This is the eighth post in a series. You can read the entire series by going through the ‘86 Things‘ tag on the blog. For the curious, there’s only one more part to go. I know, it’s been a long read, but I appreciate you doing it.
Let’s get right to it.
I swear on your choice of holy object, you really don’t want to use the passive voice 8 times out of 10. (exceptions possible)
The problem with the passive voice is that it makes the action unclear. “Had been cooking” dilutes the idea that someone was cooking, just as “was thinking” separates us from the notion that thought occurred.
Now yes, there are times when you need to frame a verb passively, because the sentence won’t make sense without it:
“I was cleaning when the phone rang.”
But the focus of the sentence, the item we’re looking for when we read is the action of the sentence — what’s going on in this string of words, and how can I mentally translate into images so that I may continue to enjoy this creation? So why then would you make the action unclear?
Conveying action effectively both helps paint the picture you’re intending AND moves us further along the page and deeper into the story. Which is what you want. In case you weren’t sure. The stronger verbs (not the word choice this time, but the conjugation of the verb) are clearer.
All three are clear, strong and direct. They’re feasible when you’re trying to paint a declarative picture.
“My legs had carried me far when the dog stopped chasing me.”
“We had danced before, but never like this.”
“Bowling had been fun.”
Yes, those three are accurate sentences. They’re grammatically correct. Each has their place in writing. But their place is NOT THE SAME PLACE as the first three examples.
Knowing when to go passive and when to be active is critical for engaging the reader and keeping them hooked throughout all the twists, turns, ups and downs of you work. Building that push/pull relationship is part of what connects readers to a writer’s style and helps generate a fan base that persists across multiple books, series or projects.
Let the story develop at the pace that works best for it. Micro-managing leads to disaster and stalled projects. Let it be.
I worked on a disaster of a project once — 15 writers (or was it 18), our budget was literally whatever we had in our wallets, and it was not a fun three-month process. And no, I’m not entirely proud of the work, because although it was a “learning experience” (I cannot make air-quotes big enough for that), it broke every rule I believe in: no contract, no pay, no contingency plans, shoddy equipment, no consistent schedule, etc).
It was also the first time I was ever truly micro-managed to the point of wanting to throw things. I am not a guy who deals well with that style of management: the constant hovering and checking-in, the lack of freedom to really be myself and feel like I’m a valued contributor, the lack of respect paid to who each of us are and what we bring to this project in terms of expertise and previous work. I swore off that sort of project when it was done, and I swore off ever working in that way ever again. Yeah, it was THAT bad (if you see me at a convention this summer, you’ll have to ask me for details).
The problem was that managing the creation of the project so rigidly did not create the product it was supposed to. I can think of four occasions where people were told “Do it this way”, even if their sensibility or their talent suggested another way worked better. This was usually said by people who had never managed something like that before, who had no real practical experience trusting themselves, or who were they themselves products of a rigid system.
Creative projects are at their heart, organic. They grow, in whatever direction you let them. This doesn’t mean they should grow without boundaries or borders or limits or some sort of structure, but this does mean you shouldn’t try to shoe-horn a story together when it clearly becomes something else as you create it.
Yeah, some parts of your story are going to come you more naturally or more excitedly than other parts. Some parts will be read faster than others. Placing a stranglehold on your own ideas and screaming “Work this way!” is a lot like yelling at your plant in the window for not growing like the picture on the packet of seeds (which is something I’ve seen happen).
Trust yourself to be able to let the story go in whatever direction it needs to go in order to be told. Don’t force it down some path, don’t break it in order to fit that vision you had way back on Day 1. Stories change and grow just as authors do. Let them.
Queries should get to the damned point. Breezy queries lead to thick slush.
I am wordy. I am long-winded. This is both because I love the sound of my own voice (not even close to true) and because I love talking (totally true). And when I write, I tend to over-write, mixing a blend of casual we’re-just-hanging-out with this-is-how-you-do-things. I mean, really, have you seen my blog posts? Some of them go on for days.
But that’s all because I have the luxury of time and space. I can afford to say what I want for as long as I want, because I’m given wide open space here on the blog and because I run my own workshops.
Query letters though do not have such luxury. You get a page. ONE page. At absolute most 250 words, and every word counts. Each word works with the words to the left and right, above and below for the purpose of making the manuscript they’re attached to appealing to the reader.
If your query doesn’t entice the would-be reader to pick up the manuscript, then your path to publication (in one model of publishing) ends there. And even if you aren’t pursuing that route to publication, the skill of writing a tight, seductive query letter is a good one, like for when you have to write business proposals or letters explaining why you can’t attend boring family functions.
One page. Seriously. You can do it. It can be taught. You can learn how to do it. (Note: I also teach how to do it, you know, if you’re interested.)
No, don’t send them your first draft. Send them the best polished draft. Do it right if you’re going to do it at all.
If you want to get published, and you’re taking a route that puts your work into the hands of an agent and a big publisher, the work you send them has to be in the best possible and most complete shape. That means the story has to be completely written, shouldn’t have spelling and grammatical mistakes and should have all the parts in it that it needs to in order to make sense.
Just like you wouldn’t play a full-contact sport against pros without training or preparation, so too can you ill-afford to just dive into publication by sending off incomplete, error-laden work.
It’s our job to help you take your work and get it into the best shape possible so that you can do whatever you want with it and so that it may be enjoyed by readers.
Yeah, I know, you’ve been told that once you sign that contract, there will be an editor assigned to your work. Or that your agent is your editor. Or that editing is something that comes AFTER you say yes to the deal. And yeah, sometimes, that’s all true.
But if the goal is to get your work published, and you want someone to say yes to your work, wouldn’t you want it in the best shape possible, so that it’s easier for them to say yes?
Make the job easier, not harder. Put your best foot/work forward. Ask an editor for help. (The ones I mentioned are the best I’ve ever worked with.)
When sending out queries, do your homework. Make sure the query receiver actually TAKES what you’re submitting (check their site!)
Okay, not every agent or publisher publishes everything. Just because they’re called a “publisher” doesn’t mean that anytime someone sends them a manuscript they run off to the press in their basement and churn out page upon page with gleams of satisfaction in their eyes.
Publishers are allowed to publish whatever they want, even if that means saying “No.” to one type of manuscript. Just like authors, who may prefer to write in one style or genre over another. See how that works outs?
So when you’ve written a particular story, find a publisher who publishes that kind of story.
It’s not hard. It does take some digging. Either in the Writer’s Market, or more accurately, by doing some investigative Google searches for submission guidelines. Yes, you can find a publisher for nearly every genre and type of story, if you look hard enough. (And if you’re going to email me and say you can’t find a publisher, then either you need to broaden your search or improve your story so that it can be more easily classified).
Make the job of publication easier on everyone involved. It makes a huge difference.
Not all your ideas are unpolished gemstones. Sometimes they’re just ideas that you can tweak/cut/hack to make other gems shinier.
I’m sitting in my office right now, and if you look to the left of the chair, on a small re-purposed nightstand, you’ll see a whole stack of legal pads and steno pads. These are my idea books. You may also have seen me carry a smaller version in my back pocket when at conventions.
When some idea explodes in my brain, I write it down. Sometimes those ideas are really clear — “a mechanical system that divides an eight-sided die into the 8 types of affirmative action” or they’re vague — “spy apparat“. All the same, they get written down.
Most of those ideas won’t go anywhere. But sometimes, when someone calls me or emails me and we start talking about doing a project together, I can say to them, “Oh yeah, I think I have a mechanic or a plot or an idea that can help us out here.” It’s an immense time saver, but also a huge boost to the future creativity because I already have a jumping-off point.
Because I keep a stack of ideas around, I’m able to draw on them when I need to. (I should point out that behind me I have a filing cabinet labeled “Things to do to characters” and another labeled “Feelings”). A lot of the folders in those cabinets have one or two articles in them, or a page or two of notes that I might never go through until I have to empty the cabinet out. But having that resource on hand helps me to feel more creative and feel more successful about being creative. (And yes, I do have giant binders labeled “Poison” “Gunshot” “Fire” “Stabbing”, because information is a good thing to collect, right? Like Pokemon?)
Hey people who want “realistic” characters in your writing: Are they eating regularly? How about the last time they brushed their teeth?
I love realism in my films, where the world the characters inhabit, and what happens to them feels like my world, so that I can leave the theater or walk out my door and maybe have the possibility of running into them on the street. Or something. You know, like if the Doctor showed up for lunch, I’d totally be down for that.
There’s a downside to realism though, at least when it’s misinterpreted. Don’t confuse realism (obeying practical constraints and limitations, physics, science, technology and social climate) for over-saturation of facts.
An action thriller about people unraveling a conspiracy in the post office is going to be slightly marred and slowed down by the half-page you wrote telling the audience about how someone flosses. The love story that takes place only during summers over the course of ten years can get bogged down when you detail the tuna salad someone eats on page eight.
Details do not make realism. Realism comes from the context and application of those details — what you do about the details makes things real or not.
The blending of details (small or large) with their application is what makes the scene feel more lived in, and the world more natural.
Building your own world is great. Want to make that world feel real? Give the sandbox some borders. What can’t it do?
On the flip side of the realism coin, there’s nothing wrong with making your own world. The downside here is in the freedom. You can make anything from a city in the clouds, to an ice planet with caves, to I don’t know, a planet made entirely of string cheese and crackers.
But while you’re showing the reader all about what the world can do, to give some context and make the reader (and presumably the main character, who may be a fish out of water) feel like they can handle the scope of the creation, show the limitations of the world. Yeah your created world might be a technocracy or an oligarchy of fish people, but how does it fit into the greater picture? Is it one fiefdom in a country, one state in a union, one continent on a planet, one planet in a solar system, one galaxy in all of existence?
Showing the borders is not showing weakness, it’s showing strength. By defining how big the sandbox is, we can instead focus on all the detail within the borders. It draws our attention back to what’s important and lets the real work shine.
Thriller writers – Tweaking word choice + sentence length will do wonders for your pacing.
Here’s how you build tension: you vary your sentence length. Pick strong words. Fragment. Hype. Explore the power of words. Push the scene with longer sentences. Speed up with shorter ones. Push. Pull.
(see what I did there?)
Romance writers – No, there really aren’t that many world-weary young women. For serious.
I get it, writers, that’s you. You’re that character, only transplanted into a younger body, but still possessing your mature mind. This gives you a chance to escape a little, indulge some fantasy and play “what-if”, which is central to the genre.
But how many times are we going to tread this ground?
There’s nothing wrong with writing a not-world-weary character. It might be a little more work, it might be hard to resist the temptation to make her snark and spurn the advances and situations she find herself in, but it is possible – and you do have the talent to pull it off.
Tell your best story, and no you don’t have to cover the same ground as everyone else. Honest.