Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Ten Mistakes (A Link)

A kindred spirit in the editorial pursuit of excellence....

I recently read an online article by Pat Holt (Holt Uncensored) that points out many of the issues I address with my clients.  It's an excellent piece, and I'm always pleased to justify my editorial efforts through the words of others in the biz.

When you get to Number 10 (COMMAS) on his list, if you're a client of mine or have read some of my past posts about comma usage, you may find that he and I are not in absolute agreement.

I believe occasions exist in which you may want to cut a comma or two, in a particularly intense action sequence, so that the pace of your prose will support the breakneck pace of the action.  However, these occasions are rare, and you must be rigidly selective about employing this mechanism.  Additionally, the sentence must still flow off the reader's tongue with ease -- no awkward bumps (as in his example), just a rapid-fire bang-bang-bang pace.

As I often say, when it comes to the rules of writing, there is no such thing as a 100%-er.

Here's the link to his piece:
The Ten Mistakes
Ten Mistakes Writers Don't See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Great Novels = Great Inspiration

I recall some of my greatest inspirations during this special holiday season.

There's something about this time of year; I always end up answering questions about why I write—what drives me, what inspires me.

First, I write because I must, because the alternative is unthinkable.  The act of writing is for me a psychological imperative.  I write on paper (or type into a computer file) my thoughts and dreams, joy and anger, fears and aspirations—the process relaxes me.  I pour out my angels and demons onto the page, and thus refresh my soul.

Second, I hope to make a new career of something I love to do.  Which of us doesn’t aspire to that?  I'd write anyway, even if I didn’t get paid for it—but hey, might as well enjoy the best of both worlds.

Third, every time I read a great novel, I can't help but say to myself, "Man, I would love to do that!"  My greatest inspirations are the great novels I've read, many of them twice, some more than that.  Like all writers, I developed my love of words through reading.  Who can write who does not read?  Would you ask someone to sing who's never heard a song?  Impossible.

This seems so obvious, I feel silly even mentioning it.  Yet people ask.  Thus, I will answer the next question, one that inevitably arises from this discussion: Which are your favorite books of all time?

Keep in mind that I have not read many thousands of books, of course, and were I to read all that's available, I might well amend this list.  Nonetheless, one could do far worse on a reading expedition than to start with those on my list.

If I could point to a single thing—one common thread—that all of these great works possess, it would be this: Extraordinary Characters.  Whatever the genre or scope of the story, whatever the artistic style of the authors, each of these books offered me that which I must have to say, "I love this book."  

They gave me compelling characters, with whom I could laugh and cry, fear and rejoice, suffer great sorrow and share true love.  They gave me people for whom I cared deeply.

What greater gift can a writer offer?

If you'd like to share your own list, even if only a few of them, please do so in the comments section.  I've read many books based on the recommendations of friends over the years, including some of those on my "Top 25" list.  Maybe I'll read one of your recommendations and add it to my list.  After all, discovery is one of the great joys of reading.

My "TOP 25" Books of All Time

(As I can't possibly rank them in specific order, I list them alphabetically by author's name.)

Clancy, Tom – The Hunt for Red October
Cooper, James Fenimore – The Last of the Mohicans
Crane, Stephen – The Red Badge of Courage
Dickens, Charles – Great Expectations
Forsyth, Frederick – The Day of the Jackal
Heller, Joseph – Catch-22
Helprin, Mark – A Soldier of the Great War *
Helprin, Mark – Memoir from Antproof Case
Hemingway, Ernest – A Farewell to Arms
Hemingway, Ernest – For Whom the Bell Tolls
Hemingway, Ernest – The Old Man and the Sea
Irving, John – A Prayer for Owen Meany
Irving, John – The World According to Garp
King, Stephen – The Stand
Lee, Harper – To Kill a Mockingbird **
London, Jack – The Sea-Wolf
Ludlum, Robert – The Bourne Identity
Melville, Herman – Moby-Dick ***
Orwell, George – 1984
Rand, Ayn – Atlas Shrugged
Steinbeck, John – Of Mice and Men
Steinbeck, John – The Grapes of Wrath
Tolkien, J.R.R. – The Lord of the Rings ****

* Mark Helprin is not only my favorite author; he's one of the best-kept secrets in the literary world, if conversations with fellow readers are any indication.  If you haven't yet discovered him, you owe it to yourself to do so.
** I long ago ran out of superlatives to describe To Kill a Mockingbird.
*** I list Moby-Dick despite the fact that I could live without about half the first 150 pages.  That's how good the rest of the book is.
**** I can’t help myself; I simply must read The Lord of the Rings every five years or so.  I must.

'Til next time, remember:
To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn't be lazy.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Great Time of Year

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Holidays!

Take care of you and yours during this special time of year--and always.

Thanks for stopping in to read my humble blog from time to time.  I haven't received many comments thus far (I know it's still early) so I'm not sure how well received the pieces are.  I would both welcome and appreciate all future comments.  Please feel free--always--to speak your mind here.

For those of you who, like me, seek to publish a book, let's hope 2010 brings our great dreams to fruition.  I'll be rooting for you.

Last but not least, to all of my editing clients, thanks for your business and your trust.  You make my life's pursuit possible, and I'm grateful to you all.  I definitely look forward to seeing your books in print.

Dave Lane
(aka Lane Diamond)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Poor Writing: Just Plain Lazy – Part 1

More on LAZY WORDS and USELESS FILLERS—a personal experience.

I spoke with a client recently about those nasty, lazy, weak, wicked little monsters we call adverbs.  Said client has developed a habit of leaning on them in an attempt to excite the reader, but failed to understand (until now) that they act not as propellers on the ship of story, but anchors.  Said client had been employing adverbs at an average rate of four per paragraph.


To illustrate for said client the importance of self-editing, I pulled up the first draft of my novel, Forgive Me, Alex.  I wanted to provide precise before-and-after examples of adverbs I'd cut from my manuscript during my own self-editing process.  Yikes!  I knew my first draft was bad but... the numbers shocked me.  Said client deduced as much when I devolved into nervous chuckles before sharing the results of my search.

My brain shifted into self-defense mode.  I'm a good editor, Dear Client.  I promise.  Please don’t hold these numbers against me.

The bad news was that I'd developed the same terrible habit, though to a much lesser extent.  The good news was that I'd recognized the wicked little monsters, and sliced and diced without mercy (mostly), during the self-editing process.

As we discussed it, we concluded that our childhood teachers, who'd stressed the importance of adverbs and adjectives to spice-up our writing, were the true culprits.  (Hey, we had to blame somebody!)

In fact, I know from a relative who teaches that they still, in strict accordance with guidelines (at least in that state), instruct students to give their dialogue great flourish by piling on the adverbs.  This is simply one of those areas where teachers and industry professionals remain out of sync.

In the end, my stunning discovery served as the perfect example for my lesson on self-editing.  Now, at the risk of further embarrassing myself, I will share my revelation.

Absolutely: I absolutely hate overusing this word.
            First Draft = 18; Current Version =   2
Actually: When I speak, I actually use this word far too often, and it's crept into my writing.
            First Draft = 89; Current Version =   2
Certainly: I certainly never imagined this word would be such a problem for me.
            First Draft = 22; Current Version =   1
Completely: My discovery has completely flummoxed me.
            First Draft = 22; Current Version =   2
Constantly: I must constantly search for this wicked little monster as I self-edit.
            First Draft =   5; Current Version =   1
Continually: I continually instruct my clients not to pile on the adverbs.
            First Draft =   3; Current Version =   1
Finally: I finally realize what an overused crutch this word is.
            First Draft = 79; Current Version =   7
Frankly: Frankly, we need this word far less often than we think.
            First Draft = 11; Current Version =   1
Hopefully: Hopefully, I've long understood the evil of this word.
            First Draft =   2; Current Version =   1
Incredibly: Incredibly, some writers insist on employing this lazy worker.
            First Draft =   4; Current Version =   0
Just: Oh no!  That first draft number just can't be right.  It just has to be a mistake.
            First Draft = 555; Current Version = xxx (Ah geez, don't even ask.  Back to work I go.)
Merely: I merely toss this in as an alternative to the word "just."
            First Draft = 34; Current Version = 13 (Still thinking about a few of those)
Naturally: Many writers naturally gravitate toward stating the obvious.
            First Draft = 13; Current Version =   2
Obviously: I obviously get far too lazy while creating my first drafts.
            First Draft = 14; Current Version =   1
Rather: I rather like this word; thus, I must exercise great caution in using it.
            First Draft = 36; Current Version =   4
Really: I really fall back on this word too much—really.
            First Draft = 94; Current Version = 26 (Still sounds like a lot)
Simply: I simply must learn to tighten up my prose on the first pass.
            First Draft = 35; Current Version =   6
Surely: Surely, you don’t expect me to stop using this gem.
            First Draft = 28; Current Version =   4
Totally: I totally understand why so many writers fall victim to adverbs.
            First Draft =   2; Current Version =   0
Unfortunately: Unfortunately, all we can do, once we make these mistakes, is fix them.
            First Draft =   2; Current Version =   0

Well, that was fun!  I should point out that many (a majority, in fact) of those adverbs remain in my manuscript because characters use them in dialogue, where they're occasionally more acceptable.

'Til next time, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn't be lazy.

Cut Out the Awkward Dialogue Tags – Part 2

Let your dialogue flow smoothly, and help your reader to see and hear your characters as they speak.

I've posted a follow-up article on the problems with dialogue tags at the following site:

Please check it out, and remember:
To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn't be lazy.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cut Out the Awkward Dialogue Tags – Part 1

Let your dialogue flow smoothly, and take the scissors to those lazy, awkward dialogue tags.

I've posted an article on the problems with dialogue tags at the following site:

Please check it out, and remember:
To write well, you must work hard.
To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn't be lazy.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

SHOW versus TELL – Part 2

With words as paint and the page as canvas, paint us a picture.

As a writer, you've heard it 1,000 times already, including in my blog entry of November 16.  Okay, but this is one you can’t hear too often, so here comes number 1,001.

These three little words constitute one of the high commandments of writing: "Show, don’t tell!"  It sounds so easy, doesn't it?  Yet it requires commitment, determination, vigilance and inexhaustible effort.

We writers tend to get a bit lazy with our prose as we rush through the first draft of a story.  We so focus on the plot, the characters, the setting, the central conflict and eventual resolution—a proper focus, of course—that we pay too little attention to the words.  If I may revisit a metaphor I use often; we so focus on the forest that we forget to enjoy the trees.

This, my fellow writer, is why the writing gods created self-editing, lest we fail to honor our covenant.  We have much to address in the self-editing process, but for the purposes of this blog entry, I'll focus on that one commandment: "Show, don’t tell!"

We most engage a reader when we create for him a scene he can visualize, when we fire-up the film projector in his mind.  The longer our piece drags on without affording him the opportunity to exercise his mind's eye, the likelier he is to set our story aside out of boredom.  Put another way, the reader should see not our words, but the image those words create.  Think of words as your paint and the keyboard as your brush, and paint a picture to compel the reader forward.

Simile and metaphor function as effective tools in this artistic pursuit, as they force the reader—if you've done your job well—to visualize your image and translate it to, or associate it with, the underlying, true meaning of your scene.  Symbols will also enhance this experience for the reader.  As a simple example, a gray, overcast day mired in a constant drizzle might highlight and heighten your character's depression.

As is true of so many writers' tools, you must use these to maximum effect, which not only means using them in the proper places, but also that you must not overuse them.  Too much of a good thing can be… well, not so good.  Give the reader a slice of chocolate cake as dessert, but don’t skip the meat and vegetables and force him to eat the entire cake at one sitting.  We writers mustn't make our readers sick.

As a rule, the shorter your similes and metaphors, the more frequently you can employ them.  If you pop a quick, one-sentence simile into your story, you needn't wait several pages to offer another.  On the other hand, if you just completed a three-page metaphor, you don’t want to jump into another metaphor on the next page.  Like all artists, you must apply a deft hand.  Let your instincts guide you initially, and let your editor, you writers' group, or your trusted reviewer help you refine and polish it.

Now, let's review a series of specific examples from pieces I've edited or reviewed.  As always, I shall keep confidential the authors' names (I'll refer to them simply as Author) and story titles to protect the not-so-innocent.  :)

TELL: He was by far the tallest person in the meeting room.
      Note: First, Author started with the weak state-of-being verb.  Second, Author provided nothing to stretch the reader's imagination, to engage his mind's eye.
SHOW: He towered above the others in the meeting room as if they'd all skipped over from the local chapter of the Lollipop Guild.
      Note: Did you just see that moment after Dorothy landed in Oz?  Perhaps you even heard their song.  In the end, you should have concluded that the character "was by far the tallest person in the meeting room."

TELL: He walked slowly and without enthusiasm toward the door.
      Note: Author fell into a typical lazy trap here.  Few adverbs are duller than slowly, quickly, loudly or quietly.  Remember the value of body language to express a character's mood and mental state.
SHOW: His shoulders slumped and his face drooped, as he dragged his feet toward the door.

TELL:   "What are you doing with these jokers?" asked Little Butch.
            Rosemary said, "Partying.  What else?"  She was sloshed.  "You still going with Jennifer?"
      Note: At issue is the simple description: She was sloshed.  Sometimes simple is fine, and you don't want to paint with too heavy a hand, but consider these types of sequences opportunities to paint a picture for the reader.
SHOW: "What are you doing with these jokers?" asked Little Butch.
            "Partying.  What else?"  Rosemary's words mixed in an alcoholic slur as she leaned against the car to prevent herself from falling over, and her eyelids bobbed in time with her head as if they weighed a hundred pounds each.  "You still going with Jennifer?"

TELL: The sky was a brilliant blue with a few white wisps scattered here and there.  Her long smooth legs were warm from the sun.
      Note: The key here is to replace the weak state-of-being verbs with more active verbs that bring the image to life for the reader.  This typically requires some simple restructuring.
SHOW: Sunlight, broken occasionally by scattered white wisps, radiated through a brilliant blue sky and bronzed her long, smooth legs.

TELL: He knelt by the gravestone, completely exhausted and desperately needing sleep.  He'd never been so sad and lonely.  He couldn't imagine what life would be like without Karen, the only woman he'd ever loved.
      Note: It's important to remember that readers hear you telling them that something happened, or merely that something was, when you pile on the adverbs and adjectives.  Conversely, they envision the scene (see what happened) when you utilize active verbs and descriptive nouns.
SHOW: He collapsed to his knees alongside the gravestone, and expelled his last ounce of energy in a sputtering, tearful gasp.  Silence shrouded the cemetery, broken only by his heavy breathing and the uncertainty that pounded like war drums in his mind.  The love of his life, the object of his greatest dreams and desires, lay six feet beneath him, beyond his reach for all time.  How would he survive without Karen?

In closing, let me remind you that the reader must see more than your words; he must see the images those words create.  When you write, live within the scene, and paint a picture of everything that happens around you.  Don’t tell the reader what happened; let him see what you see, hear what you hear, feel what you feel, as though he's standing beside you inside the scene, witnessing and experiencing it right along with you and your characters.

'Til next time, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn't be lazy.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Quick Inspiration

Focus on the scene.

I was re-reading John Gardner's fine book, The Art of Fiction (Vintage Books), and found some inspiration relevant to some work I've been doing with one of my clients.

From Pages 68-69:
"In fleshing out his characters, the writer does not ordinarily think out every implication of every image he introduces at the time he introduces it.  He writes by feel, intuitively, imagining the scene vividly and copying down its most significant details, keeping the fictional dream alive, sometimes writing in a thoughtless white heat of 'inspiration,' drawing on his unconscious, trusting his instincts, hoping that when he looks back at it later, in cool objectivity, the scene will work."

I love this because he points out, not once but twice, the importance of "scene."  Great fiction (or narrative non-fiction) requires a series of coherent, compelling scenes.

Write in the moment.  Live the scene.  If you do that, and do it well, the reader will live the scene too.  Then you will have succeeded.

Write on, build your own scenes, and remember:
To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn't be lazy.

Writing Cheat Sheet

Fight back against Lazy Words, Useless Filler and Bad Habits

Like all writers, I suffer my fair share of bad habits, not least of which is my tossing about useless words like candy at Halloween.  Unfortunately, these words don’t move the plot, advance a character, enhance the setting, or do anything but highlight words that have crept into my everyday speech, and which now seek to weaken my prose.

Here are my personal Top 5 Lazy Words: just, a bit, rather, really, well.

There are more where those came from.  These darn words show up where I least expect them.  Perhaps I should say they show up where I least need them.  They take up space and get in the way, and add unnecessarily to the ever-critical word count.  I spend half my self-editing time finding my Lazy Words and excising the majority of them from the manuscript.

At least, I used to spend half my self-editing time in that way.  No more.

So what has changed to "fix" my problem?  Frankly, I still wage the battle, but I have much more success catching them the first time around now—the very instant I write them.  This is true in no small part due to the Writing Cheat Sheet I created for myself, and which hangs on the wall right above my PC.  There it hangs, day after day after day, screaming out at me as I write, reminding me of my writing Bad Habits.

My Writing Cheat Sheet contains more than just my Lazy Words, but those are a big part of it.  I often pause in my writing to think about what I want to write next, lean back in my chair, toss my hands behind my head, and stare at that darn sheet.  Not intentionally, mind you—it's just there.  I can’t miss it.

Thus, it has seeped into my subconscious and taken firm root.  Now, every time I type the word "just" where it does not belong, I practically scream at myself, "You idiot!  What are you doing?"  Every time I start a sentence with "Well," my hands start to shake and my stomach roils.  In the back of my mind, I can hear my Writing Cheat Sheet yelling, "Hey, knock off all that Useless Filler!"

I would urge you to identify your own Lazy Words, Useless Filler and Bad Habits, and create a cheat sheet of your own.  Tack it up on the wall above your monitor, or to the side of it—anywhere you'll see it over and over and over.  Let your subconscious mind soak it in, and help you to become a better writer.

Feel free to use mine as a model, if you'd like, but personalize it to address your specific issues, as we all battle our own demons.  You'll find it at the following link:

Good luck in exorcising your own writing demons, and remember:
To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn't be lazy.