Writing Lesson: Teaching old Dogs New Tricks

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I’ve been writing since about 2000. (That’s 15 years!) I host a monthly writing group, a monthly writing class, and do beta and alpha reads for other authors. I know a lot of writing rules and tricks. I can even judge when to break them most of the time. Why? I have experience. Been there, done that, learned to do better. But, a little over a year ago, I changed what I write and have had to learn some new rules.

Writing for children is different than writing for adults. In some ways, it’s easier. I feel released because there are things I can skip and not worry about explaining. But, in some ways, it’s much harder because it’s new to me. I’m the new kid on the block. 😉

One of the writing rules I teach my class is repetitive words. Never be accidentally repetitive. You can be repetitive on purpose, but not on accident. When you repeat words beyond AND or THE it catches the readers eye and draws them out of the book. It makes them stop flowing in their reading and start reading every word specifically. Now they are doing a vocabulary study, not reading your story.

There is one exception to this word. The word ‘said’. You can repeat ‘said’ as many times as you like. Over and over. Sentence after sentence. Why? Because the human mind stops reading it. They read the dialogue and then the name of the speaker never once reading the word said. This is in fact why writers are encouraged to not use other words like asked, exclaimed, and growled to describe a character talking. When they use a more descriptive word it breaks the flow of reading. The reader has to stop the flow of the words in their mind and make sure they read the dialogue correctly.

Did I read that line with a growl?

Did I understand that the character was exclaiming?

In the best-case scenario, the reader should be able to tell by your word choice and vocabulary the emotion of the situation without saying anything beyond ‘said’.

This is a rule I have honored, taught, and experienced. I have stood by this rule for years.

Then my younger brother broke it for me.

My younger brother is married and has two of the cutest little girls in the world. He works for Halliburton and has spent time all over the world on oilrigs. I don’t get to see him very often, so we started a Christmas tradition of going shopping together before the holidays. He gets gifts for the girls and his lovely wife and I finish up everything I haven’t gotten done yet. Between stops, we talk about what we haven’t covered via text or email, and some things we have but we wish to rehash. We talk about books, movies, philosophy, Tolkien, vampires, my writing, his girls, and just life in general. It is one of the many things I love about the Christmas season.

This year, as we drove from Target to World Market, we talked about my Texas Cousins Adventure stories. They are very popular with my nieces and nephews and I hope to get them published some day. My brother told me how much he enjoyed them but wanted to offer one word of critique: the word ‘said’ is used too much.

What??

You can’t use ‘said’ too much!!

It’s a rule!

But wait . . .

Children’s stories are not the same as novels. They are short and meant to be read aloud by parents to little people who can’t read yet. Eureka! Lightbulb!

They are meant to be read aloud.

Few of us read novels aloud. We read them silently in our heads. But a children’s story is meant to be gathered around and enjoyed by several little people while someone reads each word. Why yes! In that case, you would never want to repeat the word said because it would get old and annoying. In a novel, your mind and eye skip it. But when you’re reading it aloud, you’re reading it over and over and over and over and over.

Oh my.

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In that one little moment, I realized that I need to look at Texas Cousins Adventure stories as something read verbally and heard with the ears. I need to read it aloud before sharing it so that I can make sure it works well with the human mouth and not just the human eyes. I need to used words like exclaimed, asked, growled, grunted, and any other fun descriptive word I can come up with for the way someone talks.

I was thankful for his honest and gentle critique. It’s important as a writer to have friends who are willing to tell you where you’re going wrong. It’s tough to take, but worth it.

Now, on to better writing!

(Our current debate is about genres. Are they good, bad, a necessary evil? We’re still discussing it over text and emails, so I’ll keep you posted. Also, I’m listening to some audio books to see how they handle this situation. Do they skip said if they’re doing distinct voices or do they say it and we start to ignore it? Thoughts?)

Me and my younger brother!

Me and my younger brother!

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Writing Lesson: The Basics

Always follow the rules.

Always follow the rules.

I’ve been going over several rough drafts handed in from my writing class, and recently re-read one of my own, driving me to remember the basics of literary writing.  For many of you this is going to be so ingrained in your writing psyche that you hardly notice it anymore.  For others, this might be new news and something you want to do more research on.  If you’re home schooling your kids, this might help you help all those little budding writers out there.

When I first started, I joined several writing groups and took a continuing education class on creative writing.  I didn’t get much out of these classes except general discouragement.  The difficulties in establishing an environment where people can share their stories and get constructive criticism are vast.  What I did get was the basics ground into me.  The classes were limited and never got to the roots of whether a story was good or not.  All that could be critique were the basics.  These are some of the things I learned:

LY Words:  -LY words are adverbs.  This means they modify or flesh out a concept, person, or thing in your sentence.  Too often they’re redundant and profuse in writing.  They weaken your ability to communicate.  They’re a crutch.

  • Example: Jane whispered quietly.
  • Problem:  The inherit nature of a whisper is that it is quiet.  The idea of whispering quietly is redundant and tells the reader nothing.
  • Fix:  Jane lowered her voice to whisper.  A whisper so soft, so subtle, it forced me to lean in closer to catch her words.

This fix is far wordier, yes, but it also creates a richer, more vivid image in the mind of the reader.  You can’t remove all the -LY words from your writing, and you shouldn’t.  But watch how often you rely on them to explain what’s going on instead of communicating more fully with your reader.

ING Words:  These words slow down the action in your writing.  They are often connected to Passive words.  Many of them can be eliminated easily with some sentence restructuring.

  • Example: Jane was swinging her sword around her head and running away at the same time.
  • Problem:  both -ING words steal the action from the scene.  They make it something we are looking down into, instead of something we’re in.  Eliminate as many as you can to make the scene stronger and tighter.
  • Fix:  Jane swung her sword around her head and beat a hasty retreat.

This fix tightens the action giving more emotion and immediacy.  It brings you into the action, instead of making you watch the action.  You won’t be able to eliminate all the -ING words from your writing because Gerunds and Present Participles have their place.  But, watch out for these words.  Cut them as often as possible.

Passive words:  Any forms of ‘to be’ are passive words.  They’re easy to use and harder to get rid of.  The easiest one to use is the word “was”, or “is” if you are writing present tense.

  • Example: Jane was tired.
  • Problem:  You can do better than this.
  • Fix:  Jane experienced a level of exhaustion that words failed to communicate.  The pillow, the down comforter, the clean white sheets embraced her as she tumbled into bed.

The fix gives us a far richer, deeper understanding of exactly what Jane feels and senses.  You won’t be able to eliminate all the ‘was’ words from your writing, but take a red pen, circle them, and try to get rid of most of them.

Action to the front: As often as you can, move the action to the front of the sentence.  If you always have it at the back, you lose most of its power.

  • Example:  With her blue hair trailing behind her, Jane rushed down the hall.
  • Problem:  The action your reader needs to know is at the end of the sentence, possibly not even standing out to the reader.
  • Fix:  Jane rushed down the hall.  Her blue hair trailed behind her.

At times, to vary sentence beginning and structure, you will need to move the action to the end of the sentence.  But try to keep the action at the forefront.  Go edit a paragraph and see how much tighter, crisper, and more fun it is when the action leads the way.

Start each Paragraph/Sentence with a Different Letter:  There is an element of reading which is visual, even if we don’t consciously notice it.  As you write, make sure you don’t start each sentence or paragraph with the same letter, or word.  Nothing bores a reader faster.  This is most often seen by starting a sentence with the name of the protagonist or ‘I’ if you’re writing 1st person POV.  It tires the reader.  The names you choose for your characters can make this more difficult.  A protagonist named Henry is a challenge  because ‘he’ doesn’t serve as a  unique substitute to change up the beginning of the sentence/paragraph.  They have the same beginning letters.  Same with ‘T’ names and ‘S’ names.  They often conflict with ‘the’ and ‘she’.  This doesn’t mean avoid them, just know the challenge ahead of you.

Stagger your Sentence Structure:   You remember all that annoying diagramming of sentences you did in high school, right?  You may not be able to do it anymore, but as a writer, you need to make your sentences different.  If each one has ‘and’, or ‘as’, or ‘which’, or ‘that’, you need to change it up.  Write long sentences and short ones.  Connect two sentences together and break them up.  Make sure the Sentences are structured differently.

Don’t repeat Words:  Avoid repeating words, big and small.  I’m not talking about words like ‘and’, ‘the’ and things like that.  I’m talking about words like angry, sky, blue, indispensable.

  • Example:  Jan skipped through the puddles.  Water splashed up on her jeans from the puddle.
  • Problem:  The use of the word puddle, twice like this, is boring and uncreative.
  • Fix:  Jane skipped through the puddles.  Water splashed her boots and jeans.

This is a very simple and easy example.  Some situations are harder, and some you won’t even notice until you go back to edit.  You can repeat a word if you are being poetic, and only then.  Often you will see poetic uses of repetition in groups of three.

‘Said’ is the Only Repeatable Word: The dialogue tag is the only excessively repeatable word you may use.  In fact, studies have shown that readers rarely read the word ‘said’.  Their eyes skim this word, don’t read it, often ignore it.  They are only interested in who is speaking.  Does this mean you should just stop using the word ‘said’ and replace it with more interesting words, descriptions, and sentence structure?  No.  This slows the reader down.  As often as possible, the emotion should be clear in the dialogue.

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Show don’t Tell: Almost all these rules boil down to one great rule, the writer’s Prime Directive:  Show don’t Tell.  Don’t tell me the man is angry.  Show me he is angry by the redness of his face, the spittle flying from his lips, the strain against his collar.  Or, maybe show me he is angry by how still he sits, how soft his voice has become, and how white his knuckles are as he grips the head of his cane.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. – Anton Chekhov

Once in a while, you have to tell the reader.  Showing them would take too long and be distracting from the thrust of the story.  99.9% of the time you need to show the reader.  Practice showing first, before you decide you have to tell.  When you tell me, instead of show me, you lose the very art of writing.  You disconnect me from the story, the heart of what is going on.  This is one of the greatest and hardest rules to master as a new writer.

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The most important thing to remember in all of this is that these rules are never hard and fast.  Rules give you structure for your creativity.  You can’t creatively break the rules unless you know the rules.  They also don’t apply in first rough drafts.  But, I promise you, the longer you write and edit your own work, the more you will try to write this way from the start.  If you train your brain to think this way from the beginning, you save time on editing.  When you save time on editing, you have more time to write that new story.

I don’t know any published author who hasn’t broken the LY word rule, the ING word rule, or the “was” word rule.  Just know how, when, and why you can break them.