Don’t Forget To Splice Your Commas

A while back I tried hanging around on some of the Internet’s writing forums. Not because I really expected to learn anything myself, though you never know–as I talked about earlier I’ve been at this for a while. Rather, I wanted to see if talking about writing more regularly would help keep me focused, and maybe I could help out some young writers in the process.

I was, I think, able to help a few people, and it was instructive to see how some young writers approach the craft, but overall the experiment did not go well.

A young man (still in high school as it turned out, though that wasn’t immediately apparent) asked for information on getting published. Not how to write, but specifically publication. There was a problem with his post, though; it was semi-literate, with as many or more misspelled words than correct ones, and the idea of punctuation and capitalization seemed quite foreign to him. I, and several other people, suggested that he practice the craft some more before worrying about getting published.

This lad, unfortunately, did not like that advice. He insisted, with rising heat, that he knew how to write very well; he got A’s in English and was always correcting his family’s grammar. He simply couldn’t be bothered to take the time to write properly in a web forum post. (I don’t think he ever did manage even one grammatically correct sentence in any of his posts.) Worse, several other forum denizens jumped in to defend him, calling us all a bunch of big meanies for telling this lad that he should learn how to write before worrying about getting published. His enthusiasm was obviously much more important than any mere skill or craft.

That was when I decided that perhaps my time was best spent elsewhere, and I signed off.

Craft matters, you see. No one cares how excited the writer was when writing a story. An editor is going to take one look at your sloppy manuscript and think, “This person has no idea what they’re doing. Even if the story is good, it’s going to take a ton of work to hammer the text into shape and I’ve got a thousand other manuscripts here on my desk. I bet I can find something at least as good that’s less work.”

You don’t intend to submit your work to traditional publishers? You think your story is so good, so infused energy and enthusiasm, that readers won’t mind a few grammatical errors? Hah. The reader comes alone to the page, and if it is rife with grammatical and spelling errors then your enthusiasm doesn’t matter. She will more likely than not turn away and read something more welcoming. Not only because the sloppy text is unreadable (though certainly that too), but because it makes you, the writer, look bad. When a reader lets a writer into her head to tell her a story, she has to feel confident that he knows what he is doing. Showing the reader up-front that you cannot handle the basics of the language does not inspire that confidence.

This kid’s delusion about knowing how to write grammatically correct English is a common one. I’ve seen numerous people say that they know how to write properly, but don’t have the time to do it for a simple forum post/Facebook comment/blog comment/etc. That is, to be perfectly blunt, bullshit. Everyone makes a typo now and then, but if you consistently make gross errors in spelling, capitalization, and general composition it is simply because you don’t know how to do it right, and if you have any serious interest in becoming a writer you’d better learn.

Here’s the thing: If you really know what you’re doing, it doesn’t take any more effort to do it right.

Take the time to hone the fundamentals of your craft. When your understanding of grammar is deep enough to be intuitive, when–barring the odd typo–you get it right most of the time without having to think about it (or pull the style guide down off your shelf, though you should certainly have one there just in case), then you have freed yourself to concentrate on storytelling. And that’s what it’s all about.


Give ‘Em The Heater

In some ways, writing fiction is like being a baseball pitcher. (And in one very important way it’s completely different, but we’ll get to that.) Sometimes you have to get something by the reader, and you have a variety of tools for doing so.

The unfortunate fact is that no story of any length is completely airtight. Quite often, if the reader stops to think about things, they may spot holes in your plot, or an anachronism, or begin to doubt some character’s motivation, or some other thing you’d just as soon they didn’t. Or perhaps you want to misdirect the reader, to set up a plot twist later; you have to have clues to the impending twist, so the reader doesn’t feel cheated when the twist is revealed, but you don’t want her picking up on it too soon.

You might finesse it; throw the reader a curve or change up, that looks like it’s going one way, but ends up going another. Or you might try to just blow it past her, moving events along so quickly that she has no time to stop and reflect. Either way, you have to execute with skill.

Here’s a case where the author didn’t execute properly. In THE PARTNER John Grisham tries to get a few things past the reader. (Spoilers ahead, if that applies to a thirteen-year-old book.) First, he raises the question of who sold out runaway lawyer Patrick Lanigan, leading to his capture, torture, and extradition to the United States to stand trial for a slew of crimes. Grisham drops hints that it was Lanigan’s Brazilian girlfriend, but isn’t very convincing. The reader (most readers, I think, though perhaps I am overestimating the average reader) recognizes the slider coming out of his hand and is not fooled. Only two people could have betrayed Lanigan; the girlfriend and Lanigan himself. We don’t really believe that it was the girlfriend, so it is obvious from fairly early in the book that Lanigan himself must have tipped off his pursuers in exchange for the reward money. And in fact, near the end of the book, it is revealed that that is exactly what happened; after years on the run Lanigan got tired of looking over his shoulder and dropped a dime on himself (in exchange for a couple million dollars).

This exposes a plot hole big enough to sail a carrier battle group through. If Lanigan was tired of running, there was no need for him to arrange for his own capture by unscrupulous private investigators, then return to the US to stand trial. All he had to do was open negotiations with the FBI from the safety of Brazil and, with the improbable masses of documentation he has, settle matters without all the unsightly fuss of torture and arrest. This would have made for a very short book, unfortunately. Grisham tries to finesse this point past the reader, fails, and so fails the book. He hangs the curve ball, and the reader hits it out of the park.

The second place where Grisham really fails in this book is the ending. He tries a surprise twist, but it is completely unconvincing. His curve bounces in the dirt and rolls to the backstop.

(About two-thirds of the way through the book I found myself thinking, “I hope Grisham doesn’t have the girl run off with the money at the end. That would be really stupid.” And it was.)

The opening of the book, though, where Grisham relies on velocity, works pretty well. Perhaps the heater is his best pitch?

Like a pitcher, the writer cannot keep trying the same thing and hope to have success. You might blow something past the reader once, or drop a plot curve in for a strike, but if you probably aren’t going to be able to blow two or three plot holes or dubious character actions past the reader. She will eventually catch on, and once that happens you’ve lost her. Use the same trick over and over and the reader will come to expect it. (I’ve enjoyed several of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, but his persistent gimmick of going to great lengths to disguise a character’s identity, trying to trick the reader into thinking that one character is actually another, finally turned me off.) Mix things up; if you used a sex scene one time to keep the reader from thinking about the clues you just planted, next time use a fight. Or some other entertaining digression. (Royale with cheese?) Keep the reader guessing about what you’re going to throw next, and you will both be happier with the outcome.

That, you see, is the biggest difference between a pitcher and a writer (aside from quibbles about physique, and possibly spitting), is that the pitcher wants to beat the hitter. They are in opposition. The writer wants to delight and entertain the reader. You don’t want to fool the reader to make her look bad, but rather to increase her enjoyment of your work.

Even if, sometimes, you have to just rear back and blow something past ’em.


What a Long, Strange Trip it’s Been

I started writing in my senior year of high school. I had told myself stories for many years, tracking them in my head, but that was when I began to write down something that I intended for other people to read.

Partly, this was because I was spending the school year with my grandparents in a small town in western Massachusetts and it was very boring, especially for a shy boy with no money. Partly it was Robert Asprin’s afterward to the Thieve’s World anthology, where he described the process of putting it together, approaching writers, and coming up with character ideas. It was my first glimpse behind the curtain and, as with many other people before and since, it made me think, “I can do that.”

I started a novel, dabbled in some short stories, and even had a (very) brief foray into poetry. In those days I wrote with a felt-tipped pen (started with pencil, but it was too hard on my hand) on notepaper. I finished the novel, typed it up (on a typewriter; this was a very long time ago), realized that it was terrible, threw it away and started over. (I’ll have more to say about learning curves later.)

I wrote through college, finishing another novel and several short stories. I was never a fast writer, but when on a roll I could really crank, and I plugged way at it steadily, though without any commercial success.

Then I graduated and had to get a real job. I wrote a few more short stories, started a few novels that never went very far, but mostly my writing stopped then, in the 90s. Looking back at it, my writing then was pretty good, and if I’d stuck at it I may well have had more success than the few modest sales I actually scored, but with decent jobs in the tech industry paying the bills, I mostly set it aside as a failed effort.

Or so I thought. I suspect now that it may also have been a matter of focus, and brain space. Perhaps I’ll have more to say on that later as well.

Whatever the cause, for about ten years I wrote nothing at all, and very little for several years before that. It wouldn’t quite go away, though; I still hung around with literary types, and story ideas would sometimes come to me, but I pushed them away. I dabbled in blogging, mostly as a way to shout at the world.

Eventually, I broke down and started writing again, turning out what I think is a pretty good novel. I’ve started another novel. I’m taking notes for a non-fiction work.

In The War of Art Steven Pressfield talks about the emotional and even physical harm that artists can do themselves by denying the creative impulse. I don’t know how right he is about that, but I know that much of the book rung true for me. I didn’t get me writing again, but it did play a part.

I don’t know where the road leads, but know that I am once again travelling it.


Once More Into The Breach

Hey there. I’ve swept away the old nineties-riffic site that used to be here and put up this new thing in its place. This is where I intend to ramble more-or-less aimlessly about writing, sharing such thoughts as I whimsically think might be of interest to people. Stay tuned for more thrilling updates.