Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

10 Tips for Aspiring Writers—Tips 3, 4, and 5

Tip 3: How to Save a Few Bucks by Editing Your Own Work

See #2.

Tip 4: Learn to Handle Criticism

If you can't handle critical feedback, write in a diary/journal. You'll be happier, and so will everyone else.

Good writers take in all the criticism, incorporate what works, and ditch the rest. Bad writers either ignore it all or incorporate it all like a puppet on a string. Neither response will improve a book (except in a few instances where a hack decides to give up writing, I suppose).

And one other thing—learn to recognize the haters, and ignore them. They're not worth it.

Tip 5: Write What You Know

For the love of God, rather than assessing what is "hot" and trying to write a book with that theme (zombies, vampires, time travel, dystopian survival games, etc.), write about something that interests you, that you enjoy (or despise), and that you can actually write about with some feeling and depth. Will it be marketable? Who knows? But it sure as hell will be a better piece of writing.

More to come . . . soon.


It Just Happens Sooo OFTEN

We interrupt your regular programming for this public service announcement.

I know this is talkin' rather than writin', but do you say "often" as "off-un" or as "off-tun"? Seems a lot of folks these days are opting for the latter. The argument, as I've heard it most, is that it has a T in it, so ya hafta pronounce that little bugger.

Uh, OK. I'll think that over tomorrow when I'm using fabric soff-tener on my laundry. Or perhaps I'll add some moist-ener, too. Though to be honest, if I add moist-ener as well as soft-ener, I have trouble fast-ening my belt because of the shrinkage.

But, hey, here's a word that has a hard T, for all you "off-ten" lovers:


Or do you think I'm paying too much OH-MAUGE to those who think language matters?


Words from the Front: 10 Tips for Aspiring Writers—Tip 2—Get an Editor

Tip 2: Have Your Work Edited

There are reasons that most professional editors, when assessing an unseen manuscript, double the estimated time it will take to edit and assume that the manuscript's quality is one to two levels worse than what the author has determined it to be:

1. The biggest reason is that writers are dreamers and tragically optimistic about their own work. As much as established writers almost always question their own work, oddly enough, unestablished writers seem to think anything they write is the cat's meow. I once read that 60% of people believe they are better looking than average, but 80% believe they are smarter than average. It is my personal belief, with nothing but anecdotes to support it, that more than 90% of people think they are better writers than average.

2. Most writers, and the general public, have no idea what editors do, nor (and this is scary if you think about it in terms of book quality) do most of them care. Commonly, folks think that editors are proofreaders and correct typos. Most work of that kind can be done with a good spellchecking program, whereas editors are concerned with grammatical and syntactical errors, and especially concerned with faulty logic, unresolved story arcs, and the like. Even so, I've found that most authors, when a fatal flaw is shown to them, will ignore the feedback and instead ask if all the typos have been found.

3. Because of #2, most writers don't realize that having their [insert name of personal relationship here] read their book is not the same as editing, nor will doing so accomplish more than a small handful of the tasks an editor would typically handle. Sometimes it's even worse, and writers will install themselves as the editor of their own work. Sorry to give you the bad news—when a writer makes changes, it's called rewriting or revising, not editing.

Here's a typical exchange:

Editor: Sounds good. What shape is the manuscript in?
Author: It's in pretty good shape. I've rewritten it two or three times, and my [insert name of biased reviewer here] has edited it twice. A few friends have read it, too, and they all think it's freaking great. In fact, they all love it.
Editor: Well, OK, but what kind of shape would you say it is in?
Author: Probably just needs a quick read-through. Proofreading, typos, that kind of thing.

Assessment: Full line edit. Should have a full manuscript read first to assess whether it has any fatal flaws or glaring errors. Unlikely to need only proofreading.

And another:

Editor: Sounds good. What shape is the manuscript in? Is it finished, and how is it formatted?
Author: It's in Word. I already set up all the margins, and I've read the MS through several times to ensure that there are no errors.
Assessment: Probably littered with errors and the formatting probably includes tabs for every indent, a hard line break at the end of every line, even in the middle of paragraphs, and several dozen spaces before words that need to be centered.

[Hey, don't hate me. I'm just giving you the lowdown, Holmes. This is what happens in the real world.]

And just an aside. If you have published your own work and did not have it edited by a professional, it is glaringly obvious. Believe me when I say it—glaringly. I can read copy for books on Amazon and spot the "self-edited" ones in a few seconds. And so can a lot of other people.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Words from the Front: 10 Tips for Aspiring Writers—Tip 1: Show Don't Tell

Tip 1: Keep It Simple ("Show Don't Tell")

This little phrase gets bandied about like some sort of magic spell, but most people (at least those the message is meant for) seem to have no clue what it means, so I'll have a go. If your sentences comprise multiple adjectives and adverbs (more than a couple), and your paragraphs comprise multiple multiple-adjective/multiple-adverb sentences in series, it's an indicator that you should lose all the descriptors and pick better words.

Rather than

"He walked cautiously, slowly, and scarily down the forlorn, treacherous street lined with scary, creepy characters,"

go for something like

"He shuffled his feet, hesitated, and then traversed the avenue lined with ne'er-do-wells."

The picture is the same, but the lack of clutter in the second version allows the reader to better visualize the scene. The first is overly descriptive, but with ambiguous and general words that convey little but take up a lot of space that could be freed or replaced with additional information. Don't see it? OK, let's dissect a bit more:

"He walked cautiously, slowly, and scarily": this tells us how the character feels rather than letting his actions convey his emotional state. The alternative phrasing tells us what he's doing, but we are left to determine why.

More specifically:
  • "walked cautiously" can be replaced by a more-descriptive phrase such as "halting steps," "shuffling feet," or "nervous shuffle."
  • "slowly" is redundant if a properly descriptive word is used. All the examples, including "cautiously," have the concept of slow built into them. 
  • "scarily" is nonsensical in this context. This is a common descriptor error—the character is not doing the scaring; he's scared. Not to mention that, again, if the right words are used, the concept of scared is already embedded. 
  • "forlorn"—poor word choice, as this word typically describes a living being rather than an inanimate object such as a street (in this case)
  • "treacherous"—probably OK, though describing the characters lining the street would convey treachery without having to state it explicitly.
  • "street"—maybe avenue, thoroughfare, boulevard, alley?
  • "scary" and "creepy" and "characters"—throwaway words that rarely convey much unique meaning. We already know that they are characters; some other word, any other word, would be better here. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Words from the Front: 10 Random Tips for Aspiring Writers

Today I'm going to begin a 10-point discourse covering a few general points about writing, probably pissing a few people off in the process. As an editor, I've seen just about everything. But one two things never changes—(1) most writers make the same errors again and again, and (2) I will always love and overuse the em dash.

But my acerbic rants may be better than the alternative—I could give you the same sugarcoated pablum spewed by the authors of many other articles about writing. There you get general tips that aren't actionable unless you already understand the technical aspects of the error being discussed. Most of these articles, in addition to being part of the Internet's great copy-and-past machine, throw out superficial cliches but don't get into the details that might communicate concepts effectively. And second, they always seem to end with some feel-good nonsense that tells you how wonderful you are, even if your writing sucks. But I won't be doing that here, so brace yourself.

Whew. Now that that's out of the way . . .

It seems you can't throw a dead cat these days without hitting a writer. Don't believe me? Next time someone asks you what you do for a living, just tell them you're an editor, or even better a publisher, and you'll soon find that everyone has written a book, is writing a book, is thinking about writing a book, or is thinking about thinking about writing a book.

These fledgling auteurs fall into three camps (three being the magic number for a series):
  1. Really good writers who've finally gotten around to writing their great novel, children's book, guidebook, etc.
  2. Marginally good writers with decent stories to tell, but who suffer from redundancy, flat storytelling, etc.
  3. Bad writers with questionable stories that are mostly about either (a) themselves (e.g., memoirs by people we've never heard of, detailing a life that could be used as an encyclopedic entry for the term "ordinary") or (b) whatever the current "flavor of the month" is in terms of genre (think YA paranormal romance against a backdrop of zombie apocalypse). The common thread in both cases is that these authors think in terms of themselves and their need to "share" their story with the world without considering whether readers will recognize or care about the story or characters. I suppose a third category would be those who combine Sins (a) and (b) into one huge Sin-Si. 
In my experience, those in Group 1 are the most receptive to criticism and improving their writing—those in Group 3 the least.

In dishing out "help" to all these knowledge-starved (there's a bit of irony in that phrase, as we'll see) scriveners, what do the Interwebs tell them to do? Write more, read more, learn your craft, blah, blah, blah. But mostly they tell them:

"Hey, you're a good writer."

"Don't listen to those who say your writing blows."

"It's just a matter of time before you're finally discovered and your greatness is worshipped like a golden idol on Mount Vesuvius." 

This is akin to giving everyone in a potato-sack race a gold medal at the finish (even little Jimmy who fell down at the beginning, cried like a little loser, and never even finished the race because he preferred to cry to get attention, which all the parents and classmates doled out in the spirit of narcissism that now rules the day cloaked in the lingerie of utopian sameness and democracy).

But in the interest of tough love and providing a different perspective, I'd like to go out on a limb and propose something else to discouraged writers everywhere, an idea that seems to get short shrift by those in the business of selling crap (or who are just too lazy to come up with any new ideas):

"Your writing may simply suck, and no amount of work on your part will change it. Now move on with your life." 

Brutal, huh? Welcome to the real world. No pussyfooting around here. I'm not trying to sell you an all-inclusive publishing package for 20 large (google Author Solutions if you want one of those—but DON'T), so perhaps my motivations are a bit purer.

But wait, Brent. Just like I don't know what "flavor of the month" I should choose as my preferred genre, I have no idea whether or not my writing sucks . Without a whole manuscript review, how might I tell? (Tip #1—lose the "or not" after "whether"; and Tip #2—you may need to get a professional manuscript review, with "professionals" generally denoting people other than relatives, friends, children, parents, siblings, etc.)

Even though it requires that I violate one of my loose "rules" of blogging—don't write silly "top ## things blah blah blah"—I'm going to give y'all a list for determining if (a) you are doing the things you should be doing to become a better writer; (b) you have the fortitude to do the things needed to become a better writer; and (c) your writing sucks. All for the greater good.

The ten tips in these posts cover some general areas of writing, whereas future posts will deal with the finer points (the great arcana, as it were).
Tip #1 can be found here!


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Words from the Front—Introduction

Gentle Readers,

So now we embark upon a new and wondrous experiment—blogging about writing.

Some of you will undoubtedly say that I have blogged about writing countless times. True, but mostly to criticize or ridicule those most pompous yet incorrect in their communicational choices.

No, this new blog topic will address the most common errors writers tend to make (they vary a bit by genre, but most are universal). But rather than just poke fun, I'll break down (1) what's wrong and why; (2) ways to verify that the first assertion is correct; (3) how to correct the mistake; and (4) some ways to avoid the problem in the future.

Virtually all of the material will be either stuff I make up or lines I cull from elsewhere—which I choose will be determined by (1) relevance, (2) expositional value (i.e., how well it communicates the point being discussed, and (3) how funny it is (hey, I didn't say I would never criticize).

Why? And why now?

Let's start with the second question. I now have enough data from projects I've worked on that I believe they are statistically valid. And enough people follow my blog that I thought perhaps I should give them something they can actually use.

During a few years of editing the work of others, I've been privileged to see the good, the bad, the ugly, and the absolutely gruesome in terms of writing. Because of this, I'm better positioned than most to know what errors crop up again and again in writing. And I feel that I can use some of this knowledge to create real-world examples to help writers become better at, well, writing.

In keeping with using examples that I hope will be relevant and identifiable, I'm also planning to keep the professional lingo to a minimum. I'm not going to waste your time or mine discussing participles and gerunds and case unless doing so is likely to make a concept easier to understand. Plenty of sites and books already exist to teach English and writing in a way that is laborious, inundated with technical explanations that would mostly be understand only by those who already know what is wrong with a particular phrase or sentence, frustrating, and boring. Using terms like "prenominative" are only helpful if you know what they mean—I'll try to stick with things like "if the word in question occurs before the word it modifies." I know—more words, but easier to understand, methinks.

Although in my profession it's imperative that one knows the why for a particular grammatical or syntactical point, that's not the case for writers. Don't get me wrong; it's tremendously helpful for one to learn the finer points of English (or any language). But if you had to choose between technical knowledge and writing ability, which would you choose? I've always said it's better to be a great writer who can't necessarily explain everything about writing, rather than a bad writer with great knowledge that you're unable to communicate.

A few other posts:

"Comma Chameleon is write around the corner, so to speak.