Advice, Fiction, Writing

Do you write up and down?

Sometimes I read writing advice that irritates me. One blanket “rule” I read this morning, for the umpteenth time, is to never use up and down with verb forms of sit and stand. Never? Really. May I ask why?

chairTheir answer would be because those words are redundant. Technically, I agree—although, of course, it’s possible to sit up or stand down. But for this rule, they’re referring to the use of up with forms of to stand and down with forms of to sit. (They also add that usage of these offending words marks your writing as amateur, which I don’t agree with, and I’ll show you why, later.)

I don’t follow that writing “rule”—or rather, I don’t follow it rigidly. I consider each usage separately. Sometimes I add up or down, and sometimes I don’t. I use whichever sounds right to me and/or provides clarity in that sentence.

I admit that when I first came across this “rule”, I uttered an oh-what-an-ignorant-writer-am-I “Uh-oh” and flagged every use of up and down I found in my WIP. Then, the phrase “she sat down” popped out at me in a Pulitzer-winning novel I was reading, so I checked the work of some other writers represented on my bookshelves to see if they observed this no up and down “rule”.

In case you’re wondering, note that Flannery O’Connor, Anne Tyler, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Richard Russo, Tim O’Brien, Stephen King, Annie Proulx, Barbara Kingsolver, and Tom Perrotta do write such “redundant” phrases as: stand up, stood up, stands up, sit down, sits down, and sat down. I could check more authors’ work, but I think that’s pretty strong company, don’t you?

My writing advice for today: Please evaluate writing advice. It doesn’t always apply to your writing. And even when it does, it may not apply all of the time.

Advice, Writing

Writing Without Shame

Last week, a book I requested arrived at my library. I can’t remember who suggested the book, but I’m glad I paid attention. The book, Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing by Les Edgerton, has caused me to mentally shout YES! several times, and I’m only a third done reading it.

Because I haven’t read the whole book, I can’t say I’ll agree with all Edgerton has to say, but I want to share something that made me put the book down and start writing this post.

I used to rail against the writing rules a lot around here. As a newbie writer, I tried to obey most of them. With more experience, I learned to follow what worked for me and ignore what didn’t, but there was one rule I felt conflicted about every time I bucked it.

Ever since I decided to write seriously with the aim of publication, I’ve read one particular bit of writing advice consistently. Write fast. Get the story down. Don’t worry about it being a sh**ty first draft, you’ll fix it later.

That Fast First Draft advice has always horrified me. Truly. Horrified. It’s so at odds with my nature that I think I’d rather quit writing than write that way. So, I don’t write fast first drafts. That’s a Writing Rule I never obeyed, but the advice to do so is so prevalent, I questioned whether something was wrong with my brain.

Not so, says Edgerton. That advice doesn’t work for him either. He says:

All my instincts told me this was the wrong approach for my own prose. Rushing ahead, getting stuff down just felt wrong. What I wanted to do was find the perfect word for what I was trying to say before continuing. I had this uneasy feeling in my stomach that I’d forget to change it if I went on. Even if I marked it. I just wouldn’t be able to recapture what I was feeling or “seeing” then. I got a feeling I ignored, but one I should have paid attention to. I’ll bet you’ve experienced the same thing, at least occasionally. You know what you’re doing is “by the book”, but it just doesn’t feel right.

Trust those feelings! Your wonderful, smart, cool, learned mind is telling you something important. Pay attention to it.

EXACTLY! If I don’t get the sentence, the paragraph, the scene down at least 90% right the first time, it’s likely I’ll lose the “magic”. I know this because it happens nearly every time I leave myself a “fix this” note and push on.

The popularity of NaNoWriMo, in addition to most blogs and books for writers, tells me that Les Edgerton and I are in the minority on this, but that won’t nag me any longer. I’m relieved. There’s nothing wrong with my brain—at least, not in this instance. 🙂 I will hold my head up while I write in my slow and precise way. The only “wrong” way to write is the one that doesn’t work.

Advice, Fiction, Novel, Opinion, Reader, Short story, Writing

It has to end somehow

If you’re a writer, I’m asking you to forget all the writing rules you know, and think like a reader for a few minutes. How do you like stories and novels to end? I realize your answer will probably depend on the genre of the read, so feel free to give me multiple responses.

I know if the book is one of a series the ending will wrap up parts of the story, but leave something open-ended. I expect there are other factors, besides genre, that influence types of endings.

When I write, it’s almost impossible for me to end on a truly negative note. As a reader, I don’t need a happily-ever-after ending, but a miserable-ever-after ending is likely to leave me wishing I hadn’t bothered to read the book or story. Also, in my writing, I have a tendency to want to wrap things up—most things. And I suppose I have those same preferences I when I read. I’ll be frustrated if I’m left asking, “but what about …” too many times.

That’s not to say I don’t like to wonder what might have happened a day, or months, or years after The End. Sometimes, as with the ending of my novel The Brevity of Roses, one might assume things will go smoothly, but one could be wrong. I don’t mind entertaining the possibilities of future story after the last page, but I expect the author to have finished the story they’ve just told me.

I’m told literary journals love ambiguous endings. What exactly does that mean? I don’t mind a twist or a bit of surprise at the end to make me think back through the story for clues I missed, but you leave me cold if you leave me screaming, “What the heck?!”

I’m reasonably intuitive. I like nuance. I don’t need everything spelled out for me, in fact that annoys me. But an author needs to respect my trust.  I’ve read stories that kept me guessing, a bit confused even, but I read along expecting it would all fall into place by the end. When it didn’t, that author made me one angry reader.

Of course, I’m asking about endings because I’m struggling with writing one. That’s why I’m asking you AS A READER, how do you like your endings served?

Craft, Editing, Fiction, Writing

The Secret to Section Breaks

I apologize if you expected I was going to reveal the secret to knowing when and where to use section breaks. I don’t have it. If I were a less obsessed writer, I would break where it seemed natural to me and be done with it. Let an editor sort it out. But I am obsessed and I have become increasingly aware that my nature is not to be trusted in this breaking matter.

Are you experiencing déjà vu? Yes, I brought up this subject less than two weeks ago. The next day, Merrilee Faber wrote an excellent post explaining the ins and outs of paragraph, section, and chapter breaks. I read it, of course, and it seemed so simple. Then I went back to editing with my clear new understanding and soon realized there is an enormous disparity between what I think I know and what I actually know.

I have now called into question 90% of the section breaks in my manuscript. I have also pulled dozens of novels off my shelves to see how the pros do it. Ha! These authors all making the same choices would be just too simple, wouldn’t it? What I did notice is the disconcerting degree to which I would have used breaks where they didn’t and would not have where they did. In other words, I learned nothing from my “research.”

You might be wondering why someone who spends a good bit of blog space denigrating Writing Rules would get so bent out of shape over this one. Well, you see, I can’t abide knowing there’s a rule I don’t understand. How else could I decide whether I want to follow or break it? You have to know the rules before you can break the rules. And yes, it’s also a matter of pride. How can something so simple elude me?

So, what do the books say? One of my favorite revision books is Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon, so I looked up what she had to say about section breaks.

Scene breaks: This is the break between sections in your story. If the point of view remains the same and not much time has passed, the break is indicated by a double-double line space. If the point of view changes and/or there is a larger shift of time or space, double line space then use one or three asterisks or pound signs, centered on the line. Use another line space before you begin your next line of text after the break. You do not need to indent the first paragraph after the break; indentation style will be determined when the manuscript is typeset.

Criminetly! Are you telling me I not only have to know where to put section breaks, but I have to decide which kind of break to use?!  You know what I think? I think the gods of writing rules have conspired to put me in my place.  Well, I’m shaking my fist at you. I will understand this. I will learn to break every section with literary precision. I will dagnabbit!

Your turn: Is there a punctuation or formatting rule that you haven’t mastered?

 

Craft, Doubt, Fiction, Novel, Reading, Writing

In search of the confident writer

Lately, I’ve been reading more than writing. I generally read fiction and non-fiction simultaneously. This time, I was about halfway through a novel when I picked up a memoir in the morning and finished it by the end of the day. Then, instead of going back to the half-read novel, which was a bit depressing, I started reading a different one.

Both these novels are debuts, one published in 1989 and the other in 2009. Rule breaking is one thing they have in common. You know, those carved in stone Writing Rules, the ones debut authors must follow to have even a hope of being published.

One of these books starts with seven pages of description and history of the town and its residents before the first line of dialogue is recorded. I would say most of the book is telling, not showing. As for the protagonist, well my sympathy and patience wore thin midway through. The other novel starts in media res, as The Rules state we should, but half the story is told in flashbacks, which is supposed to be a big no-no. Also, so far, the author has used one dream sequence—another instance of so-called bad writing.

Of course, twenty years ago as now, if your story is fantastic, those Rules don’t necessarily apply. These authors apparently felt confident they had stories so strong they were free to tell them their own way. And they were justified. The older book was awarded a Pulitzer; the newer one was a bestseller.

Is this post just another rant about The Rules? No. Am I writing this post to justify my own rule breaking? No again. I’m thinking about confidence. Specifically, confidence in your writing. Does this confidence come naturally to some writers or are they just better at hiding their doubts?

I just beta-read a friend’s book, and though I, and another beta judged both the writing and story as wonderful, she still doubts. (Though I can’t believe she has that much doubt.) But I wondered, what will it take to give her solid confidence in her book? Will an agent’s offer of representation do it? Will publication be the key? Will the praise of the reading public finally convince her?

Your turn: Are you a confident writer? If not, what do you think will make you one?

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