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The Invisibility of Good Writing

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The Storm - Pierre-Auguste Cot - public domain painting - Novel Conclusions - Christi Gerstle - Christina Gerstle - literary blog - writing tips

The Storm by Pierre-Auguste Cot via Wikimedia Commons

I helped a coworker with a business letter recently, a coworker I consider to be a generally good writer.  This person, who is an articulate communicator in everyday life, still wrote a letter full of passive voice phrasing that overshadowed the main ideas.  As we worked together to polish the letter, the incident reminded me how frequently good writing is invisible.

Good writing helps ideas shine and does not draw attention to itself.  Rather than noticing the writing, the reader remembers the ideas.  If you’re not looking for good writing, you won’t notice it very frequently.  Bad writing, on the other hand, sticks out like a Raiders fan at a Cowboys game – you notice it immediately.  Messy syntax, awkward phrasing, repetition, and heavy use of the passive voice jump up and beg for the spotlight, stealing it away from the ideas meant to draw our attention.

Letting the ideas shine isn’t just about good grammar; it’s also about using syntax and diction in a way that works with your ideas.  Long sentences invite complex thoughts whereas short sentences draw your attention to one specific thing.  Let’s look at an example of each within a couple sentences of each other from the first chapter of Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima.  Young protagonist Antonio tells us:

My heart sank.  When I thought of leaving my mother and going to school, a warm, sick feeling came to my stomach.  To get rid of it, I ran to the pens we kept by the molino to feed the animals.

The first sentence draws your attention to the main idea – narrator Antonio is pretty upset.  The second and third sentences, both compound sentences, expand on this idea and its consequences.  Anaya helps us to focus on the ideas by using sentence structure and diction to his advantage.

Compound sentences generally emphasize the second thought.  For example, listen to the difference here:

  1. The storm raged outside, but Jenny still got to go home.
  2. Jenny still got to go home, but the storm raged outside.

Even though the ideas are the same, the first sentence ends on a much happier note (Jenny got to go home!) than the second sentence (the storm raged).  Every little bit makes a difference.  Imagine what you as a writer are hoping to emphasize, and tidy up your diction and syntax to draw attention to that idea.

What other little tweaks help your ideas shine?  How else can we revise our writing to focus attention on the story?

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10 Commonly Misunderstood Words Infographic

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I’m a lover of words, but sometimes I get words wrong.  You know you do this, too.  That’s why I thought I might share this handy infographic about 10 commonly misunderstood words.  Apparently I have been misusing (or at least, misunderstanding, since I don’t write this word frequently) the word “nonplussed” for quite some time.  Who knew that it actually meant “bewildered”?

Which of these words have you scrambled up in the past?  Which words might you add to this list?  Have you even (gasp) perhaps used one of these words in a mistaken context in your NaNoWriMo manuscript?

10 Commonly Misunderstood Words via DailyInfographic.com

10 Commonly Misunderstood Words via DailyInfographic.com

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Grammar Pet Peeves: Annoying Writing Mistakes Infographic

Perhaps it’s a side effect of reading so voraciously when I was a child, but I’ve never had major issues with grammar.  Although my grammar isn’t perfect (no one’s is, really), grammar comes pretty naturally to me.  I’ve never had to study it to inherently understanding parallel structure or compound sentences or what have you.  I don’t strive for perfect grammar, but I do strive for excellent grammar.

As a child, I would embarrass my parents by correcting adults’ grammar (because it was something my parents corrected in my brother and me, I didn’t yet understand at 4 years old that it was rude to correct adults when they used bad grammar).  I’ve since grown out of that habit, but I still get a little nails-on-the-chalkboard feeling when people use incorrect grammar in the written word.  For your grammatical delight (or perhaps you’re trying to learn English grammar?), I’ve found a gorgeous little infographic over at bitrebels.com about the most annoying writing mistakes (and yes, it does have an unnecessary hyphen in “most-annoying,” but we’ll let that pass for now…).

Most Annoying Writing Mistakes - Learn English Grammar - Grammar Goofs - Novel Conclusions writing blog - writing rules - writing tips - infographic

Most Annoying Writing Mistakes via bitrebel.com

One mistake that this infographic didn’t include was when people end a sentence with “John and I” instead of “John and me, or they say “Jane gave it to John and I” when it should be “John and me.”  Egads!  And for me, one mistake I personally am frequently making is spelling the word “happened” wrong — I never can remember whether it has one “n” or two.  Thank goodness for spell check!  Which mistakes really make you want to whip out that red pen?  Which mistakes do you have to keep catching yourself on?

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The Awesomeness of the Oxford Comma

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Among the grammatically minded, you’ll occasionally find heated debates on the Oxford comma.  If you are unclear about what the Oxford comma, Dictionary.com describes it as “a comma between the final items in a list, often preceding the word `and’ or `or’, such as the final comma in the list newspapers, magazines, and books.”

I fall squarely on the side that touts the awesomeness of the Oxford comma.  Why is the Oxford comma so amazing?  It keeps things clean and clear.  Check out the gorgeous infographic below for further discussion.

Oxford Comma infographic - Novel Conclusions - grammar - writing tips - writing blog - literary blog

The Oxford Comma Infographic via aerogrammestudio.com

What do you think of the Oxford comma?  A fabulous clarifying item or just a waste of precious space?

P.S.  Check out a slightly NSFW graphic about this here.

Authenticity in YA Fiction

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Child Soldier Drawing - Novel Conclusions writing blog - writing tips - authenticity in writing YA fiction

Child Soldier in the Ivory Coast, Africa, by Gilbert G. Groud via Wikimedia Commons

Orson Scott Card definitely caused a stir when he published Ender’s Game in 1977 with a young child being trained as a battle mastermind, away from his parents and any true parental authority from age 6 onward.  Very few books up to this point treated any character under the age of 14 as a character whose thoughts were to be taken seriously.  Why should a child represent humanity?

In an introduction to a reprint edition of Ender’s Game in 1991, Orson Scott Card tells us,

Never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child.  I felt like a person all along – the same person I am today.  I never felt that I spoke childishly.  I never felt that my emotions and desires were somehow less real than adult emotions and desires.  And in writing Ender’s Game, I forced the audience to experience the lives of these children from that perspective – the perspective in which their feelings and decisions are just as real and important as any adult’s.

Although there are definitely inauthentic parts of Ender’s Game (psychologically damaged and chauvinist much?), Card went out of his way to prove that children take themselves seriously even when adults frequently don’t.  This is one of the primary things that separate YA and MG (middle grade) books about youth from adult books written about children/youth; in the YA and MG books, the protagonists are acting in the here and now.  These youthful protagonists have real emotions and real issues; we as writers must treat these issues as such.  If we do not, we risk losing our readers.

Having spent years working with kids, both in my time teaching and in my ten summers at a girls’ overnight camp, I can absolutely attest to the idea that kids and youth have real emotions, desires, and issues.  The primary difference between them and us is their lack of experience (and their frequent desire to hide that lack of experience).

What we as writers must learn to do is write the truth right there on the page; it should ring with emotional integrity.  This can be harder than it sounds.  In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole reminds us that

Teens have a very sensitive BS-o-meter.  So for the YA market especially – even though this applies to all kidlit – authenticity and truth are paramount.  If something is cheesy or irrelevant, teen readers will not hesitate to declare you a poseur.

What are our takeaways?

  • Be authentic in your writing.  Write truth.
  • Treat your characters’ issues like they matter.  If they don’t matter to you as the writer, they certainly won’t matter to your readers.

What else do you think is frequently stereotyped with youth protagonists?  Do you have any favorite authentic youth protagonists?

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What Do Your Fears Say About You?

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Vincent Thomas Bridge via Wikimedia Commons

What do your fears say about you?  About your characters?  How do your characters react when they’re afraid?

This past week, I had to go to a restaurant in San Pedro for a work event.  San Pedro is the hub of the Port of LA/Long Beach, the largest port area on the west coast and home to the Vincent Thomas Bridge.  I freaked out a little on the way there when I saw the words “Vincent Thomas Bridge” on the directions.

I’m not normally afraid of heights, but this bridge FREAKS ME OUT because it is so high and so curved.  It feels like you’re looking over the edge of the horizon into nothingness.  It is 185 feet up at its highest point (egads!!!  That’s like 15 stories!).  I avoid it.  Avoiding it is not usually a problem since I rarely go down there, but I couldn’t skip this event.  I told myself I would get in the middle lane and grit my teeth and be done with it.  Fortunately, when I looked at the directions more closely, I realized I was just passing by the bridge.  At the event, my coworker A, who is more afraid of heights than I am, told my boss R and me (only half kidding) that she was going to turn around and not come if she had to drive over that bridge.  R, on the other hand, said he’d been really excited when he thought he might get to go over the bridge (at this point, A and I both gave him looks of horror).

This got me thinking about fear and how we react when we’re afraid.  My coworker A, my boss R, and I all had different reactions to the same event, having to drive over this crazy bridge.  A was planning to turn around and go home; I was going to grit my teeth and push through; and R was going to enjoy it.  How someone reacts to something shows us more about them than if we were just to say, for example, she’s afraid of heights.

In Jurassic Park (spoilers ahead, y’all), Michael Crichton uses fear to reveal traits about nearly every character.  Early on, after T-Rex shows up, the lawyer runs away and leaves the 2 kids all by themselves.  This underlines for us that the lawyer is a cowardly punk, and it also makes it more impressive when Dr. Grant comes to the kids’ rescue.  Crichton used this T-Rex experience to not only show us more about these 2 characters (the lawyer and Dr. Grant) but also to use the lawyer as a foil for Dr. Grant.  Later on, we see how greedy creep Dennis becomes impatient when he’s afraid – talking too much, driving erratically, and eventually bringing on his well-deserved demise.  We also come to find game keeper Muldoon is calm and collected in the face of fear; it becomes even scarier for us as the audience when the raptors have trapped Muldoon, the consummate tracker.

How can we apply this?  We show our characters taking action in the presence of fear.  What actions are they taking?  What does this show us about the character?  How is their objective influencing their actions in the presence of fear?

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Who’s Driving Your Story?

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Divergent - Veronica Roth - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - writing tips

Divergent via veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com

Is your main character (MC) driving the action in your story?  What makes this particular story belong to this particular character?  Is this character just a victim on the sidelines, or is this character taking action to drive the plot forward?  Writing your character as proactive instead of reactive drives the plot and gives us reason to root for the character.  It’s okay if your MC is failing (in fact, road blocks are great building blocks to plot) as long as she is trying to do something to get where she wants to go.

In the “Q&A with Veronica Roth” section at the end of Divergent, author Veronica Roth tells us that she gave herself one primary rule with regard to her main character, “Beatrice is the agent… she’s always choosing, always acting, always moving the plot by her behavior.”  Active, rather than passive, characters help your plot to be both more character-driven and more action-driven.  In Divergent, Beatrice, or Tris, drives the action at the beginning of the story by choosing her faction.  There must be a reason that this exact character is telling this story.  What is so special about your MC that they deserve to be the one telling this story?  What is it about them and their experience that makes them the person to follow?

In The Hunger Games, Katniss drives the action at the beginning of the novel by volunteering to replace her little sister at the reaping.  Katniss made a hard choice, but it was her choice.  If she had originally been chosen for the reaping instead of her little sister, The Hunger Games would not have had the same emotional pull (and we as readers might not be rooting for Katniss in the same way).  Although Katniss is caught up in the Games and definitely sometimes in a reactive position, she still continues to take action to drive the plot.

Why have an active rather than passive MC?

  • Readers want to root for the main character more if they are trying to help themselves.
  • We get to know the character better through their actions (showing vs. telling).
  • Hard choices reveal the character’s innermost traits (Beatrice’s desire for independence, Katniss’s love for her sister).
  • This story belongs to these characters – there’s no way it could be told in the same way by anyone else.  The characters become more memorable.

What are your favorite stories where the character drives the action?  Do you think this is something that is important to move the plot forward?

P.S. Check out this old post from Nathan Bransford about character choice.

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