Category Archive: Dos and don’ts

Avoid the info-dump debacle

dumpingWhat is an info dump and why should I avoid it?

info dump
(noun) : an often dry section of expository text in a work of fiction

“One of the perennial hurdles in science fiction and fantasy writing is overcoming the problem of the info dump.” —Keith Kisser, The Machine Of The World, 2008

The info dump often appears when a writer needs to convey something that happened before the starting point of the story, and can find no other way than to have the narrator throw it on us in one lump that gets stuck in our throats. Readers may skim through it, or lay the story aside, as the main action of the work stops until the dump ends.

For example?

Cherry lived in a small suburb west of New York, the kind where every house just mirrors its neighbor. Her mother and father had settled there with Cherry and her two sisters. Her father worked as an itinerant salesman and rarely spent time at home, which left Cherry yearning for attention, and blighted her love live, as she forever sought the approval of her man.

String the reader along. People like being in suspense, and it keeps them reading. The reader will get each key bit of information when they need it. Until then, keep them curious.

Her mother, a gentle, striking woman with a great sense of fashion and a nervous tic, worked as a cartoonist for the Grossmont County News, a local paper, which left Cherry with a love of graphic expression; but she always felt that in order to express herself in her work, she had to strike out on a different path. She had only one good friend in high school, one Debra Galloway, who later on became the victim of a rape. That’s why Cherry hated to go about at night–

Well…OK. But all that stuff could be important. I could fiddle with those sentences, upgrade the style and word choice–

You miss the point. Even if you can string some good sentences together, every paragraph should take the story forward a bit and still maintain suspense. Admit it. You kind of skimmed through the Cherry paragraph.

Well….

There, you see? You did. Not just because the style sucked. You were looking for the main event.

Just what kind of “info” are we talking about here?

The character’s background or personality, her society if she inhabits an exotic locale or faraway world. How magic or technology works.

I see. So, smarty-pants, how can I avoid this “info dumping”?

String the reader along. People like being in suspense, and it keeps them reading. Make sure the reader gets each key bit of information by the time they need it. Until then, keep them curious.

That’s pretty general.

Well, OK. Make your character’s dilemma clear in paragraph one, then carry the situation forward, develop and flesh out the dilemma. You could include each of the little facts about Cherry in our above example at the right point in the story – for example, she meets up with her mom and we discover with our own eyes, or a friend complains about his dad, prompting Cherry to do the same. Guarantee that each piece of information is relevant, make certain that its time has come, and anchor it in some way to that moment in the narrative.

Go through your manuscript and highlight all instances of telling, not showing, no matter how small. Ask yourself:

  • Do I need it beyond question? Can I cut it? Can I cut even part of it?
  • Can I show it instead?
  • Can I incorporate it into an existing scene where the information would surface more naturally?
  • Can I incorporate the information into a new scene, one which introduces the information in a way that does not stop the action, the flow of events?
  • Do I really, really need this info?

So maybe Cherry could meet her mom, talk to her on the phone, or have one of her cartoons on the wall?

Hey! Now you’re learning!

Oh, yeah, I was just so ignorant before you came along.

Sorry.

This all sounds like a lot of work.

It can be. Keep at it. Don’t give up. You’ll smile in the end, and your book will shine.

 

 

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The rules of writing

rulebookWhat are the rules of writing? Are there rules? Are rules made to be broken? Every writer lists the rules differently:

William Faulkner

I would say to get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself.

Martin Amis

  • You write the book you want to read. That’s my rule.
  • You have to have a huge appetite for solitude.

Zadie Smith

Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

Scott Turow

I think that you must be aware of the existing conventions.  That does not mean that you cannot reinvent them in your own way.

Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

~Henry Miller

Anne Rice

I don’t think there are any universal rules. I really don’t. We each make our own rules, and we stick to our rules and we abide by them, but you know rules are made to be broken. If any rule you hear from one writer doesn’t work for you, disregard it completely. Break it.

Andrew Motion

  • Decide when in the day (or night) it best suits you to write, and organize your life accordingly.
  • Think big and stay particular.

Kurt Vonnegut

Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Neil Gaiman

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. So write your story as it needs to be written. I’m not sure that there are any other rules.

Henry Miller

Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Don’t worry even a little bit whether your book is on trend. All the trends will be trending differently by the time you get published, so it’s pointless to overthink it while you’re writing.

~Rainbow Rowell

George Orwell

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Rainbow Rowell

Don’t worry even a little bit whether your book is on trend. All the trends will be trending differently by the time you get published, so it’s pointless to overthink it while you’re writing.

Joyce Carol Oates

Best tip for writers: not to listen to any silly tips for writers.

The rules of writing definitely exist. Everyone follows some rules, whether they admit it or not. These rules may differ for each writer, and some writers may not verbalize them, or even notice them. But every writer follows rules. Just examine his or her writing to see it.

If you feel a bit lost, have a look at the rules of others, and ask yourself: “What are my rules of writing?”

rules

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Can I start a sentence with a conjunction?

People ask me all the time about the no-nos of grammar, and do they fall under black, white, or some shade of gray?

The issue of placing a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence causes much confusion. Can we do it?

All major style guidebooks agree: Yes, We can!

Yet most people have learned at one time or another that this constitutes a serious breach of linguistic protocol.

All right, to explain this let’s travel back in time to visit a typical 19th century schoolmarm.

Perhaps all of her students drove her mad, beginning every sentence with and. Perhaps she reasoned that starting a sentence with and or but actually creates a sentence fragment. For whatever reason, she and her colleagues decided to teach children never to begin a sentence with a conjunction. And lo and behold, many of us to this day still have lingering doubts about this perfectly legitimate usage.

Coordinating conjunctions include for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so. Use the mnemonic fanboys to remember them.

Bear in mind, though, the distinction between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. We call the first group coordinating because they treat two clauses with equal weight:

Everything has beauty, but not everyone can see. ~ Confucius

Here the two clauses (everything has beauty, not everyone can see) bear equal weight in the sentence. Coordinating conjunctions include for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so. Use the mnemonic fanboys to remember them.

Place one of these babies at the front of your sentences with impunity. For example let’s take Robert Frost: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. / But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep….” Frost has no trouble beginning a sentence with but, and neither should you. Just remember that using the same word, any word, to begin several sentences in one paragraph is irritating, and bad style.

Lo and behold, many of us to this day still have lingering doubts about this perfectly legitimate usage.

But the on the other hand let’s take subordinating conjunctions: as if, because, although and when. We use these when one part of the sentence (the main clause) bears more weight than the other (the subordinate clause) Use these with care. Consider a bad example:

It all started suddenly. When Maria came back into Joshua’s life.

Because when is a coordinating conjunction, this example sounds stilted and uneducated in separating these two clauses with a period.

Nonetheless, we may start a sentence with a subordinating conjunction if it joins two clauses coming afterward. Let’s take the following example:

When a person cannot deceive himself, the chances are against his being able to deceive other people. ~ Mark Twain

This sentence makes a far better impression, not just because Samuel Clemens wrote it, but because the subordinating conjunction when joins two clauses: When (1) a person cannot deceive himself, then (2) the chances are against his being able to deceive other people. The second clause, “the chances are against his being able to deceive other people,” is the main clause of the sentence (bearing more weight), whereas “a person cannot deceive himself” is subordinate.

So (see what I did there?) go forth and use fanboys with confidence, and subordination conjunctions with care!

Schoolmarm

Schoolmarm

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Avoid advice from non-writer friends

Advice Help Support And Tips Signpost Showing Information And GuYou’ve got that idea for a novel.

It bubbles inside you. Or you make that big decision: You’re “going to be” a writer. Trembling with exhilaration, you dial up your normal confidante. What a blast to share the news, you think, and how great to have the support of someone who loves you.

Now, just you wait a minute, there. You’ll find plenty of evidence that telling people about your goals makes you less likely to achieve them. (Derek Sivers: Keep your goals to yourself.) In your case – the case of a writer – this holds especially true. Particularly when you choose to share your zeitgeist with a non-writer. The field of writing has its own rules that take time to get to know, and the uninitiated commit sundry peccadilloes when advising a writer. Just a few of the most common:

  • They may advise you to chase an already crested trend. “No, no, you should write about a kid wizard or a school for vampires. That’s what’s hot now.” Trends currently on fire on the bookstore shelves (or already sizzling on TV or in the movies) passed muster with print editors years ago. These editors have moved on. This year’s books will provide the grist for popular movies 2-3 years down the road. Stick with your fresh idea, unless you learn from a relevant source that it may have a problem.
  • They often pooh-pooh ideas not identical to their conception. People hate appearing ignorant, and will advise and opine strongly in line with their preconceptions, sometimes on the flimsiest of grounds.
  • They have an oversimplified view of the publishing process, and may see one rejection as final. Yet they don’t see their own job applications that way.

 

Their pity may cement your new self-image as a failed writer.

dont-tell-dont-give-advice

 

Your non-writer buddies may not appreciate that for example a novel or screenplay is a long-term undertaking, and ask about your project every time you see them in anticipation of some momentous news. They may shake their heads sadly or get a look of pity on their face when, after long months, you have still not published. Not a boost for your confidence. And if you do in fact get blocked, your non-writer friends will not understand. They may console you, but they won’t give you useful strategies or kick you in the pants and tell you to get back in the saddle. Their pity may cement your new self-image as a failed writer.

So many folks think that since they can write – sentences, paragraphs all nicely one after another – they could therefore write – that thing that a writer does – without the effort and commitment it takes in reality. If they put their minds to it, they suppose, they could take a few months or a year and spin off a novel much like the ones they are accustomed to reading. They will have a very flawed perception of your endeavors, and that perception could well rub off on you.

Find writer friends online and in real life. Join a writers’ critiquing group or start one. Get relevant advice. But with the non-writing world, play your cards close to your chest.

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10 tips for getting published

Draft Beer

This is the kind of draft you should be sharing with your friends.

1. Don’t give your draft to a friend to read. Friends are nice. They love you. That’s not what you need. Find other writers who need your genuine feedback and give you the same in return.

2. Cross genres. Love romance and mysteries? Love soaps and sci-fi? Mix ’em up and increase your creativity and your reader base!

3. Accept all feedback. This doesn’t mean you should actually follow all advice. But recognize it as a legitimate reaction. Get a thick skin. You’ll need it.

4. Learn to understand feedback laterally when necessary. Someone may advise you to pick up the pace, whereas in the end you may find that adding more detail does the trick, instead. Your reader was bored, but why?

5. Seek and destroy adverbs and adjectives. Take a hard look at each and ask yourself, “Can I avoid this adverb by using a better verb instead?” Can you rearrange your sentence to replace cruel with a good noun elsewhere, like cruelty or malice? A more detailed description may also do the trick. If you have written “He gave him a cruel kick,” relax. That will suffice for your first draft. But in your revision phase you might try something like, “He kicked him in the mouth, snapping his head back with a sound like ‘kretch.’”

6. Overcome your writer’s block by writing badly. Your inner critic can block you by making every new sentence seem like twaddle. See if you can churn out a huge volume, ignoring quality or even actively flipping it the bird. Keep on this way for the whole session. Come back to it on a different day, set aside for revision, after you have passed some benchmark, I hope, or completed a draft. Then slash and burn to whip it into shape. Revision will be easier when your original wording doesn’t hold you in chains. The more energy you invest in your first write-through, the less you will be willing to make the cuts and rewrites your draft needs. And how many creative gems shine through because you allowed yourself to cut loose! Self editing can be stifling after all. And your daily word count, obviously, will skyrocket.

If you can be discouraged from being a writer, then you were never a writer in the first place.

7. Knock ’em dead with your query. Lavish you query will the same attention you devote to the work it seeks to sell. Editors will always assume that a behind a dull query stands a dull book.

8. Check the acknowledgements of books you like for agents. Talk to agents at conferences and listen to their presentations. Get recommendations from others in the field to avoid scams and do-nothing agents.

9. If you don’t have a dossier full of killer clips, focus on newsbriefs – shorties of under five hundred words most magazines have alongside their longer, feature stories. Work up a portfolio of these before casting your eye on bigger game.

10. A lot of writer’s block is just laziness. Get back to it, day in, day out. Just because you didn’t produce yesterday is no reason for slacking today. If you can be discouraged from being a writer, then you were never a writer in the first place.

pencil tips

Ten useful tips

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Make your flashback the best it can be

Twisty clock

Back in time

Pulling off a flashback takes finesse. The danger of cliché looms large, and you may overlook other ways to accomplish the effect you are shooting for, explain your backstory or give us insight into your character. A flashback can disrupt the flow of your narrative, so exercise caution.

When faced with the questionshould I or shouldn’t I?” ask yourself:

  • Will the information I am about to impart by flashback come out regardless during the course of the story? If so, then leave it. Don’t be in a hurry to get it all out in the open on the first page. In fact, letting your readers piece it together for themselves will only heighten the suspense.
  • Does this flashback stem naturally from what flashes through my character’s thoughts? If the answer is yes, then chances are your flashback will seem a lot less contrived. Think of a trigger – a strong image or powerful event – that will bring your character’s memories to the surface.
  • Can I use some other, more immediate method to accomplish what I have in mind? As a replacement for the flashback, consider the “back flash” – in which crucial information emerges about your character in the present, preferably in the form of dialogue.

A flashback can disrupt the flow of your narrative, so exercise caution.

Mechanics:

When writing your flashback, beware the pluperfect. You may experience the temptation to narrate the entire flashback using “had” before every verb. Doing so will rob your flashback of power and immediacy. Just one or two at the beginning should do the trick, and, if necessary, one at the very end.

Consider:

Iris slammed on the brakes as Dixie, the neighbor’s kid, scooted in front of her bumper on her plastic motorbike. Heart pounding, she gripped the wheel to stop her hands from trembling. No bigger than her own little Sara had been when she had disappeared. It’d been an ordinary day at the mall when she had let the child out of her sight for just a moment. She and Pete had spent endless hours grilling the police, who had slowly given up as the months had rolled on. Pete had left her when, he had said, it had become an obsession. Now Sara was a statistic and Iris cleaned and maintained her room just as Sara left it, not knowing what she was hoping for.  

The sound of a car horn blaring jolted her from her reverie. She checked the road carefully and, unable to drive on, pulled over and covered her face in her hands. What if what they all said was true?

Here the writer (OK, it was me) leads us into the flashback with a trigger – the girl on her toy motorbike – but then has us slog through the tedium of repeated complex verb forms, reminding us over and over that, yup, it’s a flashback. This may be grammatically OK, but we never really let go of the “now” of the story, never get out of Iris’s car.

It reads more smoothly and seems more immediate without as many pluperfects:

Iris slammed on the brakes as Dixie, the neighbor’s kid, scooted in front of her bumper on her plastic motorbike. Heart pounding, she gripped the wheel to stop her hands from trembling. No bigger than her own little Sara when she had disappeared. It was an ordinary day at the mall when she let the child out of her sight for just a moment. She and Pete spent endless hours grilling the police, who slowly gave up as the months rolled on. Pete left her when, he said, it became an obsession. Now Sara was a statistic and Iris cleaned and maintained her room just as she left it, not knowing what she was hoping for.  

The sound of a car horn blaring jolted her from her reverie. She checked the road carefully and, unable to drive on, pulled over and covered her face in her hands. What if what they all said was true?

The passage is hardly perfect (a but showy and infodumpy) but is illustrates that  just one pluperfect fills the bill, instead of nine. Since I use the same trigger (traffic activity) to end the flashback, there is no need for even one more pluperfect at the end, to signal that the flashback is over. Without all the “hads” we can exit the “now” of Iris’s car and fully enter the past, and this effect only increases as the flashback gets longer.

Bottom line: Overall, make sure to incorporate flashbacks into you writing both rarely and well.

 

 

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8 Ways to Make Your Story Stand Out

Mile high stack of papers

Your manuscript has arrived!

Editors and agents see enough manuscripts in a day to make their heads spin, most of them with the same mistakes. If you want to forestall the “Not again!” reaction, follow these 8 steps to a more competitive story. 

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1. Make sure you base your story on some kind of action that propels it forward. This could be a problem that the protagonist encounters in the first scene, one that she works the entire length of your story to resolve. Sometimes even writers with a good publishing track record submit what are known as “walking around thinking stories,” which follow the protagonist from encounter to encounter, each one related to her problem in some way, but not bringing us any closer to the point where she solves it.
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2. Conversely, avoid the “macho hero story” in which your protagonist goes from climax to climax like Sylvester Stallone in Cobra. You will have a hard time making this kind of story seem fresh.
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3. In a similar vein, avoid repetitive profanity, sex and gore. If they are necessary for the story, then fine. But these, when not essential, will do nothing to hold the attention of weary and revulsed editors. Quite the opposite. Add alcohol, drugs and rape to the list. The writers of these tales (there are many!) realize they must avoid “walking around thinking stories.” But rather than turning heads, they will be turning stomachs.
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4. Sympathize with your characters, even in a comic novel. Too many agents meet sorry, unrealistic characters who fart, belch, scratch and pick their noses throughout the story. If we don’t feel for you protagonist at least, we will turn off and put your manuscript down.
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5. Persist. As science fiction great John Campbell said: “The reason 99% of all stories written are not bought by editors is very simple. Editors never buy manuscripts that are left on the closet shelf at home.” You can be absolutely sure your favorite author was rejected far more than you before the publication of her first book.
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6. Don’t just submit. Resubmit. Find the right home from the thousands available online and in print. Editors may reject a newcomer many times before letting him into the fold. Submit, rewrite, resubmit.
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7. Be yourself. Don’t just try to hit the hottest new fad in publication. Chances are prospective agents and editors are sick to death of it. Harlan Ellison put it this way:
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“Publishers want to take chances on books that will draw a clamor and some legitimate publicity. They want to publish controversial books. That their reasons are mercenary and yours may be lofty should not deter you.”
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They make money off of finding new things.
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8. Work on a strong ending. End your story in the right place. Does you ending focus on particulars and the tying up of loose ends? Or does it focus outward and help us see something greater? Is there an earlier point which would fill the bill? You may have to cut a few pages off the end of your tale.
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You can do it. Remember: the good news is, if you can avoid the mistakes that editors see 99 times out of 100, then you have a foot in the door. Make the best of it.

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