Sunday, November 10, 2013

Anno Secundo

Saturday marked the second anniversary of the day I published my first novel, No Easy Hope
I didn’t post about it then because I was in Key West with my wife celebrating our tenth anniversary. It was the last day of our vacation, and I spent most of it either waiting for flights, flying, or drinking. Lots of drinking. (Double rum on the rocks, dash of diet coke, squeeze of lime, serve, and repeat until I damn well say stop.)
Don’t judge me.

I despise air travel, and no matter how many times I engage in it, my hatred remains undiminished.  
Anyway, the things I have learned in the past two years about writing and publishing could fill a book. Most of it I obtained through hard experience, but I also learned a great deal by heeding the advice of other writers and by studying various books on the subject. I would like to take a little time to share some of those lessons learned, as I have done in previous posts, and hopefully prevent other aspiring authors from running afoul of the same pitfalls I have. Perhaps, in addition, I can make a bit of an apology for those early, amateurish blunders.  

The first step to finding success in writing, even success as limited as mine, is to practice, practice, practice. In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time refining my technique before posting my first novel on Amazon. No Easy Hope has gone through a great many revisions since its initial iteration, and the edition available now is a far cry from the original. But still, I cringe a little when I go back and read that first awkward, halting literary attempt. My second novel was better in my opinion, which seems to be borne out by its more favorable reviews and higher star rating, but it was rough in places. I think Warrior Within was a vastly superior effort to the first two, although it received criticism for not featuring enough zombie violence. And while it certainly showed room for improvement, it gave me confidence my writing technique had progressed significantly.  

The Passenger was a unique experience in that it was my first attempt at writing in third-person. I thought making the switch would be difficult, but as it turns out, writing in third-person is really not that different from writing in first-person. The adjustments are relatively minor, and third-person provides the added benefit of allowing additional perspectives to create a more vividly realized story. That said, I still think first-person is the best way to help readers connect with characters, and I have no plans to change this aspect of the Surviving the Dead series. 

Getting to the main point of this post, let us explore some of the most common transgressions many new  writers—myself included—frequently commit. I discovered these snafus through a combination hard experience, tips, and hints from authors such as Patrick Rothfuss, Jim Butcher, Stephen King, and Elmore Leonard, as well as suggestions from fellow writers in my chosen genre and editors whose services I have employed from time to time. While I freely acknowledge I have been guilty of all of these infractions in my own writing, I can honestly say I have learned from them, and avoiding these mistakes has improved my craft significantly. The following is a brief index of said blunders, but as you read it, please note this list is in no way comprehensive. I’m still learning, and I am certain by this time next year I will have plenty more items to add to the list. But for now, here is the distilled inventory:  

1) In writing, you almost never need to use the word ‘that’. In most cases, it is filler material which detracts from a sentence’s core message, clutters up paragraphs, and adds unnecessary wordiness. For example: 
John shot a man that he hated with a gun that he found in the bedroom.
John shot a man he hated with a gun he found in the bedroom.  

The second sentence is shorter, more concise, and easier to read. The litmus test for whether or not to use ‘that’ in a sentence is to simply write it both ways, once with ‘that’ in place, and again with 'that' removed. If it reads just as well or better without ‘that’ (as it will in most cases), get rid of it. Doing so will tighten up otherwise slack writing.  

2) Simple past tense vs. past participle. I see people screw this up all the time. Here is an easy guide:
Simple past tense (this is the voice you want to prefer in your writing): John walked down the street.
Present perfect participle (used heavily in first-person, present-tense writing, which is popular in mysteries and noir fiction): I have seen John walk down the street.
Past perfect (used very commonly in most forms of writing, but can often be replaced with simple past tense for more concise structure): I had seen John walk down the street.
(Think about it. Does ‘I saw John walk down the street,’ sound any worse?)
Future Perfect (rarely used, mostly found in dialogue): I will have seen John walk down the street.
3rd Conditional (used mostly in dialogue, or in first-person narrative): I would have seen John walk down the street.

Each usage has its place, but in most cases, simple past tense will suffice.  

3) Active vs. passive voice. Example:
Active voice: I killed a man.
Passive voice: A man was killed.

One describes a person doing a thing in direct terms. The other describes a thing that was done by someone in indefinite terms. Defense attorneys, convicted criminals, and politicians are very fond of the passive voice. It softens the verbal impact of describing their actions. (Don’t believe me? Watch an episode of Meet the Press, Lockup, or Nancy Grace sometime.) You do not want to use too much passive voice in your writing. You want your writing to be profound and hard-hitting. However, passive voice has its place. One of the most celebrated instructional manuals on writing, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, says to prefer the active voice whenever possible. However, for stylistic purposes, passive voice is not necessarily a capital offense. Remember: the rule is to prefer the active voice, not use it exclusively with no exceptions allowed. That said, you should write nine sentences out of ten in the active voice. It will give your storytelling a more forceful impact.  

4) Adverbs are not your friend, especially as applies to speech tags. Example:
“I’m going to kill you, but not until after I kill your family. I’m going to track down and murder every last person you ever cared about. Then I will catch you when you least expect it, I’ll lock you up someplace where no one can hear you scream, and before I’m done, you will beg for death. I warned you not to cross me, David. You didn’t listen. Now, you’ll suffer the consequences,” John said angrily.
Let’s explore this for a moment. Given the content of this snippet of dialogue, is it really necessary to insert the adverb ‘angrily’ after ‘John said’? Does not threatening to murder a person, as well as his or her family and friends, in and of itself constitute a statement of anger? I mean, it’s not exactly the kind of thing you promise when you are in a jaunty, bubbly mood. Also, there is the question of placement of the speech tag. For which, generally speaking, sooner is better. Let’s try it a different way:

“I’m going to kill you,” John said. “But not until after I kill your family. I’m going to track down and murder every last person you ever cared about. Then I will catch you when you least expect it, I’ll lock you up someplace where no one can hear you scream, and before I’m done, you will beg for death. I warned you not to cross me, David. You didn’t listen. Now, you will suffer the consequences.”

For a detailed description of speech tags and their proper usage (which I did not discover until I was halfway through Warrior Within), consult the Chicago Manual of Style online, or go on Amazon and purchase a copy 

5) Their, there, and they’re. To, two, and too. Your and you’re. It’s and its. A simple Google search can explain these distinctions. If you’re not sure, look it up. I’m not saying I never messed this up—I have—but these are not difficult mistakes to correct.

6) When writing an action scene, do not interrupt the action with a bunch of character introspection and excessive description. Readers will flip through this material impatiently and curse you for not advancing expeditiously to the goddamn point. If you must add something to the character’s experience, do it with as much brevity as possible, and do it either before or after the part where your character or characters kick some proverbial ass.

7) I hate weak heroes. I hate when a protagonist wins the day by getting his or her dumb ass saved by his or her friends. I hate protagonists that are constantly getting their asses kicked, getting captured, and making bone-headedly stupid decisions. This is common in literature. It is also formulaic, hackneyed, and cliché. It is literary laziness, and I have no patience for it.

8) Avoid excessive use of the word ‘very’. Don’t get me wrong, it has its place. But in most cases, you can get along just fine without it. ‘Very’ has a tendency to diminish that which it seeks to amplify. Ask yourself this:

Should a character be ‘very angry’, or should he be ‘infuriated’?

Should a character be ‘very upset’, or should he be ‘distraught’?

Should a character be ‘very happy’, or should she be ‘elated’?

There is almost always a better word to use than very, except when there isn’t, or if it doesn’t matter one way or the other. Use your best judgment. 

9) A few things no one wants to read about are as follows: poop, snot, bad breath, any body function described as ‘sour’ or ‘fetid’, and sweat on a person's upper lip. Just don’t do it.   

10) You may have seen this, but here are ten writing tips from Elmore Leonard, as well as my agreements and amendents:

1. Never open a book with weather.

(Unless it is vitally important to the story.)

2. Avoid prologues.

(Notice he said 'avoid', not 'never use'. Generally though, I agree.)

3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.

(Asked, replied, shouted, and screamed are acceptable as well, but should be used sparingly.)

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.

(Agreed. In most cases.)

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

(Depending on the context, I would say you can get away with more than two or three. But use them with the utmost caution, and if a sentence can stand on its own without an exclamation point, get rid of it.)

6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."

(Agreed. Just don't do it.)

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.


8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

(Unless it is important to the story. But don't give it away all at once. Take your time, and spread it out evenly over the course of the story.) 

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.

(Again, unless it is absolutely necessary to the story, or adds color and richness to the prose. But, as always, don't overdo it.)

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

(Agreed. How do you know if readers will want to skip a section of text? Simple. If it is boring to you, it will probably be boring to your readers. That said, you will be guilty of this sin sooner or later, so don't beat yourself up for it.)
A full and comprehensive list would be a lot longer than this post will allow. But I have covered the most common and important bases, and I think it will be helpful to anyone just starting out in writing. If I used any terms in this post you don’t understand, a simple internet search should clear it up for you. Most importantly, don’t ever give up if writing is what you really want to do. It takes diligence, and you might never find the success you hope for, but for those who really love it, it is its own reward.  

Go forth and be fruitful, my friends.