Back to Basics

As a writer, there are certain universal basics that you will need to follow regardless of whether you write short stories, novelettes, novels, or the like.  Other writing “rules” can be relaxed in certain instances depending upon the writer’s own personal style and the story at hand.

1.  misspelling words  and using the wrong word – Unless you are using street slang in a dialogue or trying to capture some other cultural element during the course of a conversation (be it between characters or internal dialogue between a character and himself), there is absolutely no excuse for misspelled words.  Likewise, there is no excuse for a writer to not know when to use the correct word, such as using “two” instead of “to” or “knew” instead of “new.”  Such elementary errors makes the author look unprofessional and uneducated.  The good news is that misspelled words and using wrong words is not something that will ultimately hamper your writing style.  More importantly, it is also nothing that a good proofreader will not be able to spot and correct.

2.  developed characters – Unless you are specifically trying to create a two-dimensional character, nothing says “amateur” like writing a 3000 page novel full of characters that all seem to speak and act the same way.  Add in characters that also have the personality of a grapefruit and you are sure to have one doozy of a snooze fest on your hands.  Take the time to put forth some serious thought into your characters.  Go beyond what they look like to include a brief history of their life.  How does their past history affect their way of thinking, the way they act, the way they perceive the world around them?  When they speak, are they always saying something smart-mouthed or are they laid back?  Do they anger easily?

If you have ever done any written role-playing, you will be familiar with a character biography.  I use this same technique when creating all of my characters.  It includes the character’s name, parents, birth date, age, their physical attributes, a brief history, their likes and dislikes, the way they act and their way of thinking about the world around them.  Taking the time to really focus on all the things that make a character the way he/she is will go a long way in making them seem more real and well-rounded to the readers.  Just knowing how they look is not enough. 

Having a character bio handy will help you to decide exactly how your character will react in certain situations in your storyline.  By having something to refer to, it ensures that your character will speak, act, and react the way you intended them in any given situation, making them more uniform and real.  After all, if you have a character that is terribly afraid of spiders who starts playing with a pet tarantula, it will make the readers scratch their head in confusion.  It may seem like a small thing, but if you have enough small “loose ends” in a 500 page novel, all those little things can add up to become a big fat flop in the eyes of the reader.

3.  developed storylines – Have you ever read a good book that did not have any “loose ends” left at the end?  Or perhaps you read a book that left more questions than answers or had you thinking long and hard about what was going on with the story?  Both instances can be a really good thing for the reader.  But having a story that leads nowhere is about as fun as week old catfish.  The last thing that you want to do is lead your reader through a maze where nothing happens.  But remember, there is nothing wrong with taking little ‘side trips’ through your story.  Think of it as your characters trying to get through the maze and taking a few wrong turns.  What matters is that the storyline starts in one place and ends in another.  Of course, if you are writing a series then the storyline as a whole will end in one spot while the individual plotlines for each novel in the series will end in another.

Confusing?  It can be, which is why taking the time to create a “map” of what you want to happen in each plotline can be very helpful in keeping your plots straight.  Writing an outline can be extremely helpful in doing this, especially if you intend to create a lot of twists and turns in your storyline.  Nothing says ‘aggravation’ for a writer like having to go back and try to work in a key element of your storyline that you forgot to incorporate the first time around.  Having some type of outline or ‘map’ to go by will help you to keep your storyline on track.  Otherwise, you may find yourself tossing out entire chunks (or even chapters) of your manuscript because you forgot to write in a very important part of the storyline.

Whether you are trying to write a simple short story or an epic novel, having a storyline that engages the reader is key to keeping the reader coming back for more.   If you have the reader take a trip that leads nowhere, shows them nothing, and has nothing happening, then you will most likely end up with a reader that tosses your latest creation out with the trash.

4.  basic grammar – Using grammar correctly can go a long way in keeping the reader interested without keeping them confused to the point where they don’t understand what it is that you are trying to say.  Run on sentences, fragments, dangling participles, excessive adverbs and adjectives…grammatical errors can work for you or against you. 

I would not ever tell a writer to not use run on sentences or to avoid fragmented sentences.  The first rule of thumb for a writer is to just sit down and write however it pops into your mind.  The important part is to go back and edit it, throwing out the grammatical errors that take away from the story, make it confusing, or makes the whole thing just sound like an elementary student wrote it.  There is a time and place for grammatical errors, but they should be used infrequently.  Let me give a few examples.

EXAMPLE:  Sitting in the car.  I tossed back in disgust.  My head landing on the headrest.  I had forgotten about my science exam again and now I was going to flunk and wouldn’t that just piss my mom off.  Damn.  Now what do I do?

In the above example, there are a lot of fragmented sentences and run on sentences.  It sounds bad, it’s hard for the reader to really understand what is going on, and it looks worse on the page than it sounds in the reader’s head.  This is an example of having a lot of grammatical errors that work against a story.

Now let’s look at this same passage again after it has been cleaned up.

EXAMPLE:  I tossed my head back in disgust.  I had forgotten about my science exam.  I was going to flunk now for sure.  My mom would be angry.  Now what do I do?

In this example, the passage has been cleaned up with all the unnecessary words taken out.  If I were to submit the original passage to an editor, the second example is close to what I would get back.  But it seems very drab, boring, and does not convey the agitation that the character is experiencing.

Here’s the same passage again, only this time there are a few fragmented sentences.

EXAMPLE:  I tossed my head back in disgust, the back of my head thudding dully as it hit the headrest.  I had forgotten all about my science exam.  Again.  Flunking was almost a certainty now.  My mom was going to be so pissed.  Damnit!  Now what do I do?

As you can see in the above example, there are several grammatical errors.  However, the way it is written clearly demonstrates the agitation and worry that the character is experiencing.  Not to mention that the way it reads does not seem so systematic and boring.  As I have said, creative writing isn’t just about coming up with a great plotline.  The way  in which a story is written can have just as much effect on the way a reader perceives the story as the actual plotline itself.  That effect can be positive or negative, depending on whether or not you use grammatical errors to your advantage or just sling words down on a page.  Some writers can pull this technique off, and some can’t.  If you are one of those who attempts to write in this style but the end product closely resembles word soup, you may want to just stick to basic writing principles.  Writing in this style takes years of practice and is not for everyone.

5.  dialogue – If you are writing a story, regardless of length, you are going to have characters.  Those characters are going to interact with each other.  And somewhere down the storyline, they are going to speak to each other.  Thankfully, dialogue is not rocket science.  The best way to pull off good dialogue to keep your characters, well, in character.  If the person speaking has the type of personality that would cause them to make some smartass comment during the situation at hand, then write it down that way.  If the person speaking would make some off-the-wall comment that has absolutely nothing to do with what is going on or the conversation at hand, then feel free to write it that way.  Don’t try to make it sound “perfect.”  If you try to force dialogue between characters then it is going to come off sounding that way to the reader. 

The wonderful thing about dialogue is that all the basic rules and regulations of good writing goes out the window.  If you are trying to capture a Cajun accent, then there is no need to try to spell correctly, use complete sentences, or follow all the basic grammar rules.  Unless, of course, you have a southern bell speaking to her betrothed.  This one again goes back to having your characters speak in a way that compliments their personality and style.  For example, if your character is a very proper and highly educated gentlemen, having him speak in slang terms and fragmented sentences will throw the whole feel of the story off and confuse the reader as well.  Characters should speak, act, and react in a way that is true to their own personalities.

Another great thing about dialogue is that it does not have to have anything to do with the storyline.  It does not have to further the plot.  Sometimes characters talk amongst themselves just for the sheer joy of it.  Allow them to ramble once in a while.  Interesting diversions are always a good way to keep the reader interested.

Which brings me to my last bit of basic writing skills.

6.  keep the reader interested – This bears repeating.  KEEP.  THE.  READER.  INTERESTED.  By any means necessary.  Use your writing style to keep the reader wanting to read every word you have committed to paper.  If that means breaking some of the rules, then more power to you.  However, break rules cautiously.  Whatever your writing style, having a strong storyline and well-rounded, believable characters will go a long way towards keeping your audience coming back for more.


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