Saturday, September 12, 2009

Writing Rules and Breaking Them

"You are so beautiful," he burbled cleverly, staring in awe at her exquisitely tailored, sapphire blue evening dress. "Will you run away with me?"

"Not as long as your dialog is so trite," she sniffed, turning on her six-inch stiletto heels and storming out of the room.

I can almost see the looks of despair and hear the sound of rolling eyeballs from those writers among you who read the above exchange. Basic parts of speech, such as adverbs, adjectives and dialog identifiers have been almost excoriated by modern writing instructors. Authors are told to banish such words from their vocabulary, as use (or more fairly, overuse) of that language is banal or worse yet, moribund. How did this happen?

At one time, English prose was filled with all manner of the these three dreaded language parts of speech. Ernest Hemingway and others popularized the trend toward more succinct prose during the early 20th century. In a world of sound bites, "elevator pitches," microblogs and flash fiction, readers - allegedly - only want to read material bereft of as much clutter as possible.

As a reader, I've noticed a lot of color missing in modern writing as a result of this boycott of modifiers and have found it unfortunate. Compare the works of Dickens, one of the most popular writer of his day and beyond, with today's literary fiction. Therefore, as a writer, I attempt to conform to the modernist ways, even though it irks me to do so.

When is it okay to break these supposed "rules?"

My first rule on rules: it's your writing (or painting or sculpture or musical composition), break the rules (or not) whenever you want. That freedom comes with a warning, though - your audience may get turned off by what you've created, so if you're not about collecting eyeballs and all about expressing yourself, then break away!

My second rule on rules: like most things in life, moderation is the key to success, even when it comes to following rules. An adverb here, a creative dialog identifier there won't destroy your prose. However, too much of anything isn't a good idea (though you may be able to think of some exceptions that have nothing to do with writing).

My third rule on rules: there are no rules. However, there are some guidelines (don't challenge me on my semantics, please!) that I'm following and will share here:
  • Before you resort to an adverb, think about a better verb that eliminates the need to use it. For example, instead of writing "He quickly ran to the neighbor's house," you could write, "He sped to the neighbor's house."
  • You can reduce the number of adjectives in your prose by either choosing a more descriptive noun ("jalopy" instead of "old car", for example. As Mark Twain said in regards to adjectives, "When in doubt, strike it out."

  • While "said" is the preferred dialog identifier, there are a couple of points to consider here: first, "he said, she said," ad nauseam, is tiring to read, even if you're fully engaged in the dialog (though most readers have learned to ignore them anyway); second, the occasional "groaned," "muttered," "exclaimed," "cried" and the rest are fine, but they can be just as distracting as the constant parade of "saids" and "replieds."

  • One final observation is worth noting: in my travels, I find that writers no longer know how to read as a reader. Rather, most writers, especially the less experienced ones, overanalyze every bit of text in a piece, with both eyes open for errors and "gotchas." Every writer learns how to be a critic as they are developing their craft, a useful tool when self-editing and somewhat desired in writing groups. The problem is many lose their ability to get lost in the tale for all the over-concentration on grammatical misuse! Give me a good story and I can ignore the occasional slip; however, if the story is dull and lifeless - as some may argue happens when you make certain parts of speech "illegal" - then I close the book and put it in the Goodwill pile.
Perhaps a lesson learned here is for writers to regain the very pleasure of reading for content and to concentrate less on seeing who is violating which modernistic rules.

No matter what you do, make sure your writing is enjoyable and not a tedious chore. Have fun!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Works In Progress

Following up on my post from yesterday about how being a serial starter is my current personal challenge, I decided to trot out the truth for my own eyes to see. Sharing it only further illustrates this malady.

Currently, I have the following works in some reason state of progress. These do not include all those ideas sketched out in brief synopsis or even bulleted form ... I have dozens of those just ripe for further exploration (some day, maybe). No, these are just those that I have in development beyond a story idea (usually a full story treatment is written out)
  • 15 short stories
  • 6 screenplays
  • 5 novels
  • 2 novellas
  • 1 stage play
  • 1 non-fiction book
So what to do first? I'm going to edit my short story called The New Forty and publish it on my website (target date is 10/1). The first draft is completed, which is why I'm starting there - the proverbial "low hanging fruit."

Stay tuned for further developments.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Confessions of a Serial Starter

In my internet wanderings, I have the occasion to read articles by writers, both professional and aspiring, who lament that they are in some creative box at the moment and can't find the hidden door that would lead to their escape. This impasse is nothing like a mere speed bump in their creativity; those are barely worth mentioning, as everyone (regardless of their means of expression) has those. No, these are full-fledged, "I am so stuck it hurts" moments, whether it's in their current piece-in-progress or the ability to conjure up something from the idea machine located somewhere in the gray matter.

I can empathize, even if I cannot share their specific pain. As far as I know, I don't have attention span issues, either. I'm fortunate to have the ability to focus on a particular effort for long periods of time, blocking out the interruptions of life that are the death to any author's productivity. As all writers will tell you, life goes on in spite of the creative effort and even though the Muse is a demanding harpy at times, the dog still needs to be fed, the groceries still need to be purchased and the taxes still need to be paid. I can say this with utmost certainty: ADD isn't my personal demon.

I'm not really a procrastinator, either. If it's on my "to do" list, I don't make up higher priority tasks in order to avoid the inevitable. You won't find me rearranging my closets so as not to face the dreaded blank page. Quite the opposite, actually ... mundane and (but eventually) necessary tasks take a back seat to anything I do creatively. Like many other writers and artists in other media, the need to create is a driving force that can nearly consume one at times. I think that it's that unyielding determination that can eventually consume us, whether it results in the well running dry or spigots are fairly overflowing and cannot be contained.

Organizational skills, I have those in spades. I have a great electronic filing system and I'm near obsessive about following it. I'm not saying I don't have those moments where I run around in the real or virtual worlds, looking for something I misplaced because I failed to file it in its proper place. When it comes to my writing, though, I have a very simple and logical system for maintaining all of my drafts, ideas, notes and other tidbits that would require a filing cabinet if I moved it all to paper.

This electronic filing system I employ may be the source of my serial-starter behavior. The number of works I currently have in early stages of construction is somewhat daunting and while all neatly cataloged in my tidy little virtual folder structure, there is just so MANY of them in this state of incompletion. Let me give you the stats: under the category of works in progress, I have five novels, one non-fiction book, twenty-eight short stories, three screenplays, two novellas and umpteen other types of works. With some disdain, I note that my writing world reflects my reading world, as I have a many books, magazines, journals and the rest all similarly "in progress."

Why I am like this? Part of it is due to the wellspring of ideas which I have somehow tapped and continues to pay out, much like a rigged one-armed bandit. The problem is stopping long enough from dropping coins in new machines until the jackpots finish paying out. Perhaps another (and more revealing) reason is I'm thrilled with the very beginning, but lose that level of fire to carry me through to the end. No matter how little I procrastinate, how organized I am or how many creative ideas are there for the taking, getting to the end isn't easy. But finish I must.

They say confession is good for the soul and perhaps it's also good for the Muse, too. Are you listening, you harpy? And by the way, this piece is finished.