is the time when it goes from a first draft to a tenth draft.  (Not a literal 10 drafts—these drafts are as many as you need).  I check words with Word’s built-in thesaurus and dictionary and when that isn’t enough, go to the web to search out meaning and definition, and use the site Visual Thesaurus.  Every time I rewrite--and ten rewrites is not an overstatement--I cut, change language, fix grammar, add description.  And every time I do this, I add errors which I correct on subsequent rewrites.  This is the work of creating a writing.  A Victorian historian once said that the effortless written document comes at the pain of great effort.   And it is in the act of writing with great effort that we produce something that is of value to the reader.

Writing exposes my greatest weaknesses and it will expose yours, also.  When you feel emotional pain that touches your weak spot, that is the place in your writing where you need to push through.  Or maybe after the first couple of small pushes (drafts), you need to pull back, leave your writing, do something that restores you, then return and push through again.  It almost sounds like birthing a baby and that is exactly what it is.  By the tenth time, it does get easier.  Rewriting also exposes my lack of attention to detail. Every rewrite contains more words as I insert details to bring depth and color to my writing.  This is where I try to remember my five senses.  What does it feel like, sound like, look like, taste like, smell like?  This is where I can write creatively as my imagination searches for ways to describe something.  Creativity springs from describing sounds, tastes, smells, and what something feels like when your character touches it.  It’s easy to describe something you see; writing is, after all, a visual medium.  Take time to describe the other sensory stimuli.  I have found that the best way to hone this sense is to write a short story or to consider each chapter as a short story.  Does every word have meaning?  Is every word the correct word?  There are generally sufficient words in the English language to convey any meaning, but when those words fail, become inventive.  Coin a phrase or create a combination word, hyphenated or not, to convey a sensory experience to your reader.

On the purely practical side, Microsoft Word has some features that make my work easier.  Word’s spell check, grammar checking, and word count, are the ones I use the most.  I make spelling and grammar errors; Everyone does.  Word does.  But Word’s spelling and grammar check makes me stop and think.  Is Word correct, or am I, or is the correct sentence somewhere else.  I may leave it as written, correct it as Word indicates, or completely rework the sentence.  But whatever I do, I do it with thought and consideration, and frequently end up rewriting sentences and paragraphs.

As I write I also use Word’s Find  to search for “chapter.”  I have a horrible time keeping chapter numbers in order and Word will list them for me.  I also use the search feature and my own reading to correct the overuse of words.  I recently read a novel where the author used the word “sludge” to describe the traffic in a large city.  That might have been fine once, but he used it over and over again. I think it popped out at me the first time, because it jarred me in an unpleasant way and I felt that he could have found a better word.  When your readers are distracted this way, the reading experience is interrupted and you lose some of the impact of your written work.  When you find yourself misusing or overusing a word or phrase, Find helps you identify it so you can rewrite and make your work stronger.  It also teaches you to avoid your pet words and to locate good substitutes. 

Word count is another useful tool, located on the lower left of a Word document, which allows me to highlight a section and know the word count and to keep running track of the word count as I work.  For short stories, the word count should be 5000 or fewer.  If you are submitting to a contest or magazine, they will tell you their expected word count which usually is 3000 words for a short story.  Novels are generally in the 60,00- to 100,000 word range, especially if it is your first novel.  Right now, I have about 90,000 words and I am at what I consider the half-way point.  That means that this novel will either be cut (and I have already thought of sections to cut), or I will do as some writers do and stretch it into a series.  For a first time author, you need to stay close to what an agent expects, so word count lets you know where you are and where you need to be. Here’s more information on word count. 

What it all comes down to is: write and write and write some more, and then revise, revise, revise, revise, until you are sick of it.  When you can’t stand to look at it any longer, put it aside and come back to it later.  When you are sure that you have it the way you want it, give it others to read,  and get ready to revise some more.  Word allows you to send a pdf file to your readers which they can read on their computers, their Kindle, or print and read.  Have your reviewers mark what they like, what they don’t like, and spelling and grammatical errors.  Ask for notes.  What interrupts the flow of the reading?  What description bothers them?  What do they need described more fully?  Did they enjoy something?  Hate something?  If possible, sit down with your readers and ask them questions.  Then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.  You are writing your book for readers, so take their comments seriously.  Then put it aside.  Read it again.  Rewrite, if necessary, then send it off to your agent.  Now you can take a vacation, clear your mind and, then start your next novel. 

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