it’s a trip . . .

tips, quotes, insights, and lessons about writing and publishing learned the hard way

Archive for craft

The Big Five from George Orwell

the big five

the big five

This year I was a presenter in the Greater Reading Literary Festival. I did a workshop on how to write flash fiction for campus community members who attended over their lunch hours, or in the case of some students, whose teachers sent them there, who were easy to spot–they were the ones sleeping in the back.

I was looking for some pithy advice to share with workshopees and found these tenets by George Orwell, which I now post for you.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Out of the entire Serengeti of writing advice available on the Internet, I thought these were five predators worth pursuing. (Just so you know, I could have said “pantheon of writing advice,” but then I would violating number one of the big five, so I tried to go for something fresher since I violated number four in saying “were worth pursuing”.)

If we could write or at least edit our work adhering to these five rules, our writing would improve in elephantine proportions.

I’m inclined to use too many words, too many big words, and not to work hard enough to come up with an original figure of speech.

How about you, dear readers? Are you stalked by any of these big five ?

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Trite but true

I’m a very excitable person–a classic “P” in the Myers-Briggs model. I love to be bitten by the muse, believe that she bites regularly, and get overly excited when I come up with a new idea for a story or a theme or a title. I’m also not a particularly patient person. Now, none of these qualities make me evil, of course. They won’t keep me out of heaven if I feel as though I’ve earned a berth there; they won’t send me to hell either. They don’t even make me a lesser person.

I get so excited...

I get so excited...

They might, however, make me a less successful writer. And that’s what I thought I’d write about today, each lesson framed by its own cliche. Let’s start with mini-lesson numero uno:

Haste makes waste

Beware the hasty. The publishing world, even publishing success, is more likely to elude the hasty than those who are deliberate and those who persevere. Sometimes I get so excited with a possible submission that I rush too much and send something out before it’s ready or before I’ve done a sufficient amount of research. For instance, I wanted to submit a humorous essay today to a national publication. I wrote it for my ongoing writing contest and it fared well. I posted it on my favorite online writers’ site and got really strong reviews. So I decided to see if it had legs elsewhere in the publishing arena. I also had to run to work right in the middle of the afternoon and wanted desperately to shoot it off to the publication I had in mind before I left for work. I read it and re-read it and polished it and wordsmithed it a bit and pulled the plug on sending it.  Aspects of the piece thrilled me but I realized I needed to check the title against recent essays, to make sure it didn’t sound just like something else recently published.  The publication is important and it’s also selective. It will do me no good to be hasty whereas the payoff, at least in terms of exposure, would be fabulous were my piece to be chosen. I might have wasted my opportunity to contend for a column with this piece had I sent it off in haste.

When in doubt, cop out

When I was an undergraduate student, this was my English teacher’s favorite maxim: When in doubt, cop out. Simple to remember. Even easier to apply. Not sure how to spell something.  Don’t use it. Not certain if a word can be used in a certain context–substitute a word you know how to use.  This simple rhyming cliche can save you from embarrassing mistakes. Now, I’m not going to say I have been wise enough to follow this all the time.  It can apply to everything, but it certainly makes lots of sense for writers. I’m fond of trying out new recipes on guests. No harm done really–I can salvage almost any dish. But sometimes in publishing, you only get one chance with an audience. If you are not completely confident in your choices–words, spellings, punctuation, facts, figures–just DON’t use them. My trying to use new words and using them incorrectly has gotten me into more trouble as a writer.  “When will I ever learn? (Sing along with me.) When will I ev-er-er learn.”

Can cliches stink up your writing? Absolutely. Can cliches be illustrative? I hope they were helpful in this post. There are lessons everywhere if you have ears to hear and eyes to see.

lessons from friends #1 – kirk ort

THE ADVENTURES OF KATE DARLING by Kirk Ort

THE ADVENTURES OF KATE DARLING by Kirk Ort

Tonight marks the first post in a series called “Lessons from Friends.” Through various online writing sites and competitions, I’ve been exposed to others’ writing, have reviewed their work, and, of course, tried to learn from their example. In my case, I’ve wisely befriended most of these writers.

For my first “Lessons from Friends” post, I’d like to begin with an extraordinarily talented writer and my most stalwart and longstanding writing partner Kirk Ort.

Kirk specializes in historical fiction. Unlike me (I write contemporary stories), he has the particular burden or pleasure of transporting the reader to a wholly different place and time. One of the things I like about Kirk’s writing and the thing he does almost better than any writer I know is place the reader in the setting seamlessly. No long drawn-out Michener-esque descriptions in any of Kirk’s historical stories (in the 21st century, who among us has the luxury of indulging in description to the extent Michener did? And I liked James Michener. I read many of his books). Instead, Kirk pulls the reader into the scene efficiently and effectively via character’s actions. Take a look at  the opening paragraph to his newest book: THE ADVENTURES OF KATE DARLING.

“With a creak and a bang the hatch cover was thrown open and sunlight streamed down into the fetid cargo hold. Kate Darling, lying in a heap atop a bale of trade goods, raised her head and squinted into the dazzling light.”

The first sentence of his novel transports us to a castaway’s world on a sailing ship. In one sentence, through his careful choice of nouns and verbs (and two adjectives), he’s done a wondrous thing. Does anyone reading this not have a clear picture in his/her head of when and where this novel takes place within forty words?

A few paragraphs later, he combines action and description following direct dialogue, evoking Kate’s surroundings and Kate’s appearance herself in a sentence.

“All right, Mr. Smithers, I’ll go quietly,” said Kate. “And I do thank you for your many kindnesses.” She shook some of the dust and bits of filth from her skirt and adjusted the bodice of her frock to better accommodate its fulsome cargo before pulling herself onto the first steps of the ladder.”

I don’t think there are many readers among us who would say, “Gosh, you conveyed the setting while describing the action. I’m so bummed. I was looking forward to reading lots of exposition.”

Kirk’s writing taught me the value of conveying description without stopping the action, rather by incorporating it into the action.  Is it any wonder he won second place in our writing site’s strongest start competition.

Thanks, Kirk, for an exemplary lesson that I strive to include in my writing more than you know.

ten good craft tips

craft tips

craft tips

Today I’m sharing ten tips I’ve picked up in the last three years learning the craft.

  1. To make your prose more graceful, in a series of items, put the longest item last.  Example: wide eyes, a pert nose, and lips as tempting as a ripe peach.
  2. In describing someone follow the natural path of the eye (unless of course your viewpoint character has a strange optical tic) from top to bottom, bottom to top, near to far or vice versa.  Example: She wore pink lip gloss, her curly dark hair fell to her shoulders, and a low-cut cashmere shell showed just enough cleavage to distract any man she happened to want something from.
  3. Lighten up on the -ing verbs and the participial phrasesExample: Crashing into the Christmas tree, she began spinning around the room. It would be better to say: She crashed into the Christmas tree and spun around the room.
  4. Drop “began” and “began to” phrases wherever possible (see previous example). People don’t “begin to.” They just do.
  5. Most adverbs can and should be written out of your prose. Look for -ly words: hauntingly, hurriedly, calmly, briskly, etc.  Only keep an adverb if you’d pay $100 for it.
  6. More than one or two adjectives (modifiers) weakens rather than strengthens the writing. It dilutes the power of all the others.  Example: The sad, tired, old woman rested on the park bench. Now none of the modifiers–sad, tired, or old–makes an impact.
  7. Description can be too lush. If you describe every detail in a scene, there’s nothing left for the reader’s imagination to fill in.  Painstaking description can be painful.  Example: The quarter inch gold plated locket on the 20 inch 14-karat gold chain with feather weight links was perfect for a cameo about the size of a small child’s middle fingernail. Aren’t you in pain already?
  8. Adjectives, if used, are always stronger without qualifiers. Forget the really happy’s, very well-off’s, too beautiful’s wherever possible.
  9. Most writers have habits or idiosyncracies such as overusing one or two words. I slip the word “just” into many sentences. Now I use the find function in word processing software to take it out.
  10. Words are diamonds. Showcase their beauty by sloughing off the carbon around them. Or as one of my writing teachers put it, “Words are stones. Feel the weight of them.” Diamonds, stones–you get the idea.

If you have a craft tip to share, feel free to leave it as a comment. If you send me enough, I’ll post them as my tip of the week.

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  • my author bio . . .

    I began writing creatively three years ago, fueled by midlife and a Curves' addiction. Since then, I have published short work in The Christian Science Monitor and Sirens Magazine in the same year. How's that for versatility!
    Sirens Magazine

    Sirens Magazine

    Also the Duck & Herring Company's Pocket Field Guide, The Giggle Water Review, Alighted, Wet Ink Press, America's Funniest Humor, Brilliant!, Laughter Loaf, Flash-Flooding, and the Greensilk Journal where my short story, "How I Boinked John Cusack" won editor's pick.
    The Greensilk Journal

    The Greensilk Journal

    My newest novel, THE SHAKER PROPOSAL, has received numerous accolades, the latest a fifth-place in the 2008 annual NWA (National Writing Association) Novel Contest.
    THE SHAKER PROPOSAL

    THE SHAKER PROPOSAL

    I am a marketing professional by vocation (but not by choice). My husband and I live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—the sounds, sites, smells, and flavors of which are a never-ending source of literary inspiration.