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.

The Right Kind of Wrong: Clichés and Creative Writing

As I have said in previous blogs, most readers fall into two categories:  those who think that a novel is great because the plotline of the novel is great, and those who think a novel sucks because he thinks the plotline of the novel sucks.  If you are a writer who thinks this way as well, then I hate to burst your little bubble, but good writing and good plotlines do not go hand in hand.  I have read many books that had great plotlines behind them but the actual writing was atrocious.  Likewise, I have read some awesome books that really had a very weak plotline but I kept reading it anyway because it was so beautifully written.  As a writer, you will want to strive to have both a knockout plotline and be such a creative writer that people will want to read every word that you have written down.  And if you cannot do both, then you had better either be one hell of a writer or come up with such awesome plotlines that people don’t care that you are not that talented. 

‘Creative’ writing is subject to an individual’s own perspective.  In my opinion, being creative doesn’t just stop at coming up with a great plotline.  Often times writers get so hung up in trying to follow the rules of the English language and ‘proper’ writing ‘rules’ that they forget that writing is still an art form.  You are, in essence, trying to paint a picture, and words are the paint that you use to create that picture.  Creative writing isn’t about following rules and trying to sound like an English writing assignment.  It is about using the English language to create pictures in the mind’s eye of the reader.  For some, it comes natural.  For others, it’s like pulling teeth.  Ultimately, it is going to take practice, practice, practice.

I have read numerous articles and blogs regarding the use of clichés.  Most people know what a cliché is when it comes to single sentences or dialogue or even in some descriptions.  Basically, a cliché is something that has already been written about many, many times before.  For instance, if you have ever read about a grip that was  ‘vice-like’ then you have just read a clichéd description.  Big on romance?  Ever noticed that the man is often described as the clichéd tall, dark and handsome stranger?  Of course, I am guilty of this as well, but not because I want to use the cliché.  The men of my novels usually sound a lot like this simply because it is the type of man who I find extremely sexy, not because I can’t think of any other way for them to look.  Still, I have been accused of using this cliché to the extreme by a very outspoken critic.  What most readers do not understand is that often writers see their characters very clearly in their minds and cannot imagine the story without that character, or even imagine that character looking any other way.  Often times writers will get very emotionally attached to their characters and will not, or cannot, fathom the possibility of changing the way they look or act. 

If you are going to use this clichéd look for a character, then you will need to make him stand out in other ways.  Maybe he has a quirky personality trait or a scar or is blind in one eye or even missing a limb.  Whatever you do, don’t make your characters perfect, not even your vampires.  One of the points of writing is to create characters that seem real enough that your readers can relate to them.  If you have a novel full of absolute human perfection, your readers are going to get bored really quick.  Not to mention that we see enough ideals of ‘perfection’ on the covers of magazines.  No need for anorexic models in your reading material as well.

For the record, I will once again state my opinion that there is no right or wrong way to be a good writer.  Yes, there are things that you can do to polish your work and hammer out the kinks.  But the bottom line on using clichés will ultimately rest with the individual writer.  I myself use clichés all the time, to the extreme.  But I mix them up, change the traditional storyline around and add so many of my own unique twists that for some odd reason, all the clichés work for me rather than against me.  I, however, am not the norm for this.  I have been writing for twenty-eight years.  I have always written with the mentality of breaking every single writing rule that I possibly could.  Actually, I don’t just break them, I stomp all over them with a vengeful fury.  I have made it into an art form all its own.  For most writers, it simply is not going to work.  But I can give you some tips and tricks on why using them can actually work for you instead of against you.  Think of it as being a good writer in reverse.  Or as one writer so eloquently put it, ‘The right way to write wrong.’  This statement has been my motto for my entire writing career.

Using clichés isn’t about just ‘using’ them in your storyline, but putting your own twists on them to the point where they stop resembling tried and true clichés and become something very unique to the writer.  Let me also point out that sometimes when you write about something that has been done to death, like vampires, (cliché alert!  warning!) you are not going to be able to get around the cliché no matter how hard you try.  Take, for instance, the vampire’s ability to hypnotize his/her victim.  If you are going to have vampires that can do this, then be prepared to write about a cliché.  Glamourize, bespell, bedazzle…all clichéd words used to describe a vampire’s ability to hypnotize his victim and make him/her do what he wants. 

If you are going to write about a cliché, then be prepared to embrace it and make it your own.  In this case, writing the word in a story one or two times makes it a cliché.  Constantly bringing it up removes it from cliché status and makes it a very important part of the storyline.   But don’t overuse them.  The last thing you want is a novel full of nothing but predictable storyline clichés.

Which brings me to my next point.  If you are going to use clichés, then you are going to have to keep the reader interested in what you are writing, make them want to read every word that you have written.  How?  By coming up with your own unique and interesting twists to the storyline and, inevitably, the cliché in question.

How can you keep a reader interested?  There are lots of ways, but the easiest way is to surprise them.  And that surprise doesn’t have to be scary, just unexpected.  For instance, a common description cliché would be a storyline that has a female walking the streets, at night, all alone.  There would be no moon, maybe even lightning and thunder in the distance.  Perhaps the night would go quiet all of a sudden and then…well, you already know what happens.  She gets attacked.  Doesn’t matter by what or who, the reader knows she is going to get attacked because the writer used a very cliché description.  But what if you went through all that trouble of building up that suspense, really got into describing her emotions of how scared she is, how dark and ominous everything is…only to release that tension by having the character break her high-heeled stiletto and fall face first in a big mud puddle?  Skip the whole ‘she gets attacked’ crap right then.  You can have her get attacked further down the storyline, like after she gets home and is whining about the ruined dress.  The trick is to release that tension that you built up, let the reader get a good laugh, let the reader realize that what they thought was going to happen didn’t, and give them a false sense of calm and then…WHAM!  Let the attack come out of left field.   The writer used the cliché to his advantage and still surprised his reader.  Now that is creative writing.

Another type of cliché is where you begin writing something that is so standard and so done to death that the reader figures out what is going on, what is going to happen, and, if it’s a mystery of some kind, the who-done-it before the first chapter is over.  Let’s take for example the classic vampire novel.  If you are writing the standard clichéd vampire plotline, you know that there is going to be some biting, some bloodsucking, a main character and the love interest, a nice romance and maybe even some sex to spice things up.  But if this is all that the plotline entails then congratulations.  You just wrote yourself a huge clichéd novel destined to get you a giant “REJECTED” stamp on the front of your manuscript.  Now if you want to save this sinking Titanic of a novel, you had better start pumping it full of unique ideas and plot twists.  Have aliens invade, set the plotline in an apocalyptic world or on some distant planet, hell set the damn plotline on the Titanic if you have to…anything to set the clichéd plotline apart from all the other clichéd novels out there.

Can clichés work to your advantage?  Yes.  But only if you can add your own unique twist to the standard cliché.  You are going to have to be extremely creative, think and write outside the box, and not be afraid to take chances.  If you think a story would be best told by killing off the main character then do it.  If you are wanting a tragedy but are afraid that your readers will turn against you if you write some huge tragic novel, then you are writing for all the wrong reasons.  But don’t off your character because you can’t think of anything else to write.  Taking advantage of a cliché and using it to your advantage is an art form all its own.  It is not going to work for everyone.  Most people would be better off if they avoided clichés like they were Michael Myers because chances are they are going to murder your novel before it ever gets started (see how I worked that cliché in there?).  Although if you are going to insist upon using them, be prepared to make those clichés your bi-och.  If you don’t own them and make them uniquely your own, then you are just another clichéd writer in a sea of mediocrity.