Saturday, April 24, 2010

Bad writing

When I teach writing improvement to professionals, I often start out asking them to describe the bad writing that comes across their desks. Here is the list we generally create:

Spelling errors
Grammar errors
Missing words and double words
Never gets to the point
Long, complicated sentences that don't really say anything

The first three are the result of either poor education or more likely poor or no proofreading by the writer. Most native speakers do not make grammatical errors in their speech (if they do, it's occasional and always the same ones) but we make them when we type quickly and don't check our work.

The last two are more problematic. I'm currently editing a Master's portfolio in psychology and counseling and it's awful. If you just glanced over it, it would look pretty good. He uses big words that seem important and academic and there are no glaring errors--at first glance. But lots of the sentences mean nothing. There is no grammatical subject + verb + object, just strings of phrases that he has learned from the textbooks he's read or lectures he's attended. The sentences have a convoluted nature to them that doesn't replicate normal speech patterns; again it's just phrases strung together. In addition, he has used many of the same sentences over and over, verbatim--one of the hazards of cut-and-paste writing.

He's going to be very unhappy when he gets this back from me. First, he thinks he's done and that I'm polishing up the occasional error. Instead, I've included at least three comments per page on 120 pages for him to deal with. Second, from the resume included in his portfolio, I see that he has always gotten good grades (A- average) both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. My guess is that his teachers have been flummoxed by the writing and just let it go since they didn't know how to help him. He's not going to take kindly to my eagle eye even though he has paid for this.

He told me in an email that he wants his portfolio to be exceptional. I hope he meant it!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Robert McKee

McKee is a famous/infamous script doctor and screen writer who offers a very worthwhile and grueling 3-day workshop (12 hours of lecture per day) on story--on what makes a classic story and how to write one.

My friend Diane and I took it a couple of years ago in Vancouver, BC. We thought we'd do some sightseeing but instead we went to the sessions, got dinner, fell into bed. Our brains were worn-out but it was never boring and oh so helpful.

In a good story, the main character is transformed. He faces his fears and overcomes conflict to get what he really wants. He doesn't always get it but he transforms in the effort. McKee's lessons really had a big impact on my reworking of the first novel I wrote, Witnessing the Creation, and it's having an equally big effect on my second novel.

There are all kinds of suggestions in his book (which closely parallels the workshop) but the one that has meant the most to me both as writer and editor of fiction is the idea of the plus and minus, the character moving closer or further from his goal. I wrote about this in a much earlier blog, but I've been thinking about it again because I'm reading Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. It's a nonfiction book about the stories we live and he uses a lot of McKee's ideas, giving McKee full credit. It's an interesting promise for life transformation and a nice review of McKee's ideas for us writers.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Response to a recent prompt

Around one center

Around one center wove the angles of lies they had told each other in relationship. Around the other, the truths they had revealed. One skein was larger, softer, more colorful. The skein of lies, of course.

Anna couldn’t remember when she had started lying to Tom. She wasn’t talking about the half-truths all humans share, the glossing over of reality (does anyone weigh that their driver’s license says?). No, she meant the considered, deliberate misrepresentation of feelings. The “I love you’s” spoken out of guilt or obligation. The passionate embrace that was not authentic.
She knew them when she spoke them, those lies, when she responded to his touch insincerely or didn’t say what she was thinking when he asked her. But she couldn’t seem to stop herself. She hoped he didn’t now her truth.

Tom knew when he had started. The night he saw Luisa in a bar and had a drink with her, then went home with her. It seemed too complicated to explain the whole truth to Anna—how fond he and Luisa had been of each other in the days they were together. How he missed her sometimes and taste of the lip gloss she never went without. How being together had made him feel really alive again.

He didn’t want to have to tell Anna that he wasn’t going to see Luisa again. He wasn’t—but he didn’t want to have to promise. He found the whole idea demeaning. Luisa belonged to the past, not the present, and she certainly didn’t belong to his future. He didn’t trust Anna to understand any of that. He didn’t completely understand it himself. So he lied—said he’d been to a movie, had a beer on his own, turned off the phone before he went to bed.

Anna didn’t believe him but she couldn’t force the truth out of him when she couldn’t force it out of herself.

So they circled the truth in ever-widening arcs, and the distance came between them and stayed.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

State of the publishing world

For many of us who write and would like to be published, we have some big stories about the current state of the publishing industry, our chances at getting discovered, the vast number of people who seem to be writing books and trying to get published, etc.

There are several issues to consider here. First, if you're only writing to get famous, it's a long, hard road to get there. You'd be better off probably as serial killer or bank robber or drunk driver or sleeping with the underage daughter of a celebrity. I'm only half-kidding. In our culture of scandal and sensation, you're more apt to get your 15 minutes of recognition from big crime than from a well written novel.

Second, if you're writing to get rich, fiction is not the way to go. About 5% of American novelists make big money: they write mostly true crime, romance, and currently vampire young adult books. Or they're non-fiction writers of books on how to get rich or how to get thin, which sell millions of copies to the credulous.

But let's say you're love to write, don't mind (or even crave) the solitude and hard work, have been honing your craft for a long time, have gotten some good feedback, and working with a good text and developmental editor. Well, your chances of success are reportedly about the same as they've been for decades. Agents and publishers are still looking for innovative stories that are well written and entertaining. They're even actually publishing more of them than ever.

And while it may appear true that more people are writing books than ever before, more people are doing everything than ever before because there are more people. And if you hang around writers, well, it seems as if everyone you know is writing a book (or talking about writing a book) but they aren't, not really.

So if you want to get published, write, edit, revise, write. Send your short fiction or poems or essays off to contests, send your work to agents and publishers, grow a thick skin for rejection, and keep writing.

Monday, April 19, 2010

William Zinsser

Zinsser is one of my favorite writers about writing. Many people swear by Strunk & White but I love reading Zinsser and have found his advice invaluable. He's written lots of great books but the way I refer to over and over is On Writing Well. His chapters on simplicity and clutter are classics, he sees all the pitfalls of academic writing (which I come up against in my editing work again and again), and although the book was first published in 1976, it remains fresh and to the point.

A few hours spent with Zinsser are an excellent and very cheap way to improve your writing. Worth more than many writing workshops.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Internet's gift to fiction writers

Information on the Internet is good for lots of things. I've found my way to numerous local addresses, gotten phone numbers, made dinner reservations, verified spellings--a whole raft of things. But I didn't have nearly as deep an appreciation for the possibilities until I started writing fiction that took my characters to locations I'd never visited.

They say, "write what you know" but what to do when a character insists that he has to go Ojai in search of a witch or that she has to go to Farmington, New Mexico, to meet a cowboy. I've learned to do what my characters ask and sort it all out later, and the Internet makes that possible.

In my first novel, Jake found out that a member of a Wiccan community who lived in Ojai could help him find the woman who had bewitched him (literally). So I visited the Ojai Chamber of Commerce, found Jake a motel that would take him and his cat Sadie, a place for him to go and meditate early in the morning, and an apartment on Craig's List for the fellow who had the information. I had visual images of all these places and so while I couldn't describe the feeling of the place, I could certainly describe the scenes.

In the second novel I'm writing now, Friday I sorted out the best route for Ellie to take from Farmington to Chama, found her a curious place to stay, named the highways out of town, even told her what to order off a menu in a local restaurant and where to while away an hour or two (gave her a choice of public library or little galleries).

In the middle of the 19th century, travel books and fiction set in exotic places were very popular: they were called "armchair" literature and the writers visited those places and then described them for the reader. The Internet allows me to be an mouse-click writer and have a much broader world for my characters to venture out into.