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Friday, April 25, 2014

Worst Part of Writing

I read an article last night about James Patterson. I found it interesting that he actually has a Masters Degree in English Lit. Seems he was preparing for success far before he became successful.

Mr. Patterson had an interesting quote regarding rules in writing. I will paraphrase here because I can't find the magazine this morning; "The first rule is, there ain't no rules." No, wait; that's not right. That's the stupid greaser from Grease. What Mr. Patterson said was this – learn the rules and feel free to break them. Really, he said that (or something close to that). Cool; that's something I can live with.

Let's be clear on something. I have no qualifications like those of James Patterson to fall back upon. I earned a BBA (Bachelor of Business Administration) with a comprehensive major in Accounting a number of years ago. So my qualifications are this: I did graduate from High School, and I actually graduated from College. As you can tell, I'm not quite as qualified (by education at least) as the master himself. Although I did take Writer's Workshop and Writer's Workshop II in high school.

Here's what I know of the english rules of creating a novel:

  • Don't use the passive voice
  • Show, don't tell
  • When at all possible, kill all adverbs and adjectives you can find
That's about it. Three points sum up my worldly knowledge when it comes to writing. Yet, I decided to foray into the self-published world so unprepared (but recall my Writer's Workshop experience).

Passive Voice - I read a lot; I mean a whole lot for someone who works 40 hours a week, has family nearby to visit, writes as much as possible. And I still manage to read about 6 novels a month. In five of those six novels I discover a bunch of passive voice. Too much according to the rules I've read. And still, some of these are very successful authors. So perhaps Mr. Patterson's advice has already been heeded by a number of authors.

Show, Don't Tell - Right! You try and describe every scene you create, every characters facial expression, every tree being swept by a light southerly breeze. Trust me, eventually you will write this classic line - "Liza was mad." That doesn't mean your editor won't put his famous "SDT" mark at that point (Show, Don't Tell). Hey, I get it. A better picture can be painted by showing the reader Liza was mad. But maybe, just maybe, your sick of describing every last detail and you need a break. And we all know what a mad person looks like, right? Well, perhaps. 

A special note needs to be added to the SDT rule. It's called, Don't Overdo Your Descriptions. Show us how mad Liza is, but don't over do it. No, right. God forbid I break out into Purple Prose and loose my readers attention that way. So describe, just don't over-describe! Okay, got it.

Adverbs and Adjectives - Quietly, happily, smugly (adverbs); running, jumping, laughing, screaming (adjectives). See them? Now destroy them. At least that's what Stephen King told me in his book On Writing. Further, many great authors have said the exact same thing. 

Adverbs modify the verb (an action word). "John whispered to Anni, quietly." The point is, a whisper is typically done quietly. Thus, no need for the adverb. That makes sense. However, my first drafts usually contain more adverbs than words found in the Old Testament. If I intensely seek out all unnecessary adverbs I might cut my word count by a third. But that's the point; there's just too many, so some have to go.

Same with adjectives. They tend to be sloppy writing. "Randi was running from the house." There's a great sentence. First off, it's passive. Secondly, it has extra words. Try this on for size: "Randi ran from the house." Too simple? Okay, how's this? "Randi loped playfully from the cabin." Better, but did you notice I slipped in an adverb? Playfully modifies the verb loped. Depending on how the preceding sentence reads, I may or may not leave that adverb in place. But, no matter what, the last sentence is a much stronger sentence than the original.

Remember, I'm still learning. This is all second nature to a writer like James Patterson. And, if I listen to his advice carefully, I can break some of these rules. Wow, that makes everything as clear as mud. Thus my final advice, get a great Editor (I have one already, thank you).


So, pick up a book and count the adverbs per page. Or seek out passive sentences. If nothing else, it will drive your spouse nuts while reading at night. Honey, does this sound like a passive sentence to you?


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