Part III–the last in my series on Herrick Library’s Get Published 2016 seminar–will address the elusive topic of what things you should avoid when writing your master work. This isn’t a how-to so much as a how-not-to. [To catch up, follow the colorful links to review Part I and Part II .]
By the end of a six-hour marathon session of talking, the flower may not have lost its bloom, but the petals were wilting (and screaming to stretch already). I still enjoyed the camaraderie of the occasion—established writers, publishers, editors, joining in an effort to help new writers learn the ropes of publishing—but my note taking definitely took a nosedive.
The moderator asked what advice each person had for the beginning writer. As if a lid came off a pot threatening to over-boil, the panel devolved into a session of “Please for the love of god—no. Just, no!” pet peeves…ah, I mean…appeals.* Let’s see if you can pick out all the points raised in this sample text I’ve constructed for a story I’m calling:
A Godawful Mess
Jack said, “I need to pee.” as he rose from his bed. At the door he started to go, then he hesitated, stopping to scratch his pertinent private parts as if to suggest other options, but then went to the bathroom.
It was looking like it was going to become a boring day like every morning before and every boring day after forever and ever. His wife, who hated him with a passion that otherwise could only be found on her favorite daytime soaps, under her morning breath sparkled: “Just once, it would be nice if That Bastard,” her pet name for Jack, “woke up on fire in a tunnel full of rats with rabies and syphilis.” (Whether she meant the rats had rabies and syphillis or Jack did was anybody’s guess because she was imprecise in her attribution.) But his wife didn’t dare say this too loudly enough to chance to be heard through the cardboard thin walls of their hand-me-down trailer, in case her bastard husband who cheated on her since the sixth grade dance where he had decided to invite her, only to then decide to dump her for her best friend Brittany who later dropped out of college to become a poll dancer and went on to prancingly marry a wealthy plastic surgeon, heard her.
Tiffany crooked her head sideways to crane like a Frasier fir in a hundred-mile-an-hour wind and look across the room at Brittany-The-Bitchany’s portrait on the wall where her husband had punched a hole in a drunken rage following being fired for embezzlement which led to their current nearly homeless situation.Tiffany had a moment to consider a lengthy backstory, but she felt her gorge rising and decided to vomit in the laundry basket instead, scaring the cat.
Her mouth was whipped with the back of one hairy hand, Tiffany pointed a finger at the picture while picking up a dart to throw it. She missed, and instead hit PussyWillow the Third, scarring the cat. The Bastard would have said ‘Ten Points’ if he weren’t peeing like a race horse and stinking up the place. Damned asparagus festival. The sound of flushing woke her briefly from her stupor.
Wait…where was she? Tiffany began to stumble to her feet and think. Oh, right, reflecting on the duplicitous nature of a back-stabbing, would-be, erstwhile ho.
Brittany’s head covers the hole now and Tiffany likes to think someday That Bastard will punch Brittany’s face in. Brittany with her perfect hair, perfect family and perfect life. Tiffany’s complaining liver became suffused with bile and sneered at the former blond, high school prom queen/cheerleader/slut. Type-casting was rife in her opinion.
Waggling the pointed finger, Tiffany considered her foe with impunity.
“It doesn’t matter how far you’ve risen, Bitchany.” Tiffany brayed donkey-like through smoke-blackened partials, flipping her greasy hair for emphasizing measure. “I know how low you are willing to go–all the way down according to the varsity football team. I know those red-headed kids ain’t you’re husbands. And I know people in even lower places who are willing to pay for juicy gossip.” Tiffany chuffed and snorted her pointless speech with kale-like bitterness. She emitted sounds like a congested diesel engine on its last piston. Her glass eye shivered like molten jelly.
Brittany was stubbornly oblivious-her plastic smile oozing insincerely and unctuously from the flaking-off fake gold frame on the wall. Her capped teeth sparkled with egotistical glee under the glass. Her eyes said with extreme vivaciousness, “Well, lookee who here was a success and who got fat and cheated on after all. Pooh to you, Ms. Valley-dictorian. I guess getting a boob job was the right career path after all.”
“Shut your mouth, whore!”She said to her former best friend.
Spittle flew with projectile fury-spattering the frame in a lacy spray of flume and bile. Tiffany got right up in Brittany’s celluloid face and decided to consider to go get a shredder to deal with the conniving leg-spreader who’d done the nasty with Jack and then toasted Tiffany with the news at her bachelorette party.
“Good luck with Mr. Two-and-a-half.” Tiffany mouth measured mock suggestive, surprise as her fingers shrunk to the widening eyes of the circle of drunk family members.
Grandma had to about keeled over with shock and the minister’s wife prunned up something fierce. Mom still gave That Bastard funny looks when they visited her in prison. Daddy, may he rest in peace, had just laughed before shoving another dollar into her cousin’s g-string.
Not as drunk as she had been that night, Tiffany finally found the words that summed up her rage, jealousy and the vacillation of someone who hates the only real friend she’d ever had, except for the imaginary kind. Her hands shook like a rattler warning of an imminent bite, she said, “Bite me.” to the frame on the wall.
“What’cha bitchin ’bout now?” The Bastard belched each word with criminal flatulence for an oncore.
Over his shoulder, Brittany winked from the frame and blew Tiffany a kiss.
“Nothin.” She said.
“What?” He said.
“You heard me.” She said.
“Oh yeah?” He said before cracking her a good one.
“Touche,” she said.
“Merooooooow?” said PussyWillow the Third with a suggestion of a furball at the end of its vowel-laden yowl.
That Bastard said menacingly, “Shut up, cat.” before kicking the half-blind creature aiming for imaginary goal posts through the upright ends of the three-poster bed.
Regaining her feet, although she’d lost a high heel somewhere as she stumbled to a drunkly dignified pose, one bra strap slipping un-suggestively down her rounded shoulders, she said. “Happy Anniversary, dear.”
What she meant was, “I hope you die a thousand deaths under a scorching sun with fire ants chewing a path through your cocaine damaged nasal passages and eat the last unpickled neuron which keeps you breathing, you fart-breathed buffoon.”
“You too,” he breathed Johnny Walker on a nine-day bender back at her.
One of them was going to die a painfully ironic terminal death today…sadly, it was going to be PussyWillow the Third, but that is a story for another tale. Mostly we will just have to wonder.
Believe me, that was almost as hard to write as it was to read. Most of the mistakes are on purpose. Feel free to assume that any mistake in my writing henceforth is a test for you to pass. Your welcum. (Intentionally bad for you grammar pedants.) Which leads me to our panel’s most prevalent opinion–fundamental writing skills matter.
English Teacher Vindication
The most basic lament about first-time submissions was surprising—instead of a commentary on plot, character, or pacing, the panel agreed, what a publisher wants to see most is clean writing that is free from errors. Writers should, “focus on grammar—the publisher doesn’t want to have a lot of work to fix.” In addition to spotless grammar, the language mechanics have to be physically possible. One panelist said, “Eliminate flowery or impossible speaker attributions. You can’t smile or laugh dialogue. Stick with ‘he said’ or ‘she said.’ In a dialogue between two people it is possible to avoid attribution or just do the minimal if it is well written.” Simple fixes such as these are the key to a clean manuscript. Matthew Rohr suggests writers need a checklist to use as a guideline to proof your work, “When I am writing a story, the first and second draft are rough outlines—the second draft is when I edit with a check list of things I watch out for: grammar, passive verbs, etc…” Once you have the skills of a ninja grammarian, you are ready to move on to the fun stuff: getting to the nitty gritty, low down and dirty, totally balls-to-the-wall annoyances of choppy writing.
Each writer had their own particular focus for what distracts the reader from making it through the minefield of bad writing.
Flashback = Drawback
Sue Ann Culp eschews the tried and true flashback, stating that the first chapter of the book should stay in the present. “In the first chapter there should be no back story.” Apparently, any time a writer stops the action this causes “broken narrative—don’t stop for backstory.”
Bad Bedroom Scenes
Sue Ann Culp also begged writers to avoid a certain type of bedroom scene. “Please stop writing your character getting up in the morning! Nothing of interest happens in the course of an ordinary day. Skip to the part where something different happens.” She did amend this blanket statement by adding, “Of course, if the story beings with ‘I woke up in a tunnel on fire,’ that’s a little different.”
On Introducing a Scene—How Not To:
“Please no Wikipedia entries detailing the story building of the world you’re creating.” Tim Rohr. “Though, it’s not a bad idea to write your novel as a short story and then back-scaffold out of it to find the plot points the story is going to follow.”
In his typically succinct fashion, Tim Rohr said, “Don’t lead with ‘Jack said.’”
Infinite Infinitive Injunctions
Tim Rohr’s writing process involves a lot of things to avoid, in particular, he suggests writers keep a look out for particular infinitive constructions. “Infinitive makers tend to flatten the narrative. Don’t use ‘to start’, ‘to begin’, ‘to proceed,’ etc…” He cited examples:
Instead of ‘He began to study…’ write ‘He studied.’
Instead of ‘She started to become concerned…’ write ‘She worried…’
Once you start to see it, it is easy to recognize where pacing begins to lag. “Whenever writers put infinitives into a sentence it slows the reader down and takes the legs out from under the action.” Tim Rohr prefers the focus to be on the movement of the story. “I ask myself, ‘Is the writing self-aware?’ In an action-packed scene, the sentences get shorter.” He ended with his pet-peeve: “I hate this type of sentence: ‘I hesitated but then went…’ Don’t do that.”
Sue Ann Culp apparently agrees with Stephen King who holds the opinion that “…the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” She had this to say about the pesky, unnecessary constructions: “Massacre the adverbs! Adverbs are a lazy way of writing and people over-use them. The dialogue should do the work. The body language that goes along with it will tell the story. Don’t feed me ‘Menacingly! Oh, and read everything out loud. I read out loud and my dog loves to listen to me.” Pet pronouncements aside, I have to agree with what she and the estimable Mr. King are saying—mostly. Sometimes, no other emphasis will do. Just be certain adverbial inclusion is crucial, or prepare to be skewered by overzealous editors with giant, red pens of critical justice.
In Defense of Decent Dialogue
The presenters segued to a discussion of dialogue and recommendations flew past. Sometimes, in the heat of writing, you don’t recognize the error of your ways. Matthew Rohr pointed to the obvious solution. “You need to have a list of things to cross-check when you think you are done and ready to submit. For me, I check attribution—the he said, she said count. If there are fifty ‘saids’ in a 200-word paragraph—that’s bad.” Matthew went on to recommend samples of dialogue from the current anthology from Caffeinated Press. “One of the stories by AmyJo Johnson in the Brewed Awakenings anthology has a story with great dialogue. And Melanie Meyer’s story “The Watcher on the Island” is another.” Fortunately for you, I happened to purchase a copy so I am able to report that he is quite right to recommend these authors. I liked both short stories very much, but going back and reading for the impact of dialogue made me think about why I liked each story and how the use of dialogue impacted my opinion.
The story, She’s My Favorite by AmyJo Johnson, uses dialogue to drops hints about the mystery between sisters in a futuristic world. The key to this character-driven narrative is the unusual, stilted exchanges between the main character and her emotionally distant twin.
“Sister, how old are we?” Lily had asked, when they were alone one evening.
“How do we know when we are six?”
“Mother will throw a party, where other kids come over, bring toys for me, and we get to eat cake. You’ll get to watch, like at the playground.”
“A party?” The word sounded magical to Lily. “Why haven’t we had a party yet?”
“Last time, we were too young. The other kids told me about parties and that they start when we turn six.”
In this short story, the author uses the telling questions to reveal the unequal treatment for the child described as ‘Other’ but not necessarily the reason behind it until nearly the end. There is no backstory to speak of and little description of the setting beyond the bleakness of the narrow world as viewed through Lily’s eyes. Without beating the reader over the head, the author increases the understanding little by little with short conversations between twins who are raised in very different ways. The simplicity of the scenes and the questions which go unanswered tell much more than a detailed exploration of world building that occurs in larger works. Conversely, in The Watcher on the Island, by Melanie Meyer, the everyday exchanges between a boy and his playmate do nothing to raise suspicions—it is the setting and circumstances of the relationship which suggest that something is different about Tartok’s friend, Raven.
“Do you have time to come see the cave?” There are icicles there as long as my arm!” Raven asked excitedly.
Tartok looked to the sun, which was only a hand-width from the horizon, and said, “Probably not today. It’ll be dark soon and Mother hates when I am out after dark.”
“Alright, But if we don’t go tomorrow, they will melt.” Raven got to his feet and brushed dirt and dried bird droppings off his pants. “You’ll come to play tomorrow won’t you?”
“I’ll try as hard as I can. It all depends on when the Japanese patrol comes past, Mother won’t let me out until they are gone.”
Raven just shrugged, and walked up the hill alone as Tartok walked back to the lone fishing hut that clung to the battered shore. It looked like it had been abandoned for years, and Tartok knew that was the point. It didn’t look very inviting. Still, as the winter wind blew around the rocky cliffs, Tartok found it much better than this otherwise desolate island in the middle of nowhere.
In this story, dialogue does not work alone to set the stage, but it does realistically imitate two boys playing as if in an ordinary world. Tartok’s matter-of-fact acceptance of Raven’s friendship on an otherwise deserted island gives the reader a chance to identify with a lonely boy’s ability to ignore obvious questions. There is a magic to a child’s willing suspension of disbelief in time of war and privation—the simplicity of their exchanges leads the reader to believe the impossible must be true. Whether stilted and painfully correct or casual and childlike, the dialogue is a mirror to the character and the character a window to the soul of the story. Being able to recognize when you have gotten it right is the hardest part.
Dialogue works best that sounds believable, but it surprisingly hard to create. In researching the topic, I ran across an excellent article on the subject at the Aliventures Blog. It offers some links to the mechanics of formatting dialogue and identifying the mistakes neophyte writers are prone to make. And on that subject, our presenters had a few recommendations.
Well written dialogue sells the reader on the story; it is the frosting to the cupcake. Yeah, you might have a moist, cake-y concoction, but a story is always improved by a swirl of delicious dialogue.** However, if you don’t layer it just right, sticky dialogue might leave your readers with a bad taste in their mouths. For example, Jason Gillikin is passionately opposed to clunky speeches: “Don’t over-prescribe the dialogue. Ellipses make me mad. Let the reader draw their own conclusions.” Writers fall in love with their words—to the point even professional writers might miss glaringly poor construction. The solution to this problem? It’s as easy as a robotic voice-over. AmyJo Johnson recommends a program which will let you hear just how bad or good your dialogue is. She recommends writers “Use ‘Open Office’ as it will read your work to you—in a horrible, automated voice—but at least you get to hear it.” Once you listen to just how bad it sounds, flat dialogue starts to stand out and you are able to identify the error of your ways and eliminate it from your writing. So now you have a better idea how to put words in the mouth of your creation—but how do you decide what exactly you are creating?
Pants Versus No Pants
The panelists were asked what approach they preferred when starting a novel—are you a planner or a pantser? The consensus? Most people are a little bit of both—or at least maybe they should be.
If you line up a row of writers and asked them whether their process is highly structured or flows organically from a primal literary spring, expect there to be a giant line drawn in the sand with die-hard opinions on both sides—at least, at first. “I’m a planner.” Tim Rohr said succinctly—as if that said it all. His brother, Matthew Rohr waxed a little more poetic—and from the other side of the fence. “I have no use for planning. But I recommend that you pair up with whoever is an opposite to your writing style. My brother is a planner and we have bounced things off each other.” It’s all well and good if you have someone to bounce ideas off of, but in a pinch, sometimes your characters can tell you where they want to go.
What is a writer to do when the road ahead isn’t so clearly mapped out? Amy Jo Johnson, recommends you let your characters out to play. “I’m a pantser. I like to write up my characters in a world, like The Sims, and let them loose and see what they do. You have to find ways to get into your characters’ heads.” This laissez-faire attitude didn’t work for everyone however. Jason Gilliken was unapologetic about a more meticulous approach. “I’m a planner.” With that said, Jason did recommend however that even a planner needs to recognize that a work is dynamic, subject to change and will have an organic core. “I recommend you leave the first draft alone for six months. A cold read is a refreshing start.”*** Every writer knew what their preferred method was, but did not suggest one method was better over another. Heads nodded as each person presented their take on the most difficult of journeys—from the beginning of a story to a satisfying conclusion. Sue Ann Culp is a self-professed planner, but even she concedes that flexibility is a key attribute. “I think we are all a bit of both. But when I get in the car, if I don’t have a direction, I go—[insert wishy-washy hand gesture here]—SWISH. I have to have an overall road map from the start.” Right, so it’s great to go sightseeing but if you lose the map, expect to make unnecessary detours and backtracking in your writing.
Leaving the presentation, my head buzzed with the many ideas, recommendations, and admonitions. In general, I like to write from my heart on subjects with which I am familiar. This series was a step outside my comfort zone. It was a struggle to condense the advice and weave it into a whole cloth for you to wrap your head around. I am not entirely sure I succeeded, but I am glad I made the effort. Of note, there was one portion of the session I did not write about. It was the live critique of work submitted by attendees of the conference. As the audience looked on, each work was diced into so much blow fish sushi. Fugu might be delicious, but one wrong slip and it is also poisonous. After listening to the points the editors and writers made about other people’s works, I was grateful mine hadn’t been chosen. Because I do not have the original works to reference, I felt the points raised in the critique—though helpful to the writers and audience—would not make sense out of context. Then, I had a bit of luck. At the end of the session, I won a prize: a critique of my work by editors from MiFiWriters.org. When I have heard back from the reviewers, I will let you know what they had to say. Just as soon as they stop laughing.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Feel free to let me know how to correctly punctuate this sentence. I rewrote it several times and finally gave up. Sue me.
**Mmmmmm, rich and tasty dialogue. Chocolate ganache colloquy is my favorite.
***However, waiting four weeks after the event to write a final installment blog post is ill-advised. You end up with the rambling mess you see above you.