The Personality of Writing

I want to write, but there’s no time!” – the most common excuse I hear from wannabe writers. Now this excuse can be twisted in other forms such as, “I can’t find the time” or “I’m going to be too busy,” and so forth.

Writing is a very unusual child. It is most patient and quiet. Oh, it will nag you with ideas and whisper pleas for you to write, but it won’t scream on top of its lungs at you forcing you to strap it down and shove food into its mouth.

No, writing is like the child at the table who wants someone to pass the salt, but instead of asking, she simply stares at the salt shaker as if willing someone to read her mind or for the salt to pass itself. That is why it is easy to ignore it and to put it on the back burner. “I’ll deal with it later.” That’s almost like saying about your child, “I’ll spend one-on-one time with her…later.” That sounds cold, doesn’t it? You’d never do that to your child because you know the impact it would have on the child’s life.

Since writing is such a patient character, it will only occasionally whisper reminders to you―maybe when you’re watching TV, reading a book, surfing the net, just hanging out with friends. “You said you want to write. Why don’t you write then?” You respond, “I don’t have time.” Writing replies, “There are twenty-four hours in a day. I just ask ten..fifteen minutes. Why don’t you give me that much of your time?” But then you ignore it because you don’t want to stop what you’re doing and pick up that old promise.

However, as silent as writing may be, it has a cruel edge to it. It rusts with time. It won’t recall all the brilliant ideas you once had. It won’t come when called when you FINALLY sit down to write. No, it will make you work for it―after all that time you made it wait, it’s only fair.

The first thing you write, you’ll hate, crumble it up and throw it away―or press the delete key. Writing wants to make sure you have the commitment because once the commitment is there, there is no turning off the writer. Ideas will download from your fingertips into the computer. You won’t be able to sleep, and even if you do, you’ll dream, and you’ll wake up and have to write down your dreams. Whenever you talk to anyone, you see everything as a story, imagine everyone as a character. It feels like a superpower, and it’s fun and exciting!

But it’s not easy. If you ignored writing for years, it could take just as long for writing to completely trust you and open its floodgates of inspiration.

Imagine a valley. When you were young, you started building a wall across the valley. A little creek ran through the valley, but you had no trouble blocking it off. As you get older, you continue building the wall, and the creek is now becoming a pool―then a majestic lake that is as deep as your wall is high. Then one day you realize it is necessary to let the water flow through the valley and replenish it. However, you know you can’t just knock down the wall all at once because you’ll suffer a tidal wave that could destroy everything. So one-by-one you remove the bricks allowing the water to flow little-by-little back into the valley.

The wall is your procrastination not to write. It holds back the desire to write, stagnating the pool of ideas, but if you are truly determined to write, that wall can come down—carefully, one brink at a time.

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Practice Makes Perfect and then Publication

Among writers there is this instinctive idea that the first story you complete will be the one you must publish because it is the best story of its time! But truth be told—it’s not the best story, it’s not the most exciting one out there, or the most unique. Yeah, that hurts to hear, doesn’t it? Some people refuse to hear, and they plow ahead, going with any publisher who accepts their work without much criticism or thought. This often results in what I called on my website ‘Expedited Writing’, and this leads to a low-grade writing quality, which can overwhelm books with real potential.

“So what am I supposed to do? Why bother at all? If I can’t publish what I write, I’m just wasting my time.” Not exactly. Think of publication as the Olympics. At one point in their life, all those athletes decided, “You know what? I’m good at this. I can do it. I like doing it. If I practice and work hard enough, I bet I can go to the Olympics one day and compete!” But it’s a long road of training before they finally achieve their goal.

Writers should have the same mindset. Accept the fact that what you write while in the ‘Playground Experience’ may not be suitable for publication. Does that mean you’ll never publish that work? No—it doesn’t mean that at all. Once you’ve mastered the elements of writing, you can always go back to any story and rewrite it, crafting it much like a diamond miner cuts away at the coal to reach the precious stone and polish to make it shine. Not only that, but when you have a vast inventory of stories, since they are your stories, you can take a piece from one story and place it in another, and therefore craft an altogether unique story.

As a writer, you need to spend less time thinking about publication and more time perfecting your craft. Once you’ve mastered that, you will have the confidence you need to face rejection from publishers because you will understand it is not about your story and whether or not it is good enough, but rather it is because that agent or publisher isn’t right for you at that time.

Once we’ve reached mastery level, does that mean we don’t have to listen to critiques or constructive criticism anymore? Absolutely not. As a writer—as a human being—you should strive to always be learning. However, some criticism people give you can be wrong for you and the story, and the only way you will know that is by knowing your writing style and yourself. Some people will say something, and you will realize, “You know, I never thought of it like that before. I’ll keep that in mind!” But other times you simply have to say, “Thanks but no thanks. I have a reason for wording it exactly that way.” And that confidence comes from being mindful of every single word, sentence, phrase, paragraph, and scene you write as I mentioned earlier in this blog.

In school, many English teachers will discuss the ‘author’s intent’ for a passage, and there is such a thing (it’s usually nothing like what the teachers say it is, but still…). It must be rediscovered, and the way to do that is by knowing your craft, and to know it, you must spend time with it. Practice makes perfect, they say, and once you’ve perfected it, publication isn’t too far away.

The Playground Experience

 

 

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The Playground Experience—if you read the ‘About Kelly’ page on my website, you probably saw this term when I described how writing fan fiction gave me the ‘playground experience.’ What does that mean?

Every scene contains one or more of the following:

Scene Setting (or simply Description)

Dialogue

Narration (or internal thought/conflict)

Each of these must be mastered before further investment in the craft. Once a writer knows his own style of writing these parts of a scene, he will find it easy to write any kind of scene.

There are several kinds of scenes every writer must be able to write regardless of what they’re writing–especially when they’re working with fiction. These are examples:

  • Characters are trying to communicate but cannot use verbalization
  • Characters in the dark
  • From a blind or deaf character’s POV
  • Outright chaos with comedy
  • Romance
  • Courtroom scene
  • A political scene
  • A fight scene
  • Hospital scene
  • An interrogation scene
  • Negotiation scene
  • Chase scene
  • Battle scene
  • Death scene

 

These are only a few examples. There are countless others, and as you begin to practice, you will realize what you need to write next. 

Must I learn each kind of scene? Is it really that important?” In the end, it is up to you, the Writer, but consider this: what if you had the ability to learn any skill in the world in an instant? Let’s say, your buddy and you are being chased by the bad guys for some reason, and you climb to the top of a building and find a helicopter. Now you’ve never flown a helicopter before, but somehow you know how to fly it, so you both get in and fly away to safety.

That would be cool, wouldn’t it? Unrealistic but awesome (sounds like something from the films ‘The Matrix’).

That is what it is like when you don’t practice those different styles of scenes. You might be writing a fluffy romantic chick-flick when suddenly the police mistake your male protagonist as a wanted criminal, and he has to make a run for it, or else he’ll be late for his own wedding! If all you’ve written your entire life has been witty dialogue, flirtatious friction, and love triangles, how comfortable and confident will you be writing a chase scene?

Okay, so, if I were to practice, how do I do it? I don’t have time to just write extra scenes I’m not going to use!” Well, there’s an easy way and a hard way, and of course, there’s always a catch.

EASY WAY: Fan fiction—write stories where you don’t have to worry about the backstory, or making up characters, or choosing a location or conflict for your story. Fan fiction is based on movies, books, plays, cartoons, comics, TV shows, and so forth. There are crossovers like “What if Indiana Jones met the Tomb Raider?” We’ll probably never see that in film, so we write it. Go to www.fanfiction.net for a massive library of stories writers of all ages, beginners and veterans have written. It’s free to read, free to post, and it’s free to give (and get) feedback on the stories.

When writing fan fiction, you expand your horizon and stretch your writing muscles. And the best part? You don’t even realize how much you’re writing and what exactly you’re practicing because you’re having too much fun writing the story.

With fan fiction, there is no pressure of editors, publishers, or even readers. You’re writing for yourself because you know no one else will ever think of the same storyline you did for the story. Due to the lack of such pressure, you can actually enjoy what you’re writing and not worry! Since you can’t publish it for profit because it’s not your property, the least you can do is share it with fellow fans, who are crazy about the same fandom.

The Catch: Despite all the time you put into these stories, you can never make profit off them. All you can do is share them for free online. You might think this is a waste of time, but consider the alternative—the Hard Way.

HARD WAY: Keeping in mind the list of different kinds of scenes, you can outline them, organize them, and then write them. If you can write them in connection with each other as a story, great, but the likelihood of that happening is thin.

The Catch: You will simply need the self-discipline to practice each scene whether or not it fits into your current story. Refine it? No—but at least you’ve had the experience.

Ideally you wouldn’t be working on a piece to publish during the Playground Experience. That would be like bringing your laptop to the park. You can’t have fun and work at the same time unless you’ve got a bluetooth in your ear and can talk to clients while chasing your kid around the park and not sounding distracted to the person on the line.

I’ve heard it suggested that writers should view their craft as seriously as doctors view their skill. It takes at least five (ten?) years for doctors to get their degree, so we should have the same mindset. That’s what BFA and MFA programs are for, right? I disagree. At the root of this suggestion is a very good and key idea, but it should not be limited to college level students or adults. That is the worst time for the Playground Experience because on top of all your Creative Writing classes and workshops, you have other classes, a job, and maybe a family you need to support. You don’t have time to write for ‘practice’!

The Playground Experience is perfect for younger writers. I experienced it when I was twelve and don’t really know when it ended—maybe around seventeen or eighteen. I didn’t have a job to worry about or a family to support. School homework kept me busy, but it wasn’t as pressing as college homework later on. So, if you’re young, dive into the Playground Experience.

But I’m older! I just went back to school. I’m a single mom with three kids! What am I supposed to do?” To be honest, I admire any parent who manages to write—especially with younger children. It’s going to be difficult for you, but you need to set aside ten to fifteen minutes a day to write. Don’t worry about writing the next bestseller. Take these short snippets of time to practice the craft, and when your story comes to you, you will be ready to write it. If you can do this while in school, that’s great, but you simply might not have the time to escape long enough to write. If that’s the case, wait until the semester is finished, and then start your Playground Experience.

If you’re single, have a steady job, and want to write but don’t know where to start, this is a good place.

It’s different but it’s necessary for everyone! 

The Adverse Adverb

An adverb modifies the verb. It is a word that describes how or when something was done–most commonly recognized with the ending ‘ly’ but not always. 

Growing up, I heard the saying, “Don’t use adverbs,” so I avoided them as best I could. It wasn’t until I listened to Stephen King’s audiobook ‘On Writing’ that I finally understood.

Adverbs exist for a purpose. So far, in the two paragraphs above, I’ve used three adverbs—‘commonly’, ‘always’, and ‘finally’. You might ask since this post is about avoiding adverbs, why am I using them? To prove a point. That point is the proper place of adverbs such as conversational blog posts or casual essays. Such easygoing writing styles are informative and bring the reader in by sounding like a friend.

Adverbs have an important role in communication. What I propose today is the role of adverbs in short stories and novels—works of fiction. This is where the rule “Don’t use adverbs” comes into play. The most typical use of adverbs is tied with dialogue. For instance:


You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Felix said angrily.

Now, I’ve already mentioned the use of ‘said’, but where does that leave the adverb ‘angrily’? After all, it tells us how he spoke. It tells us how he spoke—doesn’t show.

What does it show us about his character? All right, he’s angry, but that doesn’t narrow down anything since everyone gets angry. He could be a hot-headed drunk whose wife just confronted him about his drinking:

You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Felix threw his bottle across the room and ignored when it shattered against the wall.

Or he could be a determined detective in the interrogation room as a difficult suspect twists the truth to probe at the detective’s dark past.

You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Felix narrowed his eyes on the suspect in the center of the room, but he forced himself not to uncross his arms and strangle the man.

Anger is an emotion. Everyone responds to emotions differently. Showing the body language of the character through that emotion solidifies that character in the reader’s mind.

Another common use of adverbs is to describe an action such as: He tiptoed quietly into the room. ‘Tiptoed quietly’ is redundant, so the adverb ‘quietly’ is unnecessary. Have you ever tried to tiptoe loudly?

Is there ever a right time to use adverbs?” Of course. There are always exceptions to the rules, but it depends on the context. Just as it is with ‘telling’, you must know which adverbs you are using and why. If you can’t justify it, and if you can easily take it out and the sentence still gets your message across, then the adverb is unnecessary. However, if it is very important to show how a character did something because it intensifies the scene in simple ways, then leave it. Consider this:

Felix hesitated in the doorway of the hospital room then slowly stepped inside the dark room.

In that sentence, I could have taken out ‘slowly’, and the sentence would read fine. However, leaving it in, places an emphasis on the action and hints at his great reluctance to enter the room because he feels responsible for the patient getting harmed in the first place. When an adverb is the only word that can get the message across clearly and simply, then use it.

More on Dialogue Tags

Last time we discussed dialogue tags, and I recommended you replace tags with body language. “What if I just have dialogue—no tags or anything?”

Wait, we’re supposed to meet with the Smith’s today?”

Yeah. Why? Didn’t you get the message?”

What message?”

You see, dialogue is a tricky creature. Wrapped up in it is the pace of the story. How quickly or slowly a character says something reveals a lot about their personality or their thoughts on certain topics. When something (tag or description) surrounds the dialogue, there is a natural pause. However, when dialogue stands alone, it indicates to a quick passage of time in a conversation between characters. This flow of the conversation would be interrupted if body language was inserted. This is how dialogue tags came into existence because they are considered to be ‘invisible’, and they’re brief enough to only tell the reader who said what then move on.

However, as I’ve said previously, tags have been overused. Not all dialogue should be merely lines as I demonstrated above. Such dialogue should be reserved for rapid conversation, but it can be crafted in such a way to show a scene full of tension. Say you have two characters—both of them at a stalemate, and neither are willing to budge. When they converse, they will fire back responses immediately because they know exactly where they stand. However, for the element of tension, little pauses must be inserted as their own line. Consider the following. For this to work, you need to set the scene similarly to having characters in a room standing across from each other, arms crossed and glaring at one another. As long as neither of them moves, the conversation could go something like this.

If you had only done what I said.”

We would be dead then!”

She tilted her head. “You don’t know that.”

Oh really? I’m fairly certain I remember which direction that car was coming when I pushed you out of the way!”

Maybe that was the plan.”

He glared.

I can’t believe you.”

What has happened with today’s writing is everyone has reverted to using one-line dialogue but tag it with ‘said’ for good measure as not to confuse their readers. Pure dialogue has its place in stories, but that place must rediscovered. Just like dialogue tags, you should use pure dialogue sparingly. This forces you to listen to the pace of the conversation and therefore the pace of the story.

“Okay, say I won’t use ‘said’ or ‘asked’, but what if I use tags like ‘begged’, ‘bragged’, ‘cried’, ‘promised’, ‘scolded’, or ‘requested’? Doesn’t that show more?” No—it doesn’t. It’s repetitive. Let me show you:

Example 1: “Please, don’t leave!” she begged him reaching for his hand to stop him from leaving.

Revised: “Please, don’t leave!” She snatched his hand to keep him from leaving.

‘Please’ indicates the plea, and the exclamation point stresses the urgency. Why use a dialogue tag when you can show it using vivid verbs? Here’s another example.

Example 2: “Oh, please, we all know who got the best sharpshooter marks back in the academy,” Joseph bragged as he cocked his sniper rifle then lifted it to rest it against his shoulder. “And it wasn’t you,” he told her.

Revised: “Oh please, we all know who got the best sharpshooter marks back in the academy.” Joseph cocked his sniper rifle then lifted it to rest it against his shoulder. He gave her a smug smile. “And it wasn’t you.”

When you use tags such as ‘bragging’ and ‘begging’, you label the character. To the readers’ eyes and subconscious, that character is proud and boastful because you said he is. There is little room for redemption or surprise in the character because they’ve been stereotyped. However, if you don’t place a label on them, they’re more flexible and fluid. They can surprise you and the reader. That moment of pride or weakness may have been just that—a moment. The character had his reasons for acting that way at that time, and those reasons are for the readers to discover later.

Now, on the topic of using tags such as ‘cried’, ‘whispered’, ‘grunted’, ‘sputtered’, ‘grumbled’—because these are closely tied to body language, they should not be banned altogether. Yet, like everything I’ve been saying, they should be used sparingly. If you set the scene right, and you have two characters sneaking around hoping not to get caught, when they talk, we already know they’ll be whispering. No need to tell us—show us with body language, and maybe even have one character hush the other and tell him to lower his voice. However, if you have a scene out in the open where two characters are talking normally, but suddenly one leans in and whispers, “Whatever you do, don’t look behind you,” that is acceptable because it was unexpected, and the next several lines will likely not be whispered but continued as usual.

So you see, it is fundamental to understand the pacing of your story as well as the environment of the scene. Try to do without tags but rather use body language, and you might surprise yourself.

How ‘Said’ is Redundant

Professors, authors, and editors say tagging dialogue with ‘said’ is all right because it is an invisible word. Dialogue tags merely there to tell you who said what. That may be true, but that has not been my experience. Instead of being invisible to me, any dialogue tag is a massive billboard screaming at me and yanking me out of the story.

The reason is this: a dialogue tag tells you who said what. Notice, I said, “It tells you who said what”—doesn’t show

Let’s break down a piece of dialogue and dissect it:

Let’s go to the store, John,” Anna said.

Said’ implies someone verbally spoke, but did you know having the dialogue tag is redundant? The quotation marks show me the same thing. So we don’t need to know something was said—we already see that.

As for who said it, ‘Anna said’ tells us Anna did, but what does it show you about Anna? What does it show you about her character? What is she doing right now? Where is she? You might think she’s at the front door in her family’s house with keys in hand and ready to go to Wal-Mart to pick up milk—impatient, average, young American woman. What if I told you Anna and John were actually assassins, and the ‘store’ she’s talking about is a weapons shop in town, and she’s going to pick up more ammo before heading out on a job? That paints a completely different picture, doesn’t it? She might be Russian now, and her real name could be Anastasia.

How could you write that same sentence and hint at her real meaning? Here’s a suggestion:

Let’s go to the store, John.” Anna tossed him the keys, which he caught with practiced ease. She remembered he insisted her Russian driving habits would kill them sooner than any bullet, and on this rainy day Anna didn’t want to tempt fate. She wanted to go to the shop, pick up more ammo, then set out on the job.

Sure, it’s longer, but it also shows you more about both characters.

Not every conversation can afford to have lengthy sentences attached to it. Some conversations are short, choppy, and fast. If it’s between only two characters, stick with facial expressions:

You’re late.” John frowned.

Anna arched a brow. “Car trouble.”

Flat tire?”

Hijacking.”

John’s eyes darkened, but Anna smiled.

So what if there are three or more characters in a conversation? Then what?” Good question. If the conversation is natural and not quick-paced, the first option I demonstrated for you works with any number of characters. However, if the scene is an argument, and it is crucial for readers to understand whose opinion is whose, but nobody physically moves in the scene, this is the only time ‘said’ or any dialogue tag should be used. Consider the following:

You have two options.” John placed his palms on the interrogation table and leaned toward their suspect. “Tell us—”

Why should I believe you?”

Because you’ll die otherwise,” Anna said—not moving from her position against the wall with arms crossed.

What about when there is supposed to be a pause in a sentence? Dialogue tags help with the pause.” That’s true, but before you rely on a tag, talk with your character to see if he physically does anything.

Well, you see,” said John, “that’s not going to happen.”

Well, you see…” A smile tugged at the corner of John’s lips. “That’s not going to happen.”

These little moments can be an eye-opener into the character.

Go back through your writing and see what tags you use. Try to take out the tags and replace them with body language. This gives your character a chance to stretch and grow. Of course, there is a need for balance. You don’t want to overuse the same body gesture. Sometimes a tag is best for that moment, but it should be your last resort. Consider investing in a book about body language because there is so much the body says without speaking.

Are dialogue tags absolutely forbidden? No, but we have an overabundant dependency on them. Much like helping verbs from the previous post, we should limit dialogue tags in our writing in order to grow in creativity and craft our writing voice. Once you’ve discovered how to work without dialogue tags, when you absolutely need a tag, you can use it.

One final note: please avoid using ‘ask’ or ‘question’ or even ‘exclaim’. Questions marks (?) and exclamation points (!) exist for a reason. If a sentence inside quotation marks end with one of these, it is repetitive to tag the dialogue as ‘asking’ or ‘exclaiming’.

Let’s Talk About Telling

 “Show—don’t tell.” Everyone focuses on the ‘showing’ part because it is natural to ‘tell’ instead of ‘show’. However, to avoid something, you must know exactly what it is you are to avoid. Being unaware of the boundaries of telling and showing is like swimming in the ocean and pretending there are no great white sharks, humpback whales, and other breathtaking and unimaginable creatures in the depth below you.

What is telling? How can you recognize telling in your own writing? Thankfully telling is easy to identify. Pick up a story—could be yours or anything within reach. Study the sentences. Do they include any of the following words (outside of dialogue)?

Am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being

Have, has, had

Do, does, did

May, might, must

Can, could

Shall, should

Will, would

Said

Except for the last word in the list, all these are helping verbs. They make the passages passive instead of active. In and of themselves, these words are not evil. No need to blacklist them. They exist because they have a purpose and a proper place; we simply need to rediscover that purpose and that place.

When writing anything, you need two ingredients to form a proper sentence: a subject and a verb. In essays, articles, letters, and copy, any form of verbs can be used. However, stories or poetry contain movement to convey the story or the image, and action verbs are best suited for such movement.

Example 1: Mary was walking down the street when she noticed the approaching storm.

Revision: Walking down the street, Mary noticed the approaching storm.

Example 2: It had been a long time since Nathan last spoke with his brother.

Revision: Years passed since Nathan and his brother last spoke.

There are many ways to revise in order to eliminate helping verbs from sentences to make them active rather than passive. It is good exercise, and it stretches your writer’s mind to set such limitations and force yourself to get creative.

Should helping verbs be completely forbidden in novel writing? If only it were that easy, but no. Writing is much more complex than to allow such a simple solution. There are three steps to determine whether to tell a sentence or show it:

          1. try to show it, but if it interrupts the flow of the writing and is awkward then
          2. determine whether the sentence is absolutely necessary. If it is then
          3. write the sentence telling.

The key is being aware of what you are showing and what you are telling.

“When I’m writing, do I have to be so strict and thorough with everything I do?” —short answer: yes. Every word, every sentence, paragraph, and scene must have a meaning to be structured the way it is. If you cannot explain the reason, then it is unnecessary.

Am I giving license for everyone to justify writing errors that are obviously wrong just because they don’t want to go back and fix things? No. A true writer will seek to understand his own reason for writing the way he did and be willing to explain it. “What was your purpose with this?” someone might ask a writer, and if the writer gives an answer, the person might be able to say, “Okay, if that’s what you want, then maybe you should rephrase this because that’s where I get confused.” And the writer should consider this advice.

Later I’ll talk more on how to edit cinemagraphic writing, but first as you begin to write cinemagraphically, I would encourage you to exclude those listed words from your writing. Once you have mastered the ability to show without them, then you can slowly allow those words back into your writing vocabulary.

EXCEPTION: Using helping verbs in dialogue is the only exception. Dialogue is a different creature than narrative, and each character has their own unique voice. If you attempt to eliminate passive voice in dialogue, you run risk of losing your character’s voice altogether.

Next we will discuss the last word on that list—’said’.