Grammer Is a Must-But Forget That English Teacher Writing!

To end the year, I thought I would bring back one of my favorite blogs. Humor me 🙂

I wasn’t an English major, but I never had an issue with stringing words together and making a coherent, easy to read sentence. I know most of the rules, but I also know those rules are meant to be broken, especially if you are writing fiction.

The purpose of English Teacher grammar is to understand how to create sanitized, standardized, easy to understand, impersonal, inoffensive writing. If you’re looking for a job writing pamphlets for the government, instructional manuals, or news reports, then that’s the way to go.

These rules aren’t meant for fiction. That does not mean your story shouldn’t be grammatically and structurally sound. We are talking about styles here, not mechanics.

Fiction writing is nonstandardized, complex, personal, and occasionally offensive. It is the best way to reach into your readers head and show him your words. In order to bring your voice to life and get your world on the page, you need to say goodbye to English Teacher writing.

Fiction Writing Vs. English Teacher Writing

Fiction Writing fits the world of the book, the mouths of the characters, and the writer who wrote it. English Teacher Writing incorporates a specific, caricatured, extreme form of writing without regard to the story’s world, characters, or even the writer and what he or she is like.

Fiction Writing changes with the situation.                                                                                          English Teacher Writing is unchanged.

Fiction Writing does not look to impress, its sole purpose is to present the story.                              English Teacher Writing is self-conscious, self-important, and looks and feels forced and out right silly at times.

Fiction Writing is not always pretty, but it always fits the circumstances, characters, and story.          English Teacher Writing is always pretty and always smooth, but rarely fits anything.

Example:

Fiction Writing

“Get away! Don’t touch me! Leave me alone!” The girl in the alley curled into a tighter ball, her scarred, skinny arms pulling her knees up against her chest, her eyes white-rimmed, her hair wild.

English Teacher Writing

“Get away from me! Don’t lay a hand on me! Leave me alone!” The girl in the alley, already in a fetal position, pulled her knees tighter to her chest. she wore an expression of dazed panic, and radiated the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

-Jan R

Grammer Is a Must-But Forget That English Teacher Writing!

Don’t Forget the Details!

Writing fiction can be fun. You get to create your own world with your own characters and you can take your story anywhere you want to go. Right?

Well, that statement is true to a certain degree. You do have a lot of leeway but keep in mind your story has to make sense. It has to be believable to your readers. That’s where research comes in. Your plot may be fictitious but your details had better be correct.

Anachronisms-details out of place and time can break a reader’s suspension of disbelief if they notice the error. If for example, a character in ancient Egypt consults his watch, a reader would instantly be drawn out of the story and roll his eyes. That is an extreme example but I think it helps you get the point.

There’s no excuse for anachronisms or lack of detail.  Once you know what you are writing about, immerse yourself in the subject. If you want to write about the police, you do a ride along or shadow a precinct. If your novel takes place in a school, interview teachers or volunteer.

You can also use social media to learn about people and places, by watching videos or listening to interviews.  My novel is set primarily in the Carolinas but my main character is deployed to Afghanistan for a short period of time. I’ve never been to Afghanistan and have no intention of ever going there.  For that short but important segment of my book, I watched a documentary with actual footage, interviewed someone who had been at camp leatherneck, and read pages set up on the internet by marines returning from the area. I found the information I needed to make that portion of my story believable through research.

It is always best to set your novels in cities that you know.  A good example of this would be Nicholas Sparks. His books are set in North Carolina. That’s where he lives. He understands the culture and can provide the details his readers expect.

One word of caution is to remember your research and detail are the seasoning for the story, don’t make them center stage. Resist the urge to show off how much research you have done. You don’t want to overwhelm your readers with unnecessary information.

Something to think about!

-Jan R

Don’t Forget the Details!

Create Suspense! – Revisited

I’m trying a little experiment this morning. I wrote what I thought was a really good blog on suspense, and I got very few hits. I decided the issue was the title. So for those who read this blog under the ineffective title, I apologize. For those who are reading this blog for the first time, I hope it helps. The title does matter, but that discussion is for another day.

If you want your reader to continue reading, you have to give them a reason why. Draw them in and keep them guessing. The number one weapon in your arsenal to accomplish this feat is the use of suspense.

If you’ve done a good job of developing a character your reader cares about, they are going to hang on to make sure things work out in the end.

There are four main ways to create suspense.

  1. Put the outcome in doubt. Keep your reader guessing. It could end one way, but it could end another. This works best if your reader has a strong connection with the main character.
  2. Make them wait. Don’t show your hand up front. Don’t resolve issues right away. Present the conflict and then take your time presenting a resolution.
  3. Foreshadowing. Hint at what’s to come without sharing the details. Twilight used this technique by opening with the end minus all the details of how and why.
  4. Use a clock. The main character has a limited amount of time to accomplish a task. Will he/she find succeed or fail.

You can mix and match these techniques. You are not limited in your choice. An example would be opening with foreshadowing in the first paragraph and then adding the use of a clock at the end.

Something to think about.

-Jan R

Create Suspense! – Revisited

Narrative Vs. Exposition – They’re Not The Same! – Revisited

I remember when I first started taking my writing seriously. I did a lot of research and read a lot of information on how to write a publishable novel. Somewhere along the way, I missed the part were narrative and exposition were not the same. As a matter of fact, I used the two interchangeably.

In response to one of my earlier blogs, a fellow blogger commented that she thought I was wrong in reference to a statement I had made concerning exposition and narrative. She, of course, was right, and as a result, I took a closer look at these two concepts.

Narrative

  • Narrative is your voice as the writer sharing information with your readers.
  • It tells the writer instead of shows.
  • Narrative lets you set the scene and give background information.
  • Used for transitions, it moves the reader from one scene to another.
  • It slows the pace.

Exposition

  • Exposition provides the detached, third-party perspective on a story.
  • Shows the reader what is happening, doesn’t tell them.
  • Uses description to inform and move the story forward.
  • Exposition gives the reader more information, more emotion, and helps with active scenes by quickening the pace.
  • Allows us to hear character thoughts.

In a nutshell, narrative is telling, exposition is showing. I found the following example during my research and thought it did a good job of showing what I am trying to explain.

Exposition: Brian stopped and reached into his pants pocket. He pulled out a lighter. Then, he reached into his lapel pocket for his pack of cigarettes and took one out. He placed the cigarette between his lips, cupped his hands, and lit it. After putting his lighter back in his pants pocket, he resumed walking.

Narration: Brian stopped to light a cigarette and resumed walking.

So much info on this subject. It still can be confusing, and it seems everyone has a different opinion. I would encourage you to do your own homework and think twice about using the two concepts interchangeably. They are not the same.

Something to think about.

-Jan R

Narrative Vs. Exposition – They’re Not The Same! – Revisited

Build Tension!!!

I love Writer’s Digest. If you’re a serious writer, you should consider subscribing to the magazine. They have great articles from published authors that cover a multitude of subjects-related to writing of course 🙂

I recently picked up a copy of one of my older publications and reread an article by Jordan Rosenfield on building tension, or I guess I should say, quick tips for infusing scenes with tension.

Dramatic tension relies on the reader’s knowledge that something is about to go down – but the details for how or when have yet to be revealed. To create it, you must:

  • Thwart your protagonist’s goals and delay satisfaction.
  • Include unexpected changes without immediate explanation.
  • Shift power back and forth.
  • Throw in a piece of plot information that changes or alters your protagonist.
  • Create a tense atmoshpere through setting and senses.

Tension keeps the reader waiting with baited breath, wondering if the protagonist is going to survive, find love, or achieve his/her goal.

Remember tension keeps your reader turning the page.

Something to think about.

– Jan R

Build Tension!!!

What’s Your Favorite Overused Word?

On more than one occasion I have declared my love affair with the word ‘had’. When you use a word so many times it jumps off the page, you have a problem. It doesn’t matter if the word is used correctly or not. You need to find another way to write the sentence without using ‘the word’. In my case, that word is ‘had’.

What’s wrong with using the word ‘had’ over and over, besides making it an awkward read?

  • If you are using ‘had’ a lot, odds are you have a lot of backstory/info dumping going on, because ‘had’ specifically details things that happened before the current action. In some circumstances, that can seem dull, or like the focus is in the wrong place. Why spend so much time on something that’s not happening right now?
  • Using ‘had’ too much can also indicate you are telling vs. showing.
  • ‘Had’ is also rather formal. People rarely say, “He had put on weight”. – They say, “He’d put on a bit of weight.” or “He was looking fatter.”
  • If it’s overused to the point that it becomes noticeable to the reader. It is bad.

For this blog, I’m focusing on ‘had’ because it’s a problem word for me. Most of us have them. They could be words like but, although, because, however, that, and if you’re writing dialogue–so(another one of my favorites that I know to look out for 🙂

To a certain extent, this is a matter of style. A lot of writers have these little tics. You may find a turn of phrase that you fall in love with, or it may be a word that carries over from the way you speak. It becomes a problem when the word is used so often your reader notices.

Recognizing that you use a particular word frequently, is the first step to improving your writing. Make some adjustments, but don’t get bogged down for a half hour trying to decide if ‘your word’ is really necessary.

The best time to work on these tics is after you’ve written a chunk of prose. Go back through and look for your problem word. You can use the find feature on your computer (Usually ctrl-F or command-F). As you review, check to see if the ‘word’ is really necessary. Read the sentence leaving the ‘word’ out. I think you’ll be surprised at the number of times it actually reads better without the ‘word’. If you have to, rewrite the entire sentence and get rid of the overused word.

Food for thought. I bet I’m not alone in my love affair with certain words 🙂

-Jan R

What’s Your Favorite Overused Word?

Write What You Mean-Be Concise!

Are you writing what you mean? Is your prose concise and easy to understand? You may have one thing in mind when you write that sentence, only to discover it’s ambiguous, misleading, and sometimes quite humorous.

Dangling modifier- When a sentence  isn’t clear about what’s being modified it dangles. Keep in mind modifiers should be near what they modify. These are probably my favorite messed up sentences. While I hope I haven’t written or submitted any for publishing, I’m sure I’ve dangled a few in my time. They are confusing, but on the bright side, very funny.                                                                                                    The company’s refrigerator held microwavable lunches for 18 employees frozen in the top compartment.

Misplaced modifier- A phrase or clause placed awkwardly in a sentence so that it appears to modify or refer to an unintended word.                                                                                                                                                              Lex called to talk about the meeting yesterday. Did Lex call yesterday or was the meeting yesterday? I’m confused.

Ambiguous writing– It’s not spelled out. You didn’t provide enough information for your reader to understand what you were trying to say. Ambiguous writing can leave your reader more confused than a misplaced modifier .               My older students know I say what I mean. Are the student’s older in age or have they just been in his class a lot longer? It could mean either of the two.

Make sure you are saying what you mean. Be concise!

Something to think about.

-Jan R

Write What You Mean-Be Concise!

Sentences-Long Or Short?

Have you ever read a sentence and thought that is way too long? The author lost you two commas ago, and now you have to go back and read the whole thing again to try and figure out what’s going on.

Or maybe you read a short sentence, followed by another short sentence, and another, and you’re thinking whoa, slow down.

There’s not a set rule for short or long. The sentence length you choose depends a lot on what you are trying to accomplish. There are good reasons for those long, lost me a long time ago sentences, and short, what just happened sentences. It’s up to you to decide when to use them, given the context of your writing.

What do short sentences do?

  • Create tension-When an author starts using short sentences, it’s usually a sign that something is about to happen.—-The dog growled. His teeth flashed. Jake turned. It was too late.
  • Call the attention of a reader to a significant detail—She walked past Central Park in Manhattan with her head held high. Gorgeous woman. Long blond hair. Blue eyes. Impeccable taste.
  • Present sudden events-Out-of-the-blue actions that no one was expecting.—-We sat quietly enjoying our meal at the local fast-food restaurant. Boom! “What was that?” I turned to see people rushing toward the gas station up the street.
  • Summarize the ideas presented in the long paragraph or sentence.

What do long sentences do?

  • Develop tension-While the short sentence is imminent, culminating with the actual event being acted out, the long sentence adds to the suspense, hinting at a situation in the process of developing.
  • Give vivid description-depicting a setting, love scene, or someone’s appearance.—Autumn came without special invitation coloring the trees in orange, yellow and red, whispering the cold in our ears and hiding the warm sun rays from our eyes.
  • Investigates arguments, ideas, or facts thoroughly.

Although long sentences have the smell of the old-fashioned 19th-century romantic prose, the usage of the long sentence in modern creative writing has its place. When it comes to writing artistic literature, fairy tales, ghost stories, or mysteries, don’t underestimate the effects of short sentences.

Hope this didn’t confuse you too much. To sum it up, there’s a time and place for everything 🙂

-Jan R

Sentences-Long Or Short?

Do You Have Unrealistic Expectations?

You’re an aspiring author. Your ultimate goal is to find a great agent and get published. Who doesn’t want to be the author of that blockbuster book/movie of the year with a million-dollar payout?

Newbies have a tendency to set unrealistic expectations. I’m not saying you won’t achieve your goal, but odds are, you’re going to have to start at the bottom and work your way up like the rest of us.

I’m not trying to discourage you. You can do this. I’m just trying to help you set realistic goals. I want you to be prepared not only for successes but the failures that you will most likely incur along the way.

There are some things you can and should be doing as you build your platform and prepare that first novel for publishing.

  1.  Get your life out of the way. You don’t have control over everything that goes on around you. We all have situations that arise. Don’t allow them to impede your daily writing time.
  2.  Find a trusted friend or spouse who will listen and respond intelligently. You need a cheerleader/an accountability partner.
  3. Until you become successful, write in one genre. Once you’ve achieved success, you can spread your wings and venture into different areas.
  4.  Don’t be picky about where you get published initially. Use your experience and publications to build on new ones. You will get there.
  5.  Learn what’s selling. You want to cater to your customers.
  6.  Develop tough skin. You will probably hear a lot of things you don’t want to hear. Everybody has an opinion. Let it roll off your back!
  7. If a bad review holds merit, adjust your writing and admit your mistakes. This is a learning process. You won’t get everything right the first time.
  8. Don’t give up! The number one characteristic of successful authors is as you probably guessed, they’re persistent. Don’t allow a bad review or hateful word to get in your way.

Some things to think about 🙂

-Jan R

Do You Have Unrealistic Expectations?

Underlying Elements

Yes, I have written about this before, but these elements are important and deserve a second look. There are four main dramatic elements to your novel. You probably never thought about it, but if you did it right, they are there. If they’re missing, you need to revisit your work and make some adjustments.

That’s one of the nice things about writing. Nothing is set in stone, and when equipped with time and knowledge, you can change anything.

So back to the blog and the elements that I was referring to.

  1. Passion – yours not the Novels. Write something that you are passionate about. If you’re not passionate, it will come through. What’s important to you?  What are you trying to get across? What do you want to be the takeaway?
  2. Theme – what your reader takes away from reading your story.  Yes, the theme and passion can be the same thing and probably are in a great many cases. Examples of theme would be, belief in yourself or all things work for the good of those who serve the Lord. 
  3. Flaws – your character must have flaws. They don’t have to be exaggerated or grotesque but face it, nobody is perfect. Talk about a boring read. The flaw could be as simple as a lack of confidence or the inability to put the past behind them.  The character doesn’t have confidence,  so the theme would probably be, believe in yourself. Note how they can work hand in hand and build on each other.
  4.  Premise – What if a (flawed character)(encounters some problem) and had to (overcome the flaw) to (solve the problem). You know your story. Fill in the blanks. Does it make sense? Is it enthralling or boring?

One of the things that the agent wrote to me after rejecting my work, was I had a great premise. It was a silver lining to a dark cloud that sprung up after the initial shock of being rejected. And while I thought the passion and theme were there, my characters were not flawed, which means that my passion and theme were probably weak.

Something to think about.

-Jan R

Underlying Elements