i don’t know what the hell to call this one

by Toni

Part I

Conversations while I am copy editing:

Someone Who Is Remarkably Still Alive*: "Are you done yet?"

Me: "Am I still breathing?"

SWIRSA: "Does growling count?"

Me: "Then I’m not done."

later

SWIRSA: "I’m curious. You made all of this up, right?"

Me: "Yes."

SWIRSA: "It’s your writing. You got to pick and choose what went in there."

Me: "Yes."

SWIRSA: "So why didn’t you put only the stuff in that you wanted to keep the first time around and save yourself all of this trouble?"

Me: "Do you prefer burial or cremation?"

Part II

Writing comedy is a lot like stealing a car while on crack and with a couple of AKs in the back seat while you’re moseying on over to the police station to thumb your nose at the cops, just to see if you can get away with it.

Part III

There is no "easy" — no matter what the genre. Not if you’re reaching for the high bar. There’s comfort knowing other writers feel the same way.

Part IV

Writing well, I’ve learned finally, isn’t some big, mysterious code to be broken, and there isn’t some aha! moment where all is revealed if you just click the tumblers to the right one more click. There are a lot of little truths writers pick up along the way and each writer’s application of those truths is what gives the writer his or her voice. Some of these I heard early on, but didn’t quite get them the way I do today, after years of practice. Some I wish I’d heard a lot earlier–I think I would have learned quicker.

Elmore Leonard has done this better, but here are a few basic little black dresses of truth:

story = character in conflict

I used to hear a lot of people saying story = character, but that leads to the misapprehension that a writer can go on at length about a character’s background or childhood, where we’re learning all about how the person became who they were, and we’re bored to tears (if we’ve gotten very far). Unless the conflict — the story that’s going to be resolved one way or another in this telling — starts in that childhood, cut to the conflict of the now.

This also means that each scene should have conflict. If it doesn’t, the story has stopped. Find the conflict, whether internal or external, and let it inform the action of the scene.

Active voice:

This is a personal choice, but I prefer active voice. Examples (caveat — it’s one a.m. and I am copy edit blind, so these aren’t great):

(passive) Joanne was running down the street.

(active, but flat) Joanne ran down the street.

(slightly better) Joanne sprinted down the street.

(more visual) Joanne’s tennis shoes slammed against the asphalt, faster than her heartbeat. (Feel free to chime in with better examples.)

Another point: commitment. Whatever type of story you’ve decided to write, commit to it. Don’t try to be all things to all people. It’ll never work. Expect to offend some, and be disliked by others. This is like choosing shoes to go with the outfit. (I have just lost every single guy who reads the blog.) The red ones may go or the black ones may go, but you’re gonna look pretty dumb if you wear one of each. And if you decide to pick the purple, then by God, work the purple and don’t be worried about whether or not purple is popular.

Be specific. You don’t appeal to a wider audience (generally) by being generic and appearing to write about Every Man (Woman), but by writing about a unique experience. Sci-Fi notwithstanding, this is generally about what it is to be a specific human facing a specific trial that matters in a very specific way.

Okay it’s your turn–what writing truth or preference do you keep on your mental checklist of things to do to improve your writing?

(*no, this wasn’t my spouse, who has way more sense and is very supportive)

19 thoughts on “i don’t know what the hell to call this one

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Really very great question, Toni, I can’t wait to see this list. You think you know these things, and then you’re halfway through a book and realize that you haven’t been following your own cardinal rules for a hundred pages, now.

    THANK GOD for rewriting.

    The first ones that come to mind are:

    1. In every scene – Whose scene is it? What do they WANT? Who is blocking them or trying to get it instead? What do THEY want?

    2. In every scene – what do the characters feel, smell, see, taste, hear, sense? Make me feel, smell, see, taste, hear and sense all that too.

    Reply
  2. Jim Winter

    The question I always get is “How much did you pay to have that published?” While that does not surprise me from other writers (given my ex-publisher’s fall from grace), it’s grating from people who know nothing about writing or publishing.

    What would I put on the list?

    I have a pet peeve about run-ons. Can’t stand them. They’re the first thing I look for after finishing a scene.

    Reply
  3. pari noskin taichert

    I like this post, Toni. Especially since I’m about to go into major editing mode.

    Pearls of writing wisdom? Hmm . . .

    One of my pet peeves is what I call “lazy word usage.”

    All of us have words that we overuse and repeat several times on a page. I’m not referring to “the” or “a” here.

    When you’re copyediting, look for your own favorite words on a page and change some of them to mean more.

    Reply
  4. toni mcgee causey

    Alex, excellent points to include. (I am hoping we build a long list here today. It’d be kinda nice to put it in a FAQ or something.)

    The second one is one I do have to think about usually the second or third go-round. Often, in a first draft, I’m just figuring out the story and the characters and forget those cues that build the world and bring it alive to the reader. Critical point, thanks Alex for reminding.

    And you so nailed it, about being a hundred pages in and realizing you’ve forgotten to follow your own cardinal rules. That astounds me when I do it, but it seems to be standard op for me as well.

    Reply
  5. toni mcgee causey

    Jim, that is definitely grating. I think second to that is the one where everyone patiently explains to me that all I need to do is get my book on Oprah. Well, duh, I’ll call her up next week.

    Run-on sentences are probably the bane of my writing. They are a bad habit I have to work hard to break. I hope I catch them, but damnit if they don’t creep in.

    Reply
  6. toni mcgee causey

    Good one, Pari. In my last book, it was the word “just.” I think I used it three billion times. I’ve watched for the little demon this time. Which probably means I’ve overused something else I haven’t caught yet. ugh.

    Reply
  7. JT Ellison

    “Work the purple.” Another brilliant line to post above the computer.

    I’m with Alex, I need to make sure I’m experiencing everything the character is, from all sides.

    Repeated words are one of my many bugaboos. They jump off the page at me. So does eyes widened and starting sentences with Suddenly or As.

    We should form a club that outlaws “Her eyes widened.” I see it everywhere, in so many books. To put it mildly, it’s overused.

    Reply
  8. Tom

    “Be specific. (SNIP)Sci-Fi notwithstanding, this is generally about what it is to be a specific human facing a specific trial that matters in a very specific way.”

    Not to be snarky – it’s true of SF as well, Toni. While SF tv and film have the reputation of tolerating sloppy thinking and sloppy writing for the sake of explosions and space bimbos, it’s far less true on the printed page.

    I like your summation quite a lot, so I’d say written SF broadens the range of possibilities in which a specific protagonist faces a specific trial that matters, and is challenged to find a new or different way to face it.

    All the rules of quality work still apply.

    My pet peeve in my own work is the compound sentence. Even when I do it well, it seems too Edwardian. J.L. Burke can do a compound sentence so that it seems inevitable. Nope, not me.

    Reply
  9. toni mcgee causey

    Tom — hey, you’re right. I’d just seen the Robots (Pixar) preview and so was thinking more in those terms. But yeah, I’ve got a lot of beloved SF books, and they all address the issue of human story.

    JT, glad the purple worked. ๐Ÿ˜‰ But wow, yeah, the eyes widened. hmmm. I think I’ve used it once in the current book. I’ll have to watch for that one.

    Louise, that’s a perfect point.

    Reply
  10. billie

    It seem in each book I find some new bad habit to eradicate.

    Last one was “just” – everyone “just” something or other.

    The one I’m fixing down here right now is “headed.” She headed here, he headed there, everyone is heading somewhere or other.

    I have no clue where these little verbal tics come from.

    If nothing else they give me something to fix while the unconscious gets the flow going on bigger issues.

    Reply
  11. Lori G. Armstrong

    Louise! Good to see that NR quote again, I love it and it works for me.

    I hate repetitive words. I seem to have a new fave with every book that I have to go back and weed out. But there are only so many variations on…looked. Or gave…I also hate starting every sentence with “I” when you’re writing first person. Ugh.

    Her eyes widened. Yeah. Used that a couple of times in the last book. Heck, in every book. But it’s really no different than, He smiled. Or She sighed, unless it’s overused.

    Great post, Toni ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
  12. Allison Brennan

    As always, fabulous post. I’m one that always says “story is character,” but you’re right, it is definitely conflict that’s the most important thing. But I think some new writers forget that without character–and that means strong, three-dimensional people as characters–the story is just a series of action and reaction. Making the audience CARE about the characters and whether they overcome the conflict is crucial. But it’s not like either or . . . both are important.

    I would have shot the man, Toni. You are a better woman than I.

    Reply
  13. PJ Parrish

    Good question, Toni.

    One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever heard came from novelist Les Standiford, who is also a writing teacher who has helped launch many a career.

    Les said you need to ask yourself one question about every character in your book: What does s/he WANT?

    Level 1: He wants to find the killer to clear himself of the crime.

    Level 2: He wants to prove he is a man capable of standing out of his father’s shadow.

    This example comes because I just finished John Hart’s “King of Lies” but the idea works for every good book. The point being, of course, that level 1 is the superficial stuff of plotting (and it can suffice for many a crime novel). But if you as the writer can answer the question at a deeper level you are into the larger and more interesting realms of motivation and theme.

    And if you can’t answer the question at any level? Well, your story is probably a mess and you should put some real elbow grease of the mind to it before you hit the keyboard.

    Reply
  14. PJ Parrish

    Good question, Toni.

    One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever heard came from novelist Les Standiford, who is also a writing teacher who has helped launch many a career.

    Les said you need to ask yourself one question about every character in your book: What does s/he WANT?

    Level 1: He wants to find the killer to clear himself of the crime.

    Level 2: He wants to prove he is a man capable of standing out of his father’s shadow.

    This example comes because I just finished John Hart’s “King of Lies” but the idea works for every good book. The point being, of course, that level 1 is the superficial stuff of plotting (and it can suffice for many a crime novel). But if you as the writer can answer the question at a deeper level you are into the larger and more interesting realms of motivation and theme.

    And if you can’t answer the question at any level? Well, your story is probably a mess and you should put some real elbow grease of the mind to it before you hit the keyboard.

    Reply
  15. Diane Patterson

    Great comments, Toni. I make lists of stuff I have to look for in my own work — because I do them all the time, and I’m blind to them.

    (I do have to be pedantic and point out that “Joanne was running down the street” is not passive, it’s present progressive. It’s still weaker than “Joanne ran down the street,” but it’s not quite “The street was run down by Joanne” (which brings a kind of hilarious picture to mind).

    Reply

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