Active Language

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Active Writing (Part 2): Active Language (Grammar, sentence structure, linguistics)

To recap: I look for active writing—the life of a novel—on three distinct levels: 1. Voice, 2. Language and, 3. Plot.

I’ll keep this simple, for both your sake and mine. If you need a grammar lesson, we’re both in the wrong place.

But, in the English language (as compared to, say, Kayabi, and whatever Yoda spoke), the simplest way to invoke energy and emotion into sentence structure is typically: Subject (S) + Verb (V) + Object (O).

Thus (SVO): John kissed Mary.

John (S) + kissed (V) + Mary (O). Or else: Laura (S) + killed (V) + the snake (O).

As opposed to Mary was kissed by John. Or, The snake was killed by Laura. Or even more heinously passive: It was the snake that was killed by Laura.

By rearranging the sentence structure to the less energetic Object + Verb + Subject (OVS), the writer’s placing the action’s instigator at the end of the sentence and slightly altering the emphasis. And in longer, more complex sentences, both nuance and structure can become uncomfortably apparent. You’re also clogging your story with extremely passive verbs; “was” and “were;” unnecessary prepositions, pronouns, articles and the so-called “little” phrases (e.g.; it would, that were, of the, by which). Such utterly unexciting placeholders act as a buffer between words and action.

For instance, a subtle but distinct difference exists between: Prince Clarion crushed the giant orc’s head and The head of the giant orc was crushed by Prince Clarion. While both structural formats can and will ultimately co-exist in your novel, play with the most active structure first. This is especially important in scenes of passion, action, high tension or terror.

Rule #6: The Jumping Cow Rule (Active vs. Passive Voice). I learned this tenet once upon a time in Eng. Lit. 101. This simple, sage advice has kept Prince Clarion blissfully crushing orcs’ heads ever since:

ActiveThe cow jumped over the moon.
PassiveThe moon was jumped over by the cow.
Bad passiveIt was the moon that was jumped over by the cow.*

An active/passive correction can be as simple as choosing a more active verb, or as complex as restructuring a sentence. For instance:

Uninspired but acceptable: The moon was bright.
Better: The moon burned brightly.
Or even the more elaborate: The full moon blazed with an intensity that illuminated the village in an intense, chalky sheen.

Because once a writer can identify the difference between active and passive writing, one seldom returns to the excruciatingly mundane.

While I doubt any author can (or should) write an entire novel strictly using SVO sentence structure, I do suggest keeping this grammatical sequence as a staple tool for active writing. And, no, simply because Hemingway frequently used passive voice, you may not. And, no, because David Foster Wallace did so in present tense—“I am this” and “I am that”—you may not. “It was…” is glaringly overused in modern fictive writing. More often than not, excessive passive voice is a sign of tired writing. Meaning your brain’s full. Put down your pencil. Take a walk. Take a nap. Clean the house. Because most “it” usage can transmogrify into far more descriptive prose. Occasionally, it fits such sentence structure may suffice your needs, but most often, it does not your words can be easily rearranged with far more passion and creativity.

A good many novice writers (and even published pro’s) can occasionally slip into a steady flow of passivity. Be on the constant lookout for:

It was a dark and stormy night. Linda was sleeping. There was a noise that awakened her with a start. What was that? she wondered. Was somebody standing outside her door. Was it her husband, Teddy? It was because she didn’t know that she tiptoed to the door. There was only silence beyond the door. Linda was scared and we, dear reader, are ready to close this book forever.

So look closely for any steady stream of passive sentence structure beginning with tired phraseology: It was, They were, There was—and the dreaded It was because…. Each of these sentences can be actively rearranged (and the more you begin to do so, the easier such restructuring becomes).

I’ve occasionally come upon an interesting side-effect of passive language. If a writer twists and contorts various, meaningless phrases long and hard enough, the words sometimes almost sound correct. In fact, a writer may even be convinced that such lavish flow of language sounds positively Shakespearean. But this style of writing is roughly akin to spritzing a pig in expensive French perfume. He may smell nice for awhile, but you still won’t want to kiss him.

For example, this sentence still smells like a pig: “Of that substance to which Richard was most disinclined ever to confront, he promised himself never again to touch it to his lips.”

Keep your message simple. What’s the idea you’re trying to impart here? Basically, it’s that: Richard hated chocolate, right?

So how might one say that creatively, and yet without losing your basic premise? How about: Richard couldn’t understand the world’s love affair with chocolate. On his tongue, the candy oozed like motor oil, and tasted, to his best perception, like dirty butter.

A simple thought, distinctly perceived, clearly transmitted. Active, not passive.

– – – – –

* Exceptions always exist, BTW. You’ll eventually find this particular phraseology a perfect fit for your needs and, by all means, use it. However, if you find yourself using this grammatical gremlin as a basic structural pattern—then no, you’re not infusing sufficient excitement into your writing. You’re using passive language way too often. And no, Muse Harbor will probably not publish you.

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Active Voice

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Active Writing (Part 1): Active Voice

When I’m editing a work of fiction, I look for active writing—the life of a novel—on three distinct levels: 1. Voice, 2. Language and, 3. Plot.

Active writing… the antithesis of passive writing. Friends who write and creative writing teachers, editors and agents, publishers and critics and helpful relatives at Thanksgiving dinner—they’re always imploring us to “Write active, not passive.” So what part of the creative writing process—voice, style or composition—should continually sparkle with activity?

The answer is: Yes, yes and yes. All of the above.

As writers, we should strive to constantly, continually push a character toward conflict, or else pull her away again. Rule #8: Keep characters in motion—either rushing toward action or retreating  again. For instance:

We’re either pushing our lovers toward everlasting happiness, or else dragging them away, toward the heartbreak of loneliness.

We’re pushing our swashbuckling adventurer toward finding that buried treasure, or wrenching her away again, thwarted by a shipwreck or a raging storm or a bout of cholera.

We’re pushing an intrepid bands of  Hobbit toward Mount Doom, or dragging them away (…again and again and again and again).

Or think of such continual movement this way: A novel is like an aardvark, a living creature that must both inhale and exhale. Both actions are equally as important to survival. Pushing forward is a fictive inhalation: plot driven, visually stimulating and action-oriented. Pulling away is fictive exhalation: Character-oriented; an emotional, thoughtful, psychological or spiritual response.

For instance:

Inhale: A thousand snarling, brain-craving zombies lurch through a dark tunnel, hungry for you and your family. At the other end, you find the tunnel hopelessly blocked! But, wait! You discover a service hatch! While you all scramble safely through that well-placed emergency exit, Aunt Mildred trips over her shoelaces, falls and gets munched. (An inhalation scene is typically visually rich and plot-oriented. A battle. A hot romance. A mystery revealed. A chase. A munched aunt.)

Exhale: Sobbing afterwards, you and your family mourn poor Aunt Mildred. Still, for the moment you’re safe and sound! Time for a nap. (An exhalation scene is typically informational and character-oriented; poignant or empathetic, revealing or mysterious. An important conversation, an inner monologue. A nap.)

But, wait! Suddenly you remember that your late Aunt Mildred had been carrying your only map to the Zombie-Free Safety Zone? Without that map, you’re toast. Overhead, thunder rumbles ominously. Time to push forward toward unknown horrors. Time for another deep inhalation!

See a pattern developing? As writers, if we’re not constantly pushing or pulling, inhaling or exhaling, we’re miring the plot, our characters, in mundanity. Passive Writing (as opposed to Active Writing) is pretty much total exhalation. Ask an aardvark to exhale continually for 300 pages and what happens? Right. Dead as a door nail.

Another crucial element of Active Writing? Remember the age-old, somewhat obtuse and often marginalized basic fiction-writer’s adage: Show, Don’t Tell? Yes, the axiom remains a valid reminder to allow readers to emotionally experience (rather than simply observe) your story. New writers often overtly auto-focus on plotting—that is, in getting the reader from here to there, and ultimately do so as quickly as possible, and with very little sense of style, wit and panache. In that relentless drive to write a ‘complete’ plot, those same writers forget about those equally important attributes: scene-setting and character-development.

Simply put, Show, Don’t Tell is a reminder to stop and smell the roses along the way. Meaning… show the reader the gleam of the diamond, the glint of hard steel, the fragrance of new blossoms in the spring—and not simply tell us, it’s a rock, it’s a sword, it was warm.

When showing, not telling (essentially, using a passive, not active voice), the writer’s relying on a bare-bones, superficial sort of prose. Repetitive, inclusive passive voice produces very little excitement. Active voice greatly enhances a book’s enthusiasm and exuberance.
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Exciting, But Simple

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Exciting, But Simple.

I’m not sure if there’s a sage in the world who can teach the secrets of exciting writing. If they can’t, I certainly can’t either.

Those same sages likely can’t define those various elements that ultimately define a truly thrilling novel. By exciting, understand that I’m not speaking about a constant barrage of chills and spills, page after page after page. It’s not a roller-coaster rush of excitement, not a thunder and lightning kind of excitement, but rather a writer’s ability to whisk a reader away to another realm or reveal the depths of a fictional human being—your readers unable to put the book down until the final word of the last page. Exciting novels can be told in a whisper; can be written without the stench of death or the horror of mass destruction; without a single tear drop or belly laugh or even a boffo, surprisingly twisted last page that defies the reader’s expectation.

Excitement is a combination of developing a witty and engaging style, an active (not passive) voice (see Active Voice and Show, Don’t Tell), and the ability to tell a complete story. Excitement is in the eye of the beholder after all. And, in my opinion, excitement simply means your ability to prompt readers to, without hesitation, turn to the next page. If I knew the secret formula every time I sat down to write, I’d own the New York Times Best Seller List.

I do not.

I do happen to believe that writers, like ball players, concert cellists and chess masters, are born into this world fully equipped with the ability to succeed. Some will never have the chance or the perseverance to fully explore or hone our true talents. Others will spill blood, sweat and tears, but never catch that lucky break. (Sorry, yeah, it’s about luck, too.) Sometimes, good writers simply encounter bad timing. Or the wrong agent, or editor, or the wrong publisher. And don’t think I haven’t lost a sleepless night or two fretting about that last quandary. I have.

And sometimes, the most diligent of souls, the sweetest of people, simply aren’t creative or technically skilled enough. Almost, but not quite. The world is filled with manuscripts, piled high in milk crates crammed into back corners of countless closets. As my grandmother used to say, “You can’t make a Ferrari out of a Studebaker.”

She’s right. But the biggest tragedy is never knowing. Never trying. The world may indeed be overladen with Studebakers pretending to be Ferraris, but I suspect the world also has its fair share of idling Ferraris, glumly assuming they’re Studebakers. These are the writers who’ll never allow themselves the chance to experience themselves flying balls out down that literary speedway of life. And that’s a shame.

As hopeful authors, most of us are capable of crafting and honing our mechanical abilities—we can read creative writing books, we can study language and craft and attend workshops—we’re able to eventually intuit a noun from a verb. Because a writer can learn the simple stuff. But you can’t learn what can’t be taught. You can’t learn writing excitement.

So when I talk about excitement, I’m talking about a writer’s ability to create an individual style, that unique blend of panache and enthusiasm and articulation. Style can’t be bought or taught or handed down, generation to generation. Nobody taught Picasso Cubism. Nobody taught Babe Ruth to hit homers. Nobody taught Einstein to think. They each had it in ’em, all along.

If you have it—and Tom Wolff would call it the right stuff—good for you. Aim for the center field bleachers. If you don’t have it, you’ll discover that soon enough and move on. Ninety-five percent of wannabe fiction writers move on, and often to even greater endeavors. Ain’t no shame in crossing off write a novel from your bucket list, before skiing the Alps or designing a home or discovering cold fusion.

So… do I have advice for those of you attempting to determine your own stylistic prowess? (Does a goose have paté?) I can offer a few suggestions to flint that spark, to perhaps ignite something inside that might never extinguish.

Suggestion #1. New to fiction writing? Overwhelmed by the concept of writing 350 pages end-to-end? Unsure of your own abilities or talent or stamina? Start with smaller bites. Write a short story. Write an idea. Write a slice of life—a simple scene, a simple page with no beginning or no end—with no other agenda than pure enjoyment. Write for yourself. Make yourself smile. If that works… write another page. If you find yourself pouring out your soul, or simply amusing yourself with your own creative genius, perhaps you’re onto something. But writing a novel is kinda like giving birth. Give it time. Give it room. If you start pushing too hard at three months you’ll only hurt yourself, and the kid’ll be thinking WTF, mom?

Suggestion #2. Chances are, if you’re a writer, you’re also a reader. As a reader, what excites you? When I write, I keep a favorite novel on my desk and, most mornings before I begin working, I pick a random page and begin to read. Sometimes I read a few paragraphs, sometimes a few pages. I read until I’m filled with awe and appreciation and amazement that, yeah, that’s great stuff. And I can do it too.

By reading snippets, I’m not suggestion that you emulate a writer’s style or content—my attempt isn’t to plagiarize substance or verbiage—I’m simply trying to jump start my own creative juices by absorbing another writer’s creative juices. It’s the literary equivalent of a Vulcan Mind-Meld.

Suggestion #3. Concentrate on dialogue. If not on quantity, then on quality. The eyes may be the portal to the soul (as the poets like to say), but in fiction, dialogue is the portal to a character’s soul. (See Dialogue.) I personally believe dialogue to be the single most important asset to a unique voice. Try writing a few pages of dialogue; two people simply talking to each other. No other modifiers (i.e.; he said sweetly, or she chuckled insanely.) Simply two voices. Don’t think about it—just begin a dialogue. You might be amazed at how spontaneous (again, as in don’t think about it) you’ll find a situation (no matter how irrelevant) developing. For instance (and with zero contemplation) here’s my brain’s random output:

S’up?”
“Nada.”
“Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Been busy.”
“Is that your elephant?”
“Nah. My mom’s.”
“He’s big, huh? What’s his name?”
“Buster.”
“Buster?”
“He don’t come when you call him, though.”
“No, I don’t think he’d give a shit.”
“Unless maybe you have ice cream.”
“Peanut butter?”
“Strawberry.”
“Man, you’d think peanut butter, huh?”
“Seriously, yeah. But Buster’s always been his own pachyderm.

Random, unrehearsed, out-of-nowhere stuff.

Why dialogue, you ask? Why spit out words without deliberation or expectation? Because you’re removing all mental parameters and preconceived notions about your writing. Fictional dialogue (like IRL dialogue) can be as ethereal, as eccentric, as quirky as your brain is willing to stretch. You’re disrupting the organizational structure of a few trillion synapses by crayoning outside the lines.

Will this sort of nonsensical (or at least unprepared) dialogue translate into a story? Maybe. Probably not. But do realize that you’re channeling your inner self here. You’re allowing yourself, if only for a moment, unfettered creative freedom—and mental exercises such as this may lead to a little personal insight about your own creative abilities. Creativity begets creativity after all.

So, I suppose the bottom line is this: Rule #3. Always write to please yourself, first and foremost. If you find yourself writing for the various expectations of a vast and often fickle audience audience, you’ll eventually lose yourself in the crowd. Even if you’re successful, sooner or later you’ll maybe even sell your soul. So read a ton, learn the craft, study the mechanics of writing—and then write whatever makes you happy.

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Simple, But Exciting

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Simple, But Exciting

If I could distill the fundamentals of potentially great storytelling, my advice would be this: Keep it simple, but exciting…exciting, but simple.

While such advice may seem paradoxical (“Paint it black, but paint it white.”) you’ll find a marvelous co-dependency at play in writing a novel that: A) moves the story forward with clear, comprehensible language, without confusing or unnecessary intrusions, and; B) imparts a breathlessness, a passion, a cerebral metamorphosis that transforms the reader’s reality into a fictional realm that transcends reality.

One manages such duality by keeping: A) the fundamentals simple, and; B) your voice exciting.

Simple: The mechanics and structure of your writing, the clarity of your language. (In other words, grammar.) Note that simple doesn’t mean uninteresting or brief—nothing synopsized, summarized or truncated—but rather articulate and concise.

Exciting: The unique personality of your style and voice, the ebb and flow of your journey (that is, the structure of your plot), your joie de vivre. Your subtle—but oh-so-witty—nuance. Your tantalizing dialogue. (See Exciting, but Simple. Also see Dialogue.)

Even those writers who attempt to climb (metaphorically speaking) the Mount Everest of epic adventures or those who navigate the Pan’s Labyrinth of complicated plots, the basic mechanics of fiction remain fundamentally simple: Write in clear, precise sentences. (That’s Rule #7, by the way.) Communicate to your reader in intelligent thoughts, carefully constructed, while providing a constant, continual procession of relevant information. Don’t stuff various, complicated ideas into a single sentence. Give yourself permission to expand complex ideas into multiple sentences or paragraphs.

Think of writing a novel as being similar to a long trek through the Sahara. As a reader, I’m following the trail you’ve intentionally set out on page one. I must be able to follow (e.g.; comprehend) each footstep you take along the way. A misplaced thought or a convoluted sentence will give me pause. What did you mean? A muddled page and I may be stymied. A misplaced or badly written chapter and now I’m lost in the arid wastelands. Where am I? Which way did you go? Lose readers midway through that proverbial desert and they’re likely gone for good.

My advice? Don’t get deviously clever or snarkingly cute with your audience. Do not withhold necessary information or keep secrets—intending a sleight of hand later in the story. Yes, your characters can be mysterious, but no, your prose shouldn’t be. Do not write under the influence of an advanced thesaurus. Do not assume readers will meticulously ponder your words attempting to comprehend your subliminal brilliance, your existential aura, your interpretive, Nureyev-like rond de jambe. Sure, your plot can be multi-layered, but not your innuendo. Maintain a precise, lucid writing style. Once again—for emphasis!—write in clear, precise sentences.

Three Simple, Necessary Components

A writer will also utilize three (yet simple) necessary components to successfully navigate a successful story—and you’ll continually weave these elements throughout your writing, like the spiraling filaments in a thread.

In no particular order:

• Scene Setting. As a reader, I want to be grounded early in each new chapter or scene. Give me a glimpse of where I am, and who I’m with and, if appropriate, when. (After dark? Before lunch? Late autumn?) Depending upon your writing style, setting a scene can be elaborate enough to fill several pages (a la George R.R. Martin), or as sparse as a few suggestive wordsI walked into Charlie’s ramshackle Bar & Grill. The place smelled like old cigarettes and older sweat. You know, the kind of establishment where patrons paid in dimes and quarters, where cockroaches and winos went to die. — enough to impart sufficient information to identify or intuit the whereabouts of your character(s).

• Character Development. Give me essential information that builds or strengthens or reveals the important nuance of a character. Not all at once, of course… but bits here and there. Character development often relies on subtle nuances—physical, emotional, psychological, unusual—all appropriately placed.

• Plot Development. Give me essential information that builds or strengthens the plot. Sometimes nuanced, sometimes with the speed and intensity of a runaway train. But keep pushing the plot forward. It’s as simple as that.

In each scene you write, you’ll combine elements of scene setting, plot development and character development. Include nothing else. If you find yourself writing material that doesn’t A) further the plot, B) distinguish a character or, C) ground the reader in time or place, those words probably don’t belong in your novel. (And if those words somehow feel intrinsically important to the story, look closely—they’re likely one of the above ingredients.)

These three key elements, by the way, comprise Rule #5: Continually scene set, character build or move the plot forward. In novel writing, nothing else matters.

Okay, so here’s a brief hypothetical:

Barnaby awoke before dawn, shivering beneath the insufficient weight of a blanket that smelled of manure and wet straw. The frigid air lay heavy with smoke drifting from a myriad of scattered campfires that burned in the meadow. He gazed upward through the misty tendrils, into a coal black winter’s night. High amid the heavens, he could see the constellation Orion. The hunter.

…Come daylight, he knew, they would all become hunters.

He could hear a distant murmur of sleepless men, of braying horses. Somewhere in the tall grass, a young soldier sobbed. Even though he’d slept, Barnaby instinctively sensed dawn’s approach—soon the drums and bugles would beckon the war, and with its arousal, an unmitigated savagery would descend upon the brigade. Before sunset, many of those stirring restlessly around him would lay dead.

Not long ago, he might have wept at the thought of the carnage that morning would bring. But staring into the heavens, he wished for only solace. He longed for an eternity absent of fear, of hatred, of misery. For the first time since the fighting had begun, Barnaby found himself anticipating the absolute surrender of death, and relished its embrace.

…….….……
In the above paragraphs we find a piecemeal semblance of scene-setting and character development, although not much plot. Yet by the end of the passage, we infer a battle’s brewing (basic plot development) and, if properly scene-set, we suspect our character to be a soldier of some bygone era. Campfires. Horses. Bugles. Even by the discreet choice of names—Barnaby—the writer implies a subliminal clue. No, we don’t know which war…but we assume we’ll be told fairly soon and, if the writing moves us, we’re willing to wait. Nor do we have a clear physical description of Barnaby (our protagonist we presume, although still uncertain)—and yet we’ve glimpsed the lost fear in his soul. Another important character trait.

By juxtaposing well-considered snippets of information, each sentence becomes an integral piece of an enormous puzzle, yet none of the overall picture which will be revealed in haste. The writer utilizes only those pieces that properly fit, and has already begun interlacing individual filaments (of plot, character and grounding) that will eventually weave into a narrative tale. We may not know key elements of the character until far into the novel. We’re learning about this man piece by piece. We may not learn about the writer’s true intent in telling his story—perhaps not the war itself, but rather a young man’s journey to find himself, through various aspects of fate. The writer’s only begun to build a mystery of voice, of plotting, and yet each sentence is precise and methodical, like so many footprints in the sand, one after another after another in meticulous formation toward an inevitable conclusion.

One last note: When is simple too simple? When simple becomes passive. So keep your simple sentences active. (See Active Voice.) For instance:

Passive: John was sleeping. (Simple? Yes. Exciting? No.)

Active: John’s snoring reverberated through the house with the fury of an approaching thunderstorm. (Better.)

Remember: Simple, but exciting.

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Good Writing, Bad Advice

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Good Writing, Bad Advice.

My name (once again) is Dave Workman. I’m an acquisitions and content editor for Muse Harbor Publishing. My job is to: 1) read manuscripts, 2) reject most of them as incompatible with our needs, 3) accept a limited number of promising tales for potential publication, and; 4) edit the living daylights out of those same pieces—then expect the writer to do likewise—before MHP commits to a publishing contract.

I have few friends.

However, I do have a modicum of knowledge for those of you seeking advice. Whether you’re already a contracted MHP author, a promising talent or simply passing by, I can offer a bit of insight. Because I certainly know what excites me as a reader.

Might I impart any significant pearls of wisdom on this page? I offer no assurances. Nobody in this business—in any business—can guarantee success. Finding a publisher is sometimes more luck (sadly) than skill. More good timing than dedication. Sometimes it’s who you know. Sometimes it’s who your daddy knows. Success is a subjective son-of-a-bitch with a chip on one shoulder and a crazed twinkle in its eye.

But knowing how to write well doesn’t hurt. And knowing a few rules won’t hurt either. Success may be elusive, but to an unprepared or apathetic writer, success is little more than a pipe dream.

Do you know the Numero Uno, Most Common, Most Discouraging Failure, the Tragic Likely Outcome of all novel writing endeavors? It’s not finishing the book. Losing interest or losing your way, losing your nerve or losing your religion. It’s fear of success or fear of failure or fear of wrestling all those words into place, from “Once upon a time…” to “The End.” But if you can overcome that particular obstacle, you’re already closer to writing success than most.

 Finish the book. That’s Rule #1.

In this and subsequent posts, I’ll attempt to reveal what MHP seeks in terms of a desirable manuscript, although—bottom line?—it’s a polished, professional voice. Yes, voice. We’re far more likely to accept an uncanny voice over a fancy plot structure. Lock two characters in a dark closet, give them great dialogue and personalities worth exploring, and we’ll consider that manuscript more closely than a story about brain-sucking aliens coming to digest Earth. (Although if your aliens have quirky, well-constructed personalities, we’ll look at them, too.)

Let’s face it, only so many plot-lines exist in literature. They’ve all been covered ad nauseam. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy is eaten by giant squid. (It’s been done.) But a unique voice is yours alone. Exclusive. Inimitable. Priceless. For a writer, a unique voice infusing excitement into a distinctive character is money in the proverbial bank.

Okay, enough preamble. I do have one significant bit of advice to share. My first shiny pearl isn’t a “what to do”—it’s “who not to listen to.” IMHO, it’s one of The Most Important Lessons an unpublished writer can absorb.

Rule #2: Don’t listen to anybody (and certainly not to me) if the advice doesn’t resonate. Go with your gut. Go with your own instincts. By all means, listen selectively to proffered advice—accept feedback when it’s constructively given, but I suspect some 80-90% of what you hear won’t work for you. However, that remaining 10-20% might may prove priceless. So do keep an open mind! (See Confronting Criticism.) Remember, success is as much about breaking rules as following them. If it feels right, crayon outside the lines. I think Gandhi said that. Maybe not.

To illustrate, here’s a true story. This one still gives me nightmares. I still wake up cringing.

The most single, most horrific, most god-awful perverse piece of advice I’ve ever encountered occurred during a writers’ conference. (And a writers’ conference can be a wonderful, magical, scintillating experience… but, again, be careful who you listen to.)

One evening, a panel of “experts” bequeathed their brilliance to a capacity filled auditorium of eager, fledgling writers. An attendee stood and asked a panelist a question, and in doing so happened to mention that her nearly-completed novel filled some 360 pages. About 90,000 words.

Without a moment’s preamble—without a speck of empathy or a grain of intelligence—the so-called expert replied, “It’s too long. Cut twenty thousand words.”

This Expert of Knowing Everything While Knowing Nothing had no clue about the nature of the story or its genre, or of the writer’s level of craft, the tenor of the book. Simply “cut it.” The writer was, of course, crushed. And I have never forgotten my frustration over that absurdly idiotic remark.

Should anyone tell you to arbitrarily cut (or add) pages without otherwise knowing your story—it’s intent and purpose—smile politely and walk away. I’ve read too many manuscripts that feel truncated and unfinished… only to discover that the writer had been previously advised to “cut, cut, cut!” without further direction or counsel. In desperation, many writers blindly begin hacking all the style and nuance from an otherwise excellent story.

Think of a novel as a living, breathing person. If I feel that your story needs to lose a bit of weight, I’ll not advise you to remove its liver or stomach or left arm. The process is to shrewdly exercise your book—trimming adverbs, adjectives and excess verbiage like so many bloated fat-cells. Little by little. Or feed it more Skittles, should the opposite be true.

I acknowledge that the above-referenced workshop occurred before the Age of Internet Publishing. Stricter rules applied once upon a time (although stupidity didn’t count back then, either). And I continue to hear agents and editors and the so-called “people in the know” advising writers to cut or add pages, to alter a manuscript in order to satisfy some personal itch or the guidelines of a publishing system that no longer exists.

The biggest problem today? No one’s certain of the new rules yet. But in this rapidly changing paradigm of 21st century novel writing, here’s my best advice: Trust yourself—and hone those basic skills of storytelling in the (somewhat paradoxically) simplest, yet most exciting voice you can muster.
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