When Last We Met…

Yesterday, Sunday September 27, The Magic City Writers met to review the first chapter of Lindy’s new story, The Night Things.  We also gained a new member, Kyle Strickland, and for the first time ever Nicole missed a meeting.  (She felt under the weather and stayed home instead.)  I shall get into the details of the meeting itself right after our on going segment I like to call “Lets Torture Alex by Mentioning What We Ate”.  Granted, this is a long title, but it’s just so darn descriptive (and evil) I can’t resist it.

Kathryn made ‘pork chalupas by putting uncooked pinto beans, a pork loin roast, chili powder, onions, stewed tomatoes, and cumin in a crock pot for 8 hours.  The pork was then pulled apart, and the pork and beans were served over a bed of bite-size Tostitos chips and topped with chopped tomatoes, sour cream, sliced avocados, cheese, and salsa.  As a snack she made pumpkin bread using a civil war recipe.  It was especially good when sprinkled with cinnamon.  I followed this up with a chaser of Neurontin, Flexeril, and a heating pad, but I digress.

Now back to the meeting. 

Literally, just seconds ago, it dawned upon me that I forgot to record the meeting.  Lindy, I am sorry.  I shall blame the Neurontin for making me a scatterbrain. 

Lindy’s new story starts off with an extremely well-written first draft of her first chapter.  In fact the group consensus was that she should break what she showed us into two good chapters.  It was not perfect, but I have seen published works that were worse than what she wrote.  Speaking for myself, I thought she had good descriptions, well-defined characters (though some need to get their meds balanced), an intriguing plot, and a foreboding style that created a wonderfully creepy atmosphere at times.   If she wrote an entire book at this level of quality I feel confident she could find a publisher willing to help her edit the rough parts.  Congratulations Lindy, you deserve it.

Lindy also introduced us to her friend, Kyle Strickland, who decided to join our group.  Kyle is a freelance writer who has had several short stories published and also writes for the site http://www.neverborncomic.com/.  Kyle’s view of the writing industry was quite different than the one we got from authors Bill Drinkard and Jeremy Lewis.  I think we all learned a lot talking with him.  With luck, we will even be able to entice him into positing some of his manifestos on this site.  Welcome to the group Kyle.

Kyle also has the dubious distinction of being the tenth person on our mailing list.  This is the limit for BlogSpot, unless I can find a way around it.  This means that those of you receiving these posts must now take it upon yourself to forward them to everyone you know.  I’m sure I can count on each of you to either do your part or ignore this not-so-subtle suggestion.

After the meeting, Lindy and Kathryn retired to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I read an insightful e-mail upon…uh, I mean…on my own writing from a dear friend and former professor, Ada Long.   (Yes, there is a private joke in the middle of that sentence.  If you didn’t get it, it wasn’t aimed at you.  Which, I  suppose, is the whole meaning of the word private in the previous sentence.  Oh…dear…god.  I’ve started analyzing my post on analyzing writing while I’m writing it.  If I don’t move on, this whole post could get sucked into a metaphysical black hole formed by the weight of its own cyber-drivel. )

Ada and I recently exchanged writings in an informal way and she send me a very nice letter that contained both high praise and thoughtful criticism.  Ada admits to having no interest in fantasy, but nevertheless said she thought my first two chapters were, “terrific”.  Ada’s positive influence on my life has been considerable, and her knowledge of literature is quite deep.  Therefore, I think you can understand why I am feeling a little proud myself at the moment. 

With regards to her criticisms, some I immediately addressed, while others I must consider more carefully.   Especially since they touch upon…uh, I mean…on my long running war with grammar. I do not wish to elaborate in an already overlong post, so perhaps I shall ruminate about her advice later.

That covers it for this meeting.  It was a good day, and I think everyone enjoyed themselves immensely.  Y’all take care and have fun.

An Essay by George Orwell

I stumbled across an 1946 essay by George Orwell I thought people might find interesting. The essay is about the poor use of language in writing, with examples of (very) bad writing and suggested rules for what should be avoided. The essay is broken across two web-pages. Here is a link for the first page, and for the second page.

I may comment on this essay later, but for now I thought I would point it out so those interested could read it at their leisure.

Reading My Own Work With Fresh Eyes

Over a year ago I started getting serious feedback about my writing. By this I mean I found other aspiring writers and we formed a group where we gave substantive, constructive, critical reviews of each other’s work. Since then, much of my writing time has focused upon addressing the editing suggestions from the group.

Recently, I declared war upon certain words and sought to eliminate them, as much as possible, from my writing. I began with the chapters I had already edited based upon the group’s feedback. This process improved chapters whose major issues I had already addressed.

In the last few days I expanded the war to chapters I wrote a long time ago and have yet to submit to the group for review. In particular, I had the opportunity to reread certain sections I felt proud of when I first wrote them. Sections I edited several times before the founding of the writers group, but have not looked at recently.

I discovered how serious feedback has helped me grow as a writer. The prose I once felt proud of I now see as amateur dreck. If I dared submit these chapters to the group they would savage them, with cause.

This isn’t a case of a writer being harsh upon himself. Over the last year the group has helped me see a variety of problems with my writing. Problems such as the overuse of the passive voice, reliance upon adverbs and adjectives rather than dialogue and actions to describe character’s emotions, run-on sentences, rambling paragraphs, info dumps, and so on.

I saw all of these problems and more in the my older, non-group edited works. It will take months, at least, to correct all the problems I found in a cursory review.

At first I shook my head and felt depressed at the magnitude of the task required to clean up these chapters. Then I started to feel better, pretty darn good actually. Why? Because I could see the problems now, whereas a year ago I couldn’t. I would never write chapters with those problems now. Or at least, the problems would not exist to the same degree.

I have improved as a writer. I can now correct many of the issues with my writing myself. I still need the group to edit what I consider a final version, because there will still be problems I will not see. But because of their help I can find and fix many problems myself.

There are gifts you receive that you cannot repay. I count helping me become a better writer as such a gift. They only way I can repay it is to do my best to help the others improve their own works.

The War on Words

Last time I wrote about writing crutches and how they weaken prose. I cited my own problems with recognizing the passive voice. I also discussed my tendency to use “ly” words such as sadly, happily, angrily, and so forth to describe a mood or emotion rather than letting character actions or words do the work for me. Towards the end, I wrote:

With regards to the passive voice problem, I am now declaring war on the “to be” verbs. (Is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being.) This lets me focus on a well-defined set of words that are often the hallmark of the passive voice. When I find a sentence with one of these words I will examine it to see if I can rewrite it without a “to be” verb. Often I won’t be able to, but just as often I will discover a more natural, less awkward way of expressing the same idea. At the very least, I believe the practice will make me a better writer.

I spent much of the last week eliminating specific words. Pleased with the result, I expanded my search to a much broader list of words. To be precise, I made a long list of “ly” words, such as I mentioned above, and sought them out with a renewed passion.

I eliminated the vast majority all these words with little trouble. Often I could delete these words without altering the sentence at all, a sure sign the words were superfluous. In other cases the sentence had to be changed, but the new sentence almost always proved to be demonstrably better. In a very few cases I could neither eliminate the word, nor construct a superior sentence that wasn’t rambling or awkward. In those few cases, I left the original sentence untouched.

I lost almost two-thousand words from my manuscript. This, in part, is a result of the eliminated words and reformed sentences. Much of the reduced word count, however, came from my realization that a number of sentences were redundant or otherwise unneeded. The exercise had the unexpected benefit of forcing me to look at sentences in isolation.

During a normal editing pass I read a section or chapter in sequential order from beginning to end. The flow of the work makes me see words and sentences as part of a bigger whole. Small problems become lost in a forest of changes. I ignore bad or weak sentences because they are surrounded by better ones.

By focusing on eliminating specific words, I forced myself to pay attention to sentences out of context. It forced me to think about the specific meaning of individual sentences and what purpose they served in the narrative. In previous edits I skimmed over many sentences and thought, “that works.” This time I forced myself to study each sentence, one at a time, and ponder, “Why is this here?” When I couldn’t answer that question to my satisfaction, I deleted the entire sentence rather than rewriting it.

I now find myself paying much more attention to sentences as I write them. By the time I reach the end of a sentence or paragraph I am editing it to see where I can remove clutter, redundancy, and weakness .

The end result: I believe this exercise made me a better writer. I therefore deem it a success and will continue to employ it as needed.

Writing Crutches

I am currently finishing the latest editing pass of …Warns The Ruling Circle…, chapter three of Gods Among Men. I have reached the point in my editing process where I listen to the recording of the writers group meeting where the chapter was reviewed. In the middle of the recording is a point about how I keep using the passive voice in my writing.

This relates to my long standing war with grammar. I am, at best, poor at spotting these types of problems. I have to use a dictionary or do research on the web to define “passive voice”. Even then, the definition is a just a string of words to me. I recognize each word, I can tell the definition is well formed and clear, I get the basic concept, but a clear grasp of the details never crosses into into my consciousness.

Mind you, I am not a stupid man. I am a computer programmer. I read and understand highly technical books and articles loaded with technical jargon on a regular basis. Nevertheless, I don’t really understand something like:

form of “to be” + past participle = passive voice

Here’s what I do get: Does a sentence sound awkward and ill-formed or not?

For example, “Why was the road crossed by the chicken?” sounds to my ears like an awkward phrase. It is an unnatural way to ask the question. It has the same content as “Why did the chicken cross the road?” which is clear and more natural. I know, intellectually, the awkward sound of the first version comes from the fact it is in passive voice. I know this because the web site I copied it from says so. Had the website not explained this I would never have been able to identify the problem, I would have just known there was a problem.

Listening to recording of the writers group meeting, I realized that the passive voice creeps into my writing as a writing crutch. The passive voice is not grammatically incorrect, but it does detract from the content of the writing. Often, the passive voice is a lazy way to say something.

As I write, particularly on my early drafts, I tend to focus first on plot and character. Style is a matter of polishing the final work. Rewording a sentence to avoid the passive voice takes more time and effort. Rather than take that time, make that effort, I unconsciously lean on the passive voice over and over. Over time, using this writing crutch weakens my characters and erodes the story.

This is not the first time I found myself relying upon a writing crutch. The use of the “ly” words is also a crutch. (Angrily, sleepily, madly, stoically, happily, sadly, etc….) These words are a lazy way to establish a mood or emotion. Often they can be left out without changing the content of a sentence, letting the context establish mood and emotion. Sometimes descriptions are needed instead. For example, “What do you want,” she asked angrily. versus, “What do you want?” she asked, her hand clenched in a fist.

When I discovered I had an problem with overusing and abusing “ly” words I declared war upon them. I began scouring my writing for every instance and replaced as many as possible. Sometimes I couldn’t, but I did manage to reduce the problem to an acceptable level. Now I try to avoid “ly” words in the first draft, which makes my editing process shorter and simpler.

With regards to the passive voice problem, I am now declaring war on the “to be” verbs. (Is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being.) This lets me focus on a well-defined set of words that are often the hallmark of the passive voice. When I find a sentence with one of these words I will examine it to see if I can rewrite it without a “to be” verb. Often I won’t be able to, but just as often I will discover a more natural, less awkward way of expressing the same idea. At the very least, I believe the practice will make me a better writer.

I admit, this approach is a gimmick. It isn’t a true substitute for understanding grammar. But, since I don’t really understand grammar, I have to rely on gimmicks to help me improve my skills. It may not be the best approach, but it is a technique that has worked well for me so far.