A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

Why?  Because the wrong words can paint the wrong image.  The image itself, however, shows what ‘is’.  If I want to describe a dragon in a story, I need to choose the words that will lead the reader to see in their mind the same (or at least very similar) image that I see in mine.

If I could draw, I could sketch out what I see in my head, but for me that isn’t an option.  That is one of the benefits of the internet to writers today.  If Tolkien wanted a visual reference of a dragon, he had to go to a library and dig through endless books searching for whatever had been drawn and published.  Writers now can simply do a search for images and be handed a tremendous variety to choose from.  It can be far easier to describe a dragon in great detail if you aren’t simply trying mentally imagine those characteristics, but can actually see what you want.

That is not to say that you should take someone else’s picture and simply use the dragon you see in it.  Your dragon can be a composite of many dragon pictures.  Some dragons are given wings, others are not.  Some have a smooth snake-like skin while others have scales.  A picture can give you an idea of how light might strike a dragon’s scales and be reflected (or absorbed).  A picture can help you decide if you want small, vestigial wings that are essentially useless, or wings that spread so wide to each side that a half dozen houses would be covered by them.

Just as writers are encouraged to look around themselves for inspiration in people, situations, locations and so forth, they should also make use of the vast library that is the internet, brought to your doorstep to peruse at your leisure.  Maybe you have a vague idea of your dragon being green in color, but then after seeing numerous pictures, you are inspired to change that to a reddish color and do so for a specific reason.  Maybe you thought to make its skin smooth, but after seeing many dragons with scales you might decide you like that better.  Dragons can lose/shed scales.  Those scales might have properties that are beneficial or harmful in some way.  Suddenly you have a whole new aspect to your dragon that you didn’t have when he vaguely had smooth skin.

This is just one example, of course.  There could be many other applications.  If you’re feeling daring, you could set up Pinterest pages to use in collecting images for reference.  (Beware, though, as Pinterest can be addicting and cause you to lose vast amounts of time ‘playing’.)  Or you could download images to your computer, or paste them into a word-processing document.  And you may prefer to do a search whenever you want a visual reference, but not save that image after you have finished extracting the needed details from it.

We live in a very visual world – make that work for you in your writing.

I Want Proof!

In fan fiction, you often see new writers posting things they’ve written without anyone else looking at it.  And, often, they themselves have weak writing skills.  No money is lost by posting such things online, but you do lose readership if people can’t get past the first page for all the mistakes.

Proofreading (or copy editing) is all the more critical if you intend to publish something professionally.  If you send a mistake-riddled manuscript to a publisher, I very much suspect they won’t bother reading it to completion either.  Your story may be great, it may be the next bestseller, but the reader won’t be able to find the story for all the errors.

Part of the problem is that writers often write in a vacuum.  They write it, they edit it, they proof it and then they’re “done”.  It gets sent to a publisher or self-published online and they wait for the readers and money to flow in.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve read Amazon reviews that remark on how poorly written stories are – structure, editing, spelling, grammar.  Usually the reviewer couldn’t bring themself to even finish the book.  And those are NOT the kinds of reviews you want.  They certainly won’t encourage new readers to give your book a chance.

So, what do you do to hopefully clean up most, if not all, of the mistakes?  Read it, read it again, and again and again.  Then have at least one other person (that you know has strong English language skills) to read it over also.  No matter how good we are, we will always miss some of our own mistakes.

One of the things I do when proofreading for a friend is to do the first reading ‘straight through’.  Why?  Because I want to see the big picture, and I want to check for continuity and story progression.  I usually prefer to read a print copy and so I might circle in red any errors I spot along the way, but I keep reading.  I don’t stop and give lengthy notes about the problem then and there.  That disrupts the flow.  This can also be done on a computer screen – I simply highlight something and move on.  When I’m done, I can note general, overall impressions of the story, and then I can go back and give specifics for cleaning up any issues I spotted.

I recently proofed a book for a friend who self-publishes.  There were instances of repetitious use of a phrase (without a specific reason to do so).  They weren’t close to one another so they weren’t readily seen unless you read straight through.  There were also a couple of places where she seemed to change her mind on a certain element of the story (a door being opened), but in three separate places, the action varies:  it is opening, it isn’t opening.  All of those needed to be reconciled with each other.

What about dropped plot points?  I wrote a story once and was cranking right along, but this story tied to other stories I had written.  I had failed to check the timeline.  So I have a story going that is totally ignoring a significant event (a wedding) that would be taking place when and where the new story is occurring.  Luckily, I noticed before I finished the story, but it meant going back and rewriting a lot of pages to work that detail in.  As it happens, I am very good at proofing my own stories (I once worked as a proofreader so I tend to see mistakes before I see the whole picture, but I don’t publish professionally).  That being the case, I rarely have anyone else read my stories before I post them.  That slip-up of omitting a plot point would have shown up in the “finished” product, and I’m very sure one of my astute readers would have called me on it.  Embarrassing, yes, but it would also mean pulling the story down for a rewrite – not ideal.

You’ve been staring at your story for a long time.  The ideas and words have been written and rewritten several times (presumably).  Maybe you’re really tired of looking at it and just want to be done.  If so, set it aside for a while (a week, a month or whatever suits you) and then read it from scratch and see how it strikes you.  And, if at all possible, get a trusted friend to read it and give you feedback.

Your work will be the better for those final efforts at tidying it up.

If You MUST Write About Horses (or Monarchies, For That Matter)

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE learn the difference between ‘rein’ and ‘reign’!

I know, everyone has mistakes that really get under their skin, and this one is probably mine.  I can’t even count the number of stories I’ve read where riders pull on the ‘reigns’ of their horses, while Kings ‘rein’ over their people.  (I suppose it is something that those writers at least seem to realize neither one is spelled ‘rain’…)

If these words, or any others, give you problems, LOOK THEM UP.  Make lists of words you commonly misspell or confuse, and REFER to the list whenever you use those words.  I do that for further/farther and lay/lie.  You can do it too.  Don’t slap someone out of the story you are weaving by allowing junk mistakes to creep in.  You want the reader totally immersed in your tale, from beginning to end.

Spellcheck is nice, but using the wrong word though spelled correctly won’t cause it to alert you.  Grammar check probably won’t catch it either if you use the wrong word.  You are on your own for your word choice.

Details like that can make a difference.  Besides, you want to end my misery, don’t you?

Addendum:  If you want to see the parts of a horse labeled with their correct name, here is a place you can start:  https://www.merriam-webster.com/art/med/horse.htm

Or you can Google for more.

Creative Writing

I don’t know if they still do it, or even if anyone did it beyond one class I had when I was young (grade school?), but in that class, they had us envision “My Life as a Pencil” or some such thing and then write about it.

On the surface, it’s a rather silly notion, and maybe best aimed at children, but it isn’t without merit as a writing exercise.  Aren’t we all trying to gain a new perspective?  Present ideas in new ways?  See the world from another person(thing)’s point of view?  Starting with an inanimate object or an animal forces us to veer greatly from the common views.  Does a dog worry about politics and wars across the globe?  Does a pencil care anything about world hunger?  And if they don’t worry or care about those things, what DO they think about?  Okay, so maybe pencils don’t “think”, but if they could what would be their concerns?  “If I have to write one more sentence without being sharpened, I swear I’m just going to break!”

Perhaps if you practice writing about those kinds of things, it may spark new ideas about what your characters might say or do or think.  It may push you to take a closer look at the world they live in and how that might affect them.  I knew a girl once who told of her life before she came to America.  She had lived in a Communist country (I forget which one – at the time there were more of them than there are now).  Her reality was that you eagerly sought to be a better “junior Communist”, sort of like being a good Scout and advancing in the program, earning badges and recognition.  She had no reason to question the “rightness” of that because it was all around her and everyone believed similarly.

Many of the characteristics of an individual are born of the life they have led, the environment in which they have grown up, their experiences and what they have been taught.  One child grows up racist while another does not.  They learned that in “their world”.  Similarly your characters draw from the world around them.  Someone saying mean or cruel things might never have been taught anything else.  What would it take for them to change their thinking and behave differently?  Another person telling them “Stop that!  It isn’t nice.  You shouldn’t do that anymore.” isn’t likely to work.  “Oh, okay, sorry.  I’ll stop right now.”  Uh, no.  People aren’t like that.  Your characters aren’t like that.

By the same token, few people are identical in spite of similarities.  Even “identical” twins tend to have something that differentiates them, even if it is just their color preference or favorite food.  Not all black men are the same, not all professional women are the same, not all stock brokers are the same.  Having race or gender or occupation in common isn’t the sum total of who they are.  Those differences are what make life, and people, interesting.  If all of us were carbon copies, life would be very dull.  No surprises, nothing new, every single day just like the last.

So, what is your cat thinking about as he gazes out the window?  How does your house like the way you decorate it for Christmas?  Are the stars laughing at us for wishing on them?

Find out!

Repost: This Might Interest Some of You

I posted this back in Feb, but was reminded of it by being made aware of a lesson on Story Structure now up.  While focused on how Pixar created their movies, the basic storytelling principles can apply to other mediums.  And they’re fun little videos to watch, filled with examples and activities for you to do to practice each part of the lesson.  The new lesson is at:  https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/pixar/storytelling/story-structure/v/piab-storystructure

 

This Might Interest Some of You

via Pixar Rolls Out Free Online Storytelling Course | Mental Floss

Noticed this on Mental Floss.  Those of you who write might want to see if it offers anything you can use.

In case the link doesn’t work:  http://mentalfloss.com/article/92367/pixar-rolls-out-free-online-storytelling-course?utm_campaign=newsletter&utm_source=mf&utm_medium=02_21_17-grid_1-92367

https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/pixar

https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/pixar/storytelling

A word about writing fan fiction (or anything else)

People have different views about writing.  Some turn up their noses at certain genres or writing forms (say, perhaps, graphic novels).  Many “serious” writers think fan fiction isn’t worthwhile, and to some extent they are right.

Yes, I know, that’s an odd thing to say coming from someone who primarily writes fan fiction.  The truth is, much of the fan fiction out there isn’t worth reading.  It’s poorly written, and far too many of the authors start stories that they never finish.  If a “serious” writer does that, no one knows but them, but fan fiction authors post chapters as they go along – it’s painfully obvious when they fizzle out and stop writing.  Sometimes there is a valid reason for this:  perhaps writing is a hobby and life gets in the way, but most of the time the person loses interest and just never finishes.  And it isn’t always because their story was bad – I’ve seen several that I wish the author would finish.

Despite that, though, there are true gems out there.  Just as I reread favorite books sitting on my shelf (written by well-known, acclaimed authors), I reread some fan fiction stories because they are so well done.  And, what many don’t realize is that some of those fan fiction writers go on to publish professionally with original works.  They used fan fiction writing to hone their craft first.  I know of at least one New York Times bestselling author who fits in that category, though there are probably others.  I have a friend who self-published on Amazon and her story is excellent (in my opinion), and had a lot of creative ideas.  She was a good writer of fan fiction and she still is now that she is writing original material.

There is, of course, a drawback to writing fan fiction.  Another friend writes for children’s television and animated series.  She is well-known and highly regarded in her profession.  Often fans will want her to look at their fan fiction stories.  While understandable, she can’t do it, even if she wanted to.  She would put herself at risk of accusations of plagiarism if a story she later wrote closely mirrored one of those stories.  Some ‘ideas’ are so general that there is no copyright on them, but if you get too specific in using that idea in the same way that someone else did, you are at risk.

Someone who read one of my fan fic stories, wanted me to read a story she was writing.  I did and as I went along, I grew increasingly concerned – her story closely mirrored one of mine that was already posted in its entirety.  Since I’m not a professional, I wasn’t worried from a copyright standpoint, but I knew that if she posted this story, some of my readers would read it and possibly accuse her of plagiarism.  Fortunately, she eventually veered it off in a different direction, but I saw my story very clearly in hers.

Another writer was concerned that one of her characters had a personality too much like mine (we were both using the same character in our stories, taken from Tolkien’s books).  But our both envisioning this person in the same way didn’t make it plagiarism.  How we used the character might have been, but as I told her, the story she was writing was completely unlike anything I had done.  I did not see my work in her story just because the characters were almost identical in personality.

Why do I mention this?  Perhaps to help other writers understand why some people write fan fiction.  If I’m not going to publish something professionally, why not write something for my own amusement?  And if I enjoy the world that someone else has created and want to play in it, why not?  For the most part, these stories are intended as an homage to the original author and their work – it sparked creativity in someone else.  True, those writers likely would not want to claim the fan fiction works as their own or up to their standards, but it usually is just harmless fan admiration.

But the greater purpose of this post is to make note that every writer has something to contribute, the story only they can tell in a certain way.  Many people can write stories about young witches and wizards attending school somewhere in the British Isles, but none will be written quite the way J. K. Rowling wrote hers.  They might be similar, but unless copied verbatim, there will be differences in the telling of that story by another person.  There are some brilliant ideas being expressed in comic books, graphic novels, fan fiction and even blogs.  Great tomes in the largest libraries of the world are not the only worthwhile reading.

Here’s hoping you share your stories, ideas and creativity via whatever medium best suits you!

Caricatures

[I wrote this a while ago, but am just now posting it.  More recently I’ve been putting in long, stressful hours at work – and then was sick – so I wasn’t accomplishing much of anything at home.]

Have been watching old DVDs, deciding which ones I want to keep and which to give away.  I hadn’t watched the three Crocodile Dundee movies in quite some time, so they were on the list.  These movies are enjoyable fluff, at least in my opinion, but I was reminded of their biggest problem – they have more caricatures than characters in them.

The parts that focus on Australia and the people there are pretty good, but once they head off to New York or Los Angeles, they don’t seem to know how to write the other characters.  All the “players” are stereotypical:  black guys, hookers, gang members, petty criminals, gays, etc.  None of them have any depth and despite different clothes and hair, they are all interchangeable with one another.  Everyone is extremely clean and their toughness is revealed mainly through crude language.  The scary thugs/gang members aren’t particularly scary, the hookers are just sweet girls who are nice as can be, and all the blacks talk in jive speech patterns.

Yes, if you ignore all that, you can enjoy the movies and just go with the silliness of it all.  But my point is, how much better would they have been if the characters were real?  If we believed they were what the credits or other characters said they were?

Similarly, do the stories we write suffer in that way?  Not all young black men are basketball-playing, uneducated, gangbangers.  Some black boys grow up to be Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Denzel Washington.  Most gangbangers aren’t cool, pleasant, clean people that you’d love to hang out with.  Etc., etc., etc.

Too often we see, and then follow the example, of stereotyping people – whether by race, religion, political party, occupation or even gender.  But if you look around at the world, things don’t line up.  Little girls might prefer playing with trucks rather than dolls.  Boys might rather practice the piano and write poetry than take up a sport.  Not all Chinese or Japanese children are scientific or musical prodigies.  You can probably think of a lot more examples.  When you write, you don’t have to do what is expected just because the world of literature/art/movies/tv have said it’s expected.  If your character doesn’t fit the mold, guess what?  They don’t have to!  And your story will be the stronger for it.  Don’t push to make it happen, but why can’t the person in the wheelchair be good at sports?  Why can’t the Muslim and the Jew be best friends?  Does the girl have to always be smarter than the boys?  Do all the boys have to be insensitive to others?  Why can’t there be a ‘cat guy’, with 15 cats?

You probably fit into numerous “categories” yourself, but are you identical to all the other people who fit into any or all of those categories?  Probably not.  So don’t fall into the trap of letting it happen to your characters.

For want of a comma, millions were lost

A class-action lawsuit about overtime pay for truck drivers hinged entirely on a debate that has bitterly divided friends, families and foes: The dreaded — or totally necessary — Oxford comma, perhaps the most polarizing of punctuation marks.

Most American news organizations tend to leave the Oxford comma out while allowing for exceptions to avoid confusion, like in the sentence: “I’d like to thank my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.”

But the comma is common in book and academic publishing. The Chicago Manual of Style uses it, as does Oxford University Press style. “The last comma can serve to resolve ambiguity,” it says.

“In this situation, it did create an ambiguity, which means you have to either add a comma or rewrite the sentence,” he said.

               [https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/16/us/oxford-comma-lawsuit.html]

Ah, yes, the joys of the English language!  In this instance, the lack of a comma created ambiguity, resulting in a huge cost to a company.  For writers, however, we face being misunderstood in what we intend if our punctuation is inaccurate or ambiguous.

“I love you,” Anna said.

“I love you?” Anna said.

Is there a difference in meaning of those two sentences?  Certainly, but you can only tell because of the punctuation.  As noted in the article about the dairy company overtime class-action lawsuit, if there is any possibility of being misunderstood you need to fix the punctuation to clarify, or rewrite the sentence.  In some cases, sentences lacking clarity are insignificant, but for the dairy company involved in the suit, it was not a small thing.

I once had a boss who would write or dictate letters to be typed by me, and he often misworded them.  Most of the time I could determine what he meant and fix them, but sometimes either of two interpretations was possible.  In those instances, I would have to go to him and have him tell me what he was trying to say, and then I would go write the sentence so that it actually said that.

Such mistakes can be costly, or merely embarrassing, but sometimes they are even funny.  I worked in a high-rise building, and we were notified that “firemen and their equipment and trucks will be in various parts of the building” during the day.  The obvious question was, “in which parts of the building will their trucks be – the elevators?  the restrooms?  the hallways?”.  This is an extreme example, and it was understood (despite the wording) what was meant, but the truth is they did not say what they meant to say.  I have sometimes read passages in books, too, where I am scratching my head trying to picture what the author is describing, and coming up short when elements of the description seem to contradict themselves.

It may never cost you any money, and perhaps you and a friend differ in your opinion of using the Oxford comma, but regardless, at the end of the day, you want to be correctly understood.  If an Oxford comma will achieve that, so be it.  If it takes something else to accomplish clarity, use that.  Just be clear in what you mean.

Dark, light or who cares?

I was reading a new post by David Ben-Ami on his Fiction All Day blog, and then took a look at a couple of older articles.  If you’re a writer, you may want to take a peek – for the most part I would agree with the points he makes in the articles I’ve read so far.

This particular post was regarding descriptions and using comparisons effectively.  In general, I considered him right in what he said.  As a fan fiction writer (versus writing in other arenas), things work a little differently, at least for me.  I’ve never been someone who is long on description.  If two people are in a scene with a sunset occurring, I’ll only describe the sunset to you if it is somehow pertinent to the scene or story that I’m telling.  Similarly, if I want your focus on their conversation, I consider it a distraction to give you two paragraphs describing the sunset in minute detail.  Pretty much everyone has seen sunsets.  If it isn’t important to the story, then I’m fine with you imagining any sunset you like.

That said, it is important to note that an economy of words makes it more necessary that you choose the right words to convey an idea in a very brief way.  It can be a tricky line to tread.  As David notes, slice away the unnecessary, but make sure you’ve said enough to create the image or idea that you want.

One of the problems I see often in fan fiction are girls who watch a movie, tv show or read a book and fall in love with it, so they try their hand at writing.  But they aren’t so much interested in the storytelling aspect as they are in creating their fairytale wherein they are the girl and they get to dress in fabulous clothes that are described down to the tiniest thread over the course of twelve paragraphs.  They might just as well go write a clothing blog of some sort, because there’s little room for a story by the time they finish these detailed descriptions.

I’m also not much for physically describing people, again unless I deem it important for some reason.  I may mention hair color or height if I want to make sure you aren’t seeing a short blond person when I fully intend them to be tall with dark hair.  But if it doesn’t really matter to the story, I’ll let you see anything you like – including yourself.

All this is not to say that description is overrated.  When done well, it is very effective.  As David points out in his blog, paint me a picture, but don’t keep touching it up endlessly or I’ll yawn and walk away.  Pare away the superfluous.  Use descriptors that are significant, and if you can bring in a comparison that ties it all together, it will make me remember that scene long after it’s ended.

I’ve mentioned Rick Riordan’s books.  In his Egyptian gods series, one of the two main lead characters is Carter Kane.  He specifically mentions that Carter is a young black man.  In and of itself, that isn’t important except that it has bearing on certain things that happen during the stories, so it is worth bringing to the reader’s attention.

On the other hand, in the Percy Jackson series of books (two separate series that are connected), there are two black characters (of note).  One, Charles Beckendorf, is briefly mentioned as being black and beyond that it rarely comes up again.  It doesn’t matter to anything that happens.  The other, Hazel Levesque, gets a little more focus on her color because it is important for brief moments in the stories.  While it’s true that Hazel is more of a “lead” character than “Charles” is, in general it simply wasn’t important to harp on that detail of them.  It was merely one part of their whole and often the other parts were of far more interest and pertinence than simply the color of their skin, hair or eyes.

So, my personal feeling is, if you’re going to describe it, let there be a purpose for doing so.  Is describing what someone looks like or what they are wearing more important than describing what they are thinking, feeling or doing at any given moment?  Usually not, and they may even get in the way of the story, disrupting the flow.  I don’t much care what clothes the hero is wearing in that dark alley.  I’m more interested in why they are there and what they intend to do.  Only if the clothing matters in some way will I ever even wonder about it.  Does he get discovered because he foolishly wore something bright white or reflective while on a covert mission?  Then I care about what he’s wearing, and why, and what happens because of it.

What about you?  How do you feel about descriptions, and could yours use some work?

[see https://davidbenami.com/2014/09/21/whats-missing-from-the-forest/%5D