The rules of "stronger" writing... lol?

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FK7
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The rules of "stronger" writing... lol?

Post by FK7 » May 27th, 2010, 7:50 pm

Today I received a mail from my brand new critique partner whom I found here. She provided INCREDIBLE feedback! Very insightful and constructive, but very nitpicky. And I love nitpicky, because I'm a perfectionist, and I realized all the little things I had missed that COULD make the novel stronger. The key word here is "could", because as I read I kept smiling at the comments she left in red and thought, "this is good!".

Then I began to think about why I had went that way in the first place... my guess is mostly inexperience, but I think my naïveté wasn't a bad thing either.

My problem, I think, is that I can't seem to get enough distance to see all the small details that might annoy me. At first I thought the fact English wasn't my mothertongue made it more difficult, but after reading a lot of novels, I don't think my prose is bad. It's not very refined, but neither is Ludlum's or Brown's, and it didn't stop them from becoming bestsellers. I began outlining my novel in October 2009, but prior to that month, I had never in my life considered writing, nor did I have any interest in it. I knew nothing about the craft, the publishing world... it all seemed to come naturally to me.

I researched the topic of writing a lot... bought many good books. After a lot of research, I was faced with certain dilemmas I didn't even know existed: 1st/3rd/ominiscient, the "said" club or "gasped/whispered/crowed/snarled/repeated/exclaimed/cried out" club, prologue or no prologue, passive or active... then come the adverbs, the verys, the thats, and so on and so on... it never stops.

Since I've written my novel, I've been paying a lot more attention to the writing in the novels I read... just the other day I was reading a Ludlum novel, and it read:
"I repeat," he repeated.

Seriously, WTF? I would NEVER have noticed this until I read Strunk & White, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Stein on Writing a few times... now that it was brought up to my attention, I find it to be weak writing... but before then, I had never noticed... this made me though "How many people do notice it? Enough to make the difference between a bestseller and a midlist novel?".

I just came back from the Xerox place. I had the manuscript bound with spirals, and intend to go full out on the "verys" and the "thats" that crop out everywhere, circle them in red pencil, and come back to them later. I also seem to like words like "gobsmacked" or "flabbergasted" for some reason. I definitely want to improve on my writing everywhere I could, but as I made some changes, it felt less natural... more "grammatically appropriate", perhaps "stronger", but it felt like I had sucked out the soul of the sentence to make it more physically attractive...

Strunk hates the sentence "The fact that" or "the fact is" or "the fact of the matter"... I did edit it out of my MS in a few places, but in others, I left it there. Why? It "felt" better. Inexperience again?

The prologues... after reading the comments on Nathan's entry about prologues, there is a ridiculous amount of people who seem to have pure hatred for prologues. Again... WTF? Seriously? Some people posted 500 words rants about why prologue stink. I find them useless in some places, but I've read some pretty good ones.

And for each topics on writing, be it adverbs, thats, very, etc... you will find people on both extremes. This freaks me out a little bit... I cannot for the life of me figure out why some people would feel so strongly about some "writing guideline" to warrant hatred? It's not a debate about what surgical procedure would be the safest to save someone's life... it's writing. It's meant to entertain people.

I'm looking forward going Rambo on my manuscript, and getting anal about the aforementioned little things... I'm anxious to see how much red blood I can spill on the pages! Thanks to my new critique partner for her help, it'll be A LOT of fun to edit with a new mission :D

To all your other newbie writers like me who started writing recently... what rules annoy you? Which ones do you think are justified? What club are you in?

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Re: The rules of "stronger" writing... lol?

Post by cheekychook » May 27th, 2010, 8:58 pm

"...it's writing. It's meant to entertain people."

I agree with that 100%. I hate it when I catch grammatical errors in text books or news articles, but in fiction, like in conversation, I tend to feel like (within reason) anything goes. I love books that leave you feeling like you personally know the characters and the fact is that the vast majority of people don't speak (or think) in perfect grammar. Obviously that doesn't mean that all rules are out the window, it just means if a certain style, or way of phrasing things, or manner of speaking, adds something to the flavor of your work or defines your narrator's voice then I think it's okay to consider leaving it. If everyone followed all the same rules every story would come out sounding like it had the same author, and that would not be good at all. That said, yes, there are a million "rules" that do need to be considered. My critique group is made up of seven people with dramatically different writing styles and opinions on most issues, which makes for some entertaining discussions. As different as we are we still tend to make a lot of the same "mistakes", and the funny thing is we often collectively make the same mistakes during the same week. For example, at our last meeting there were three submissions for the week and every one of us used the word "just" way more often than we should have. By the end of the meeting we all had scenes with the word scratched out and every day since then I've practically clapped my hand over my mouth every time the word "just" escapes my lips. (Yes, I know I've used the word in this paragraph, I'm feeling rebellious.)

There are some rules that are more universally accepted. Rules like "don't start several sentences in a row with the same word" (you know, like I did in the previous paragraph) are pretty hard to argue with; the writing is almost always better if you avoid that. Other rules, like "don't water down your sentences with words like 'slightly' or 'somewhat', make bold statements/choices", start to meander into a grey area in my opinion. What if your character is only SLIGHTLY annoyed, should they be called annoyed even though it's really a less accurate description? Depends who you ask. Some people will tell you, adamantly, yes. Others (like me) may be willing to argue the point if it really is more precise with the word left in place.

A prime example of a "rule" that I didn't know anything about until after I joined my critique group is the issue of HEAD HOPPING. I took creative writing and screenwriting classes in college and never heard of head hopping. (In case there's anyone here who, like me up until a few months ago, has never heard of head hopping it's when one minute you're in one character's head ( point of view) and the next paragraph (or sentence), with no warning, you're in a different character's head (seeing things from a different person's point of view); it's considered a big no-no.)

Since my WIP is very character oriented, and is written in 3rd person (not omniscient), there were times when I would head hop. My two beta readers never complained and I never knew it was a "rule" not to do it. The first scene I submitted happened to include head hopping and I was immediately told what it was and why it had to go. I read a zillion or so articles about it online and realized it's actually a big deal. Apparently most readers hate it, feel it is confusing, think it pulls them out of the story rather than drawing them in... Who knew? Not me. Part of the problem is that I grew up reading a lot of novels where an omniscient voice was used (very popular, particularly in classic Russian literature, but no longer seen as an acceptable style unless you are one of the few modern-day people considered to be omniscient savants), and the other part of the problem is that I actually like knowing what everyone is thinking as often as possible. I don't find it unsettling, I barely even notice it (well, actually NOW I do, but only because I'm looking for it). Most people, however, feel like they're watching a ping pong match when the point of view switches constantly. People have actually blogged lists of published authors whose work they refuse to read because the writers are known head hoppers. Reviewers on Amazon vent extensively about how they had the urge to throw the head-hopping-novel out the window by the end of chapter one.

As I read more I wondered why my initial readers weren't more bothered by it, then I realized that a lot of the authors they like (Judith Mc Naught, as an example) head hop ALL THE TIME. So, is it a no-no? Yes. Do some authors do it anyway? Yes. Do some readers refuse to read their books? Apparently yes. Do other readers not care and buy millions of copies of those same books? Absolutely yes. What does that mean? I think it means that like anything else there are different opinions about what works and what doesn't, personal style can overcome SOME rules at SOME times, and (the bottom line) if you do it really well you can get away with pretty much anything.

I go back to the line from your post: It's meant to entertain people. If you can suck people into your story and have them enjoy your writing then you're doing something right, regardless of what rules you may or may not be following. In terms of my WIP I realized that my scenes got stronger when I removed the head hopping; now I no longer even have the urge to head hop. Other rules, however, I have JUST a tiny bit more difficulty following. ;)
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Re: The rules of "stronger" writing... lol?

Post by Robin » May 27th, 2010, 9:12 pm

FK7 wrote:The prologues... after reading the comments on Nathan's entry about prologues, there is a ridiculous amount of people who seem to have pure hatred for prologues. Again... WTF? Seriously? Some people posted 500 words rants about why prologue stink. I find them useless in some places, but I've read some pretty good ones.
Congrats on getting your manuscript shredded ;) I know when it first happened to me, I thought my world was over. But I am so thankful for the rough critiques I've received. I can honestly say they have made me become a better writer. They have forced me to focus and really dig deep.

One thing that I've noticed when it comes to agent blogs and boards, some people tailor their posts according to the agent's opinion. I've personally read posts from at least 6 people on 3 different agent blogs, in which the commenters' changed their position to align with the agent. It ranged from feelings on adverbs to prologues and different characters. So, take what people say with a grain of salt.

I think a prologue is great if it really moves the story and is appropriate to the story, not an information dump or unnecessary crap.
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Re: The rules of "stronger" writing... lol?

Post by izanobu » May 27th, 2010, 11:25 pm

There are no rules, only whatever works to tell the story. If you ignore grammar and spelling all the time, of course, the story probably will have a harder time getting across. But story is king, everything else in writing should be in service to it :) If you have to break a rule, do it. If it works, it works.

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Re: The rules of "stronger" writing... lol?

Post by J. T. SHEA » May 27th, 2010, 11:30 pm

As wise men have advised since time immemorial, do find out the rules. Study them and the reasoning behind them. Meditate on them. Know them well. Then break them. Deliberately.

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Re: The rules of "stronger" writing... lol?

Post by deepsesh » May 28th, 2010, 2:02 am

I totally agree that when it comes to conversations - there are no rules. You should be able to get away with anything, because that's just the way the character talks! Since i'm writing in the first person, i hope i can get away with a lot of things, because even when not in conversation - i write about whats in my MC's head... and however awful her english may be - that's the way she thinks!!! right?? :)

Repeating words - When i got feedback on my book, i realised that i had used the word 'realised' too often. lol. I had to go around and edit it out wherever i could. And its really hard to spot them yourself the first time around, you really need someone else to point it out to you!

Using a LOT of adjectives - I'm not one to use too many adjectives to describe a particular situation/character. I stick to the few that are common or appropriate and repeat them where applicable. I guess its not a good thing - but i don't like to unnecessarily use 'big words' to sound all knowledgeable. Sometimes people overdo it and u find yourself skipping a lot of words while reading because they don't really add any value to the sentence.

Tense - Jumping tenses is obviously a big no-no. But again, its difficult to spot these mistakes, especially while writing in first person. I've already corrected a zillion of these.

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Re: The rules of "stronger" writing... lol?

Post by BrokenChain » May 29th, 2010, 7:00 pm

You need...

Clarity, authority, good story telling, and flow.

You need to get rid of...

Adverbs, redundancy, spelling mistakes, passive voice, and needless grammatical errors (that is, errors that do not enhance the story telling effect).

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Re: The rules of "stronger" writing... lol?

Post by FK7 » May 30th, 2010, 11:55 am

BrokenChain wrote:You need...

Clarity, authority, good story telling, and flow.
I'd agree on all. I think people are making a big deal out of authority. I've read books where the protagonist was somewhat passive (LOOKING FOR ALASKA) and unsure of him/herself, but it was a great book nevertheless.

BrokenChain wrote: You need to get rid of...

Adverbs
Never got the hate for adverbs. People say writing without adverb is stronger writing. Why? How do you quantify "weak" or "strong" writing based on adverbs?

In medicine, a patient is considered physically weak when certain biometrics reach certain thresholds. White cell count, temperature, weight, muscle tonicity, general affect, EEG, ECG, etc... it is not a matter of objectivity or subjectivity, or which criteria were picked by some arrogant suit somewhere as to what makes a patient weak. It's quantifiable. It's rational. It's science.

Someone telling me to get rid of all my adverbs, I don't take seriously. Who decided adverbs are evil? Why do they even exist if we shouldn't use them? It's totally ridiculous.

It probably happened like this: some guys felt pushy and knowledgeable, decided they should impart their OPINIONS on others as strongly as possible. Somehow, some of them managed, and their OPINION got inserted into manual of styles or other popular grammar books. Then they tried to push their OPINION as rules.

Grammar and style, in my opinion, are separate. I must have removed about 50% of my adverbs in my MS, those who are there now I feel should stay. I could remove them all and make it work, but I'd be like Michael Jackson without the nose issues. It just wouldn't have been the same.

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Re: The rules of "stronger" writing... lol?

Post by cheekychook » May 30th, 2010, 12:46 pm

I don't think there should be a blanket rule like "get rid of ALL" your adverbs. When an adverb is the best way you can say something, leave it there. I was given the same "adverbs are bad" lecture in my critique group. The woman who started our group is a writing teacher, a published author, an editor; she's the authority on all the "rules". She has gone to great lengths to explain why adverbs usually indicate that there's a better verb out there to express what you're trying to say. Is that true? Often, yes.

Every time you find an adverb when you're rereading you should ask yourself if that's the best possible way to accurately describe what's happening. For example: "I'm sorry," she said softly. vs. "I'm sorry," she whispered. Did she say it softly or did she whisper? Whatever you do avoid the urge to say "I'm sorry," she whispered softly. (You can't whisper loudly----well, unless you're three years old and have just been told to whisper because the baby's sleeping, then sometimes the whisper at least sounds really loud.) Anyway, in my opinion there are times when the verb/adverb combo actually conveys a meaning that I prefer, so I stick with it; and I usually need to really argue for it where my crit group is concerned.

As always, though, there's the exception to the rule. Last week, while going over my submission in group, our leader (teacher) paused. She tapped her pen against the table, shifted uncomfortably in her seat, adjusted her glasses, sighed a few times, tapped some more. She had to start her sentence three times before she could actually get it out. Finally she managed to say "This is ONE example...one time....well....yeah, I really think it's necessary....you should put back the word "slowly". Needless to say the rest of us gasped. The adamantly anti-adverb advocate was actually telling me to put my adverb back. True story. So, yes, there are times when an adverb is actually the way to go. Take out the ones that can be replaces more descriptive verbs, and leave in the ones where they work.
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Re: The rules of "stronger" writing... lol?

Post by J. T. SHEA » May 30th, 2010, 12:57 pm

Interesting points, FK7. 'Authority' in writing means the authority of the writer rather than the protagonist, even when they are one and the same person. It is what persuades readers to believe a non-fiction work and suspend disbelief for a fictional work.

Adverbs are NOT bad in themselves, and are sometimes the best words to use. But their use often precludes better, more descriptive and evocative words or phrases.

But you're right about pushy opinions! Says I, beginning another sentence (and paragraph) with 'but' and ending with another exclamation mark!

But ARE medicine and science really so objective and quantifiable and rational? Not in my experience. Both professions have more than their fair share of subjectivity and 'arrogant suits'. Heaven forbid they should ASK THE PATIENT whether he or she is weak!

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Re: The rules of "stronger" writing... lol?

Post by Quill » May 30th, 2010, 12:59 pm

Agree that adverbs need to be used with extreme care.

Don't agree with the camp that says NO ADVERBS EVER. Yes, such writers/teachers/editors exist.

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Re: The rules of "stronger" writing... lol?

Post by J. T. SHEA » May 30th, 2010, 1:12 pm

I posted my comment without refreshing the page. Meanwhile, Cheekychook did a better job on the adverb issue. Clearly the critique group founder knows the underlying reasons for rules and not just the surface rules themselves, but her great reluctance to admit an exception would not enhance her authority for me.

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Re: The rules of "stronger" writing... lol?

Post by FK7 » May 30th, 2010, 1:29 pm

@cheeky: I agree with you 100% about adverbs that are misused. You can't gasp a phrase, like you can't crow or snarl words. You can't whisper loudly. On the top of my head, there's a scene in my novel where a guy's girlfriend is playing the seducing game. "Hi, Gaby," she said teasingly.

Now, I could replace teasingly by a beat. However, doing so would require more words, and the adverb here does indicate something different. Saying "Hi" to tease/seduce someone, and saying "Hi" to your mother... well, I sure hope you don't use the same tone. I'm not here to judge though :)

Replacing the adverb with beats is what I do most of the time, but then, I am in TOTAL contradiction with one of Strunk's ultimate rule: use as few words as possible. Adverbs once in a while change the routine. It can be refreshing. But that's my inexperienced and amateur opinion. ;)

@J. T. SHEA: I'm sure I could have misunderstood what "authority" meant. I remembered a blog entry Nathan made recently, when he quoted our uberawesome sheriff Ink. Ink quoted Moby Dick's opening line "Call me Ishamel." Now, I've never read Moby-Dick (I know... shameful. It's on my list), but I suppose the novel is written in first person. I might have misinterpreted too, but it was clear to me how such a line would reflect authority. As a writer though, I'm still not sure what imparting authority means.

I used the medicine example because this is something I know well. Now, while it's true older doctors have the tendency to let go of their humanity, this is what they were thought in school. In the last ten years, there's been a revolution on how to train doctors. We're actually evaluated on our PR skills, and how we interact with patients. Failure to open with a proper interview and get the patient's feedback is enough to fail an evaluation.

Spirituality is a huge part of the profession, but it plays no part in the differential or diagnosis process. It all comes down to exact and precise science, and this includes the patient's story. However, like Dr. House says all the time, people lie. All the time. But tests don't lie, so you find the line in the middle.

In the end I suppose this is all a moot point, I just like debating or discussing all sorts of topics. My amazing new critique partner (which I was lucky to meet here no less) opened my eyes to my problem with punctuation in a dialogue. More specifically, the comma with interjections. I know the rule is the comma has to be there, but saying

"Jesus Simon, you didn't tell me it'd take half of the lab's space!" and "Jesus, Simon, you didn't tell me it'd take half of the lab's space!" are different in tone and flow. The second is the grammatically correct form, but in real speech, people don't say "Jesus (PAUSE) Simon (PAUSE) you didn't tell me..." they say "Jesus Simon (PAUSE) you didn't tell me..." In the end, I'm sure the copyeditor or the editor will change the punctuation no matter what I do, but it still annoys me.

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Re: The rules of "stronger" writing... lol?

Post by J. T. SHEA » May 30th, 2010, 1:57 pm

'Hi, Gaby,' she teased.(?) I'm glad to hear doctors are rediscovering their humanity in your part of the world. I agree breath and other pauses give a good guideline for commas, though pedantic people will disapprove.

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Re: The rules of "stronger" writing... lol?

Post by polymath » May 30th, 2010, 2:08 pm

There comes a point in a writer's successful progress when conventionally accepted rules of Standard Written English evaporate into thin air. They become loose principles for guidance used so that readers understand what they read, but the rules' prohibitive nature become transcendentally boundaryless within a narrow realm of infinite possibility. So-called rules proscribing limited or no use of adverbs and adjectives, for example. Modifiers serve artful purposes.

The voices of a narrative are in part enhanced by modifiers used in a triax of author voice, narrator voice, and character voices.

The brightly-lit and decoration-festooned occasion hall evoked a celebratory ambience contrasted by aimlessly listless prisoner attendees.

Yikes! What a tell. Direct address to readers. Direct Discourse. The author's voice dominates. No trace of a narrator or viewpoint character.

Garish orange lights and toilet paper streamers weren't festive enough to lift the prisoners' spirits.

Better because "garish orange," "toilet paper streamers," "weren't festive enough," and "lift the prisoners spirits" are subjective narrator judgments. Patently, an author wrote them. Still no trace of a viewpoint character. Indirect address. Indirect Discourse.

Garish orange lights and toilet paper streamers weren't festive enough to lift POW 24228's lonely spirits. He would be most delighted by a window overlooking a tropical beach decorated with women in bikinis. Scantily clad bronze goddesses in polkadots and pastel greens and pinks and yellow and black and white stripes and solids. But the Repatriation Party was stag.

Viewpoint character, narrator, and author voices, closest to the viewpoint character's personal perspective. "Decorated" seems an off kilter word choice, but it timely reinforces it's the viewpoint character's personal voice objectifying women. Indirect address freed from author and narrator's voices. Free Indirect address. Free Indirect Discourse from a viewpoint character's sensations and thoughts.

Adverbs play the same roll of expressing narrator and/or viewpoint character commentary in Free Indirect Discourse.

The generously parceled out pittance of entertainment they gave him was pathetically pointless. One half pint of weak beer, a stale square of hard icing sheet cake, and a miserly bit of male companionship. Even the music was stupidly tepid.
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