The Five Worst Novice Writing Clichés

Recently I was asked to opine upon the five worst writing clichés that I encounter in reading and editing.

It’s a big question: the clichés go on and on. How many ways, in genre writing, can you tell the same story without beginning to sound a little stale? In nonfiction, most writers emit little that is new and much that is familiar. And there’s the question of whether the inquiring mind means cliché on the line level, or cliché on the structural or plot level.

On the line level?

1. I would say that “in today’s modern society” takes the proverbial cake. Note how you can’t even describe it without invoking yet another cliché.

“In today’s modern society” is a space-filling freshman-compism. However, just the other day I saw it used in an academic paper by someone who had attained the Ph.D. and was emitting what one might expect to be new and fresh knowledge. Well. One might expect it until one realized the mind behind the paper thinks in cliché.

On the structural or plot level?

2. Deus ex machina has got to be one of the worst offenders. The last three novels I’ve read have placed their heroes in terrifying predicaments, only to rescue them with the proverbial cavalry. When you design a standard plot, as you know, the plot line rises through several crises or turning points, in which the characters become tangled in some sort of conflict. The thing is, the protagonist needs to get herself out of the predicament on her own. She or he cannot be rescued by a merciful god, saved in the nick of time by the police, relieved when some pursuer is struck by lightning. How many times can God drop down out of heaven to rescue people, anyway?

3. Secretly, bad guys and bad girls are wannabe nice folks, eh? The whore (or thug) with a heart of gold is a sweet thought, but alas, another cliché, sort of like cute kittens, puppies, and baby armadillos on Facebook.

4. Endless sagas that go on and on through novel after novel. I’m guilty of this myself. Deep in the bowels of my computer is the plot outline of yet another Fire-Rider story. How much can one say about these folks’ adventures, anyway? Occasionally you’ll hit it big with a character that readers love, such as, say, Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. That’s the time to keep writing until the world runs out of paper and bandwidth. But for most genre novels that appear on Amazon, a series is just an excuse to keep turning out the same story over and over. It becomes its own cliché.

5. Black (Native American, Latino, Asian, immigrant, whatEVER) characters who save the day through their pure angelic virtue and unassailable wisdom. People who are members of ethnic groups other than your own are people, just like you. They are not different, at base, from other human beings. Each of us is an amalgam of the good, the bad; the wise, the foolish. To deny this is to flatten the character — to show the character as more than human is to show him as less than human. And to my mind, it patronizes. Give your characters equal-opportunity humanity. Please.

What are your “favorite” clichés?

Images: DepositPhotos
Seen on TV: © valentint
Deus Ex Machina: © yellow2j
Kitten: © simply
To Be Continued: © iqoncept
Stereotype: © Rawpixel

Procrastination as Creative Strategy

Over at Quora, an inquiring mind asked about how one deals with procrastination. The correspondent confessed to being a Ph.D. student, and so I assume he or she was worrying about the struggle to write seminar papers and the dissertation.

You don’t have to be an aspiring academic to confront this predicament. Most writers find themselves putting off the job, from time to time. Sometimes all the time.

It’s so common that I’ve come to think “procrastination” is actually a creative strategy. You need to take time away from the physical and psychological process of writing. Sometimes you really do need to get up and go away from your desk.

New insights come as a result of looking away, as it were, from the task at hand. At night, you can see a faint star with your peripheral vision – by glancing slightly away from it – when you couldn’t see it by peering at it straight on. Similarly, with a creative project you may develop insight and strengthen your grasp on the subject by looking away from it for awhile.

So, instead of fighting this phenomenon, it’s better to build time into your routine to accommodate it. Schedule time to go do something else.

Also, set aside a short period at an appointed time each working day (not necessarily seven days a week), to do nothing but work on your writing project. This can mean research, thinking, outlining, and revising as well as writing new material. Insist that the people around you let you have that time uninterrupted – no getting up to tend to the kids or water the plants or answer the phone. Assure loved ones and friends that you will be with them at the end of this period. It doesn’t have to be hours at a time: in fact, it’s better to keep it brief. Forty-five minutes or an hour will do, at least at the outset. The period may (or may not) grow as you get used to it.

You’d be surprised how fast you can get through a project using this strategy.

Image: DepositPhotos, © stuartmiles

Are You Infringing Someone’s Copyright?

Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Star_Trek_1968A query at asked whether a story that contains one plot element “inspired” by someone else’s published work would infringe that author’s copyright. Although the new story, the contributor explains, is “inspired” by the first writer’s tale, the new fantasized world is entirely different.

I’m no lawyer, but I’d say this: if it’s not “fan fiction” —  i.e., a story that takes the  fantasy world, plot line, or characters from another story, such as the endless amateur Star Trek and Harry Potter spinoffs, this writer is probably safe. You can’t copyright an idea, and so it’s unlikely that s/he could be accused (successfully, anyway) of plagiarizing on the basis of taking one element and spinning off something entirely new.

However… You can copyright or trademark characters. Whatever you write — or produce in any medium that can be reproduced, not just in print but as film or audio or digital media — is automatically copyrighted the instant you put it in words. That includes Mr. Spock and Capt. Kirk.

Something that is based on pre-existing work is called a derivative work. In U.S. copyright law, the original creator owns the rights to all derivative works, unless he, she, or it has sold derivative rights to someone else. So under U.S. law, an author whose work “inspires” another work whose writer uses the same characters, the same setting, the same fantasy world, or the same premise can sue the copyright infringer for monetary damages and demand that the offending work in all its forms be destroyed.

Most authors don’t, for various reasons: lawyers and lawsuits are expensive; suing over infringement that doesn’t cost you a lot of money is a distraction from the work you’re doing now; and if the rip-off isn’t costing you anything in cash or reputation, it’s hardly worth the effort to pursue the offender. Apparently some authors and publishers regard fan fiction, in particular, as kind of flattering or think it directs readers toward the original author’s new work.

I once edited a budding novelist’s work that was almost frankly fan fiction: the characters were the same, only renamed, and the premise was roughly the same as the television show that inspired the client’s novel. And you may be sure I pointed out the resemblance and suggested that there was some risk.

Heightening the risk was the characters’ provenance: that TV show was long-running, wildly popular, and produced by a large network with deep pockets. Very distinctive characters can be trademarked as well as copyrighted. Whereas copyright is automatic, you have to proactively register a trademark. But if those characters are trademarked — which they surely could be — the creators could come after our nimrod author with a lawsuit that will knock her financial status into the Third World.

Defenses to such suits include fair use and constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. These laws are complex and nuanced — outrageously so. To defend yourself, you would need a sophisticated lawyer, and you would probably end up going to court.

Better, I’d say, to come up with something altogether original. The ego trip you’ll get by self-publishing your cool knock-off of Star Trek or Twilight or Fifty Shades is just not worth the potential pain.

Image: Public domain. Press release is dated 12 January 1968. Publicity photo of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner as Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk from the television program Star Trek.

Retrograde Motion: Fountain Pen Dept.

So there I was on Facebook, ranting about how Ms. User Error and the Mac collaborated to disappear the current version of a chapter in draft. The ensuing comments elicited a conversation with one of the group members who reminisced about the bygone joys of writing with a fountain pen.

Entertained, I wondered what became of my old fountain pens, long since relegated to hiding places where they would be saved for posterity. For “saved,” read “lost”… 🙂

Well, after a little shoofing around, what should I find but this lovely old Waterman pen, purchased lo! these many years ago. And I even found a bottle of ink that was still liquid. And two bottles of ink whose contents had petrified.

Pen Fountain Pen

Click on the image to make WordPress deliver a better view in another tab.

It really is a lovely pen: smooth writing and elegant.

There’s something to be said for drafting fiction longhand (and, I suppose, for drafting nonfiction with actual ink). The computer has melded itself into my fingers, and as a result, it’s difficult for me to write with a pen anymore. I type as fast as most people can speak — not well, but it gets the words down. And I spend so many hours of my days at the computer, I hardly ever practice real physical writing at all.

Writing with a pen forces you to slow down and think about what you’re putting in front of the reader. It also brings to your attention — startlingly, in my case — how much you revise as you’re writing. A page of handwritten copy hereabouts is a page of cross-outs, re-cross-outs, crossed-out cross-outs, paragraphs circled and pointed with inked arrows to new places in the narrative, question marks, misspellings, doodles in the margins…on and on. A word processor allows you to fix all those things as you go along, so that by the time you reach the end of the document, you don’t even remember all the changes you made in the process of writing.

Back in the day, when I first started life as a journalist, we still used typewriters. It was several years before personal computers came into our lives.

I hate typewriters. Did then, do now. We were expected to compose our stories at the typewriter, but I found I simply could not manage that. Reason: my neurotic perfectionism. I make a lot of mistakes when I type. Even on the word processor, where I type a lot better, my copy is full of typos and bêtises. Under the best of conditions, it takes several drafts and endless proofreading for me to get a piece of copy right.

It was so frustrating to have to pull out and discard a whole sheet of paper for ONE STUPID MISTAKE, for ONE slip of the finger, that every error would distract from my train of thought — to the extent that it was impossible to think through and compose a paragraph, to say nothing of a 1,000- to 2,500-word story.

So I would draft my assignments in longhand (unbeknownst to my editors) and then transcribe the result into typescript. This was far more efficient and even faster (believe it or not) than wrestling with error after error on the typewriter.

Hence, an appreciation for writing instruments.

And few writing instruments surpass a good fountain pen. Even a cheap fountain pen vastly improves over a ball-point or roller-ball pen. I used to use those Shaeffer cartridge pens — remember those? Found a few of them in the hiding place, but as it develops the things were part of a calligraphy set…fun, but not much use for trying to write 80,000 words of fiction.

But this Waterman…ahhh. What fun to write a scene in actual ink, on actual paper!

This, vs...

This, vs…



Computer: Why don’t you have a neck I can wring?

MacbookHOLY doggerel, Batperson! What a computer adventure yesterday! Went from day-before-yesterday’s ecstatic rave about the Mac’s talking narrator straight to the Ninth Circle. Digitally speaking, that is.

The trip was all my doing, like so many computerized adventures. Two portable external drives that I use to back up data had corrupted. The fix is simply to wipe and repartition them, which you can do easily on a Mac. I, being a  master of procrastination, naturally dawdled and delayed until I could dawdle and delay no longer. So yesterday I finally resigned myself to doing some work.

With the smuggest of success, I indeed did manage to reformat one of the external hard drives and set up Time Machine to restart its infinite backups. Problem is, when you have an internal drive that contains more data than Carter has oats, it takes a long, LONG time to establish the first backup. During that time, the computer drags painfully, kindly making work an exercise in frustration.

So I got up and went about some other business: watering plants, cleaning the pool, and generally farting around. I believe a bourbon & water was involved in the latter: user error #1.

Eventually I come back to the machine, plop myself down in my favored writin’ chair, and put the computer on my lap so as to continue the noveloid scene I’d been playing with. Looking forward to this, for a change: the past few hours had put me on a roll. A new character had come to life, and she’s the first in this book that I’ve really “connected” with imaginatively. Finishing the scene I’d been working on for days looked like a piece of cake.

Lemon cake.

Open the lid to wake up the computer, get the endlessly annoying “External drive was disconnected. Do not disconnect these things, idiot, without unplugging them in Finder, ’cause if you screw up on this you could damage the device.” The short cable I use to plug in the external drives is loose, so that every time you hiccup, sneeze, or pet the dog you elicit this effing message.

A-n-n-d…it interrupted the Time Machine backup and so shut down the process.

Shee-ut. So now I had to wipe the drive again and restart Time Machine.

Remember, the file I’m working on is open. It exists in various iterations in two places on my hard drive (user error!) and one place on DropBox (possible user error?). I save to disk but then go straight to wiping the drive, figuring I’ll come back to my project in a minute or two (user error!).

As I start to do this, I think…waitaminit: I’d better save the current items that matter over to DropBox because if I make a mistake, wouldn’tchaknowit, the thing that matters most to me right this minute will get erased.

This crosses my hot little mind as the Mac is wiping the contents of a large disk full of data, a process I find mildly alarming in the best of circumstances.

So, mildly spooked, I do a kind of panic backup: copy this, save there.

The system doesn’t like that. The backup crashes. I think fuck it and decide to re-open the file, work on my little fantasy for awhile, and then get dressed to go meet my friend for dinner and the concert we’d planned to go to yesterday evening.

So understand: while all this computer diddling is going on, I’m setting my hair so I can put it up, washing up, painting my face, shuffling through the closet in search of presentable clothing…and migrating back and forth from bathroom, bedroom, closet, mirror, makeup drawer to the computer screen. Yeah: user error!

Okay, so I re-open the file, ever-so-distinctively titled “chapter 1.docx.” Don’t do that, for cripes sake. Put something in your filename to distinguish it from the ten or fifteen other chapter 1’s on your freaking disk drive. User error.

Chapter 1 comes up…and it’s a version that’s at least a week old. All the work I’ve done over the past two days is absent.

Ohhhh shit.

I bang around and thrash around and I cannot find it. It’s not on DropBox. Whatever I saved to DB overwrote the copy that I’d been working on…deleting the stuff I’d written over the past couple of days. User error.

Word is set to auto-save every 5 minutes, because it habitually loses my clients’ work when I’m trying to edit a file that contains tables, Chinese characters, Hebrew characters or the like. But when I go to try to find a recent autorecover of the Great Novel of the Western World, what do you suppose I discover? WORD HAS NOT DONE AN AUTORECOVERY SINCE MARCH 21!!!!!!!!!!!

So the file that contains the last DAYS of work is GONE. And what’s gone is the most productive and lively copy I’ve managed to gag out for this book since I started.

Check autorecover: the settings have not been changed. No notice to the effect that the hard drive didn’t contain enough space ever popped up. Nothing. I am just screwed! I don’t know what TF is going on but suspect it’s not user error!

Oh, lord, how I hate Word.

Sumbiche. So I emit an electronic wail of dismay and post it to a private Facebook forum I subscribe to, as just about the only way of venting I can think of short of throwing the effing computer through a block wall. It’s now exactly 5:00 p.m. and I’m supposed to be in my friend’s driveway picking her up for our night on the town. Slap on some lipstick, grab a credit card, and fly out the door.

By the time I get back, several hours later, a number of people have posted replies at this forum. One kind person remarks, gently, “Think I heard once upon a time DropBox retains revisions? Might be something there.

Uhhhh…. Hmmm…. Yeah. Come to think of it: a year or so ago, my business partner managed to retrieve a whole set of “disappeared” files that one of our journal editors removed from DropBox, thinking she was doing us a favor. I had remarked to said Editor that mine is the free version of DB and so in due time we should remove completed articles from our shared folder, so as not to run me past the space limit. She took that seriously, and so she dutifully removed a bunch of stuff that neither my associate editor nor I had downloaded.

Well, Associate Editor is smarter than the average snail. She actually knows how to operate DropBox, and she was able to retrieve not only all the “disappeared” files but a record of who had disappeared them and when. So…there may be something to this…

Click on the DB icon, sign in, and find, by golly, instructions for how to recover a disappeared file:

DB instructions 1

A-n-n-n-d instructions on how to recover a disappeared file on a Mac:

DB instructions 2

This latter entails one (1) simple keyboard command. And…damned if it doesn’t work! Command + filename brings up 23 of the most recent pages of draft drivel, just as they were when User Error lost them!

Well, not quite just as they were: they appear in some sort of html-ish format:

copy saved from DB 1

But click on “download,” and mirabilis! The thing appears in perfect, uncorrupted(!) Wyrd format, complete with the infelicitous rhymes and the notes-to-self and the puzzling over what on earth (or…uhm…not on earth) this place looks like… (Click on the images to come close to seeing the details.) (No, WordPress will not let you post a screenshot in any way that makes sense, not that I’ve been able to figure out.) Best of all, this file contains the passage I was writing at the time I contrived to disappear the file: not one word is lost!

Hallelujah, brothers and sisters!

It was well after 1:00 a.m. by the time this little miracle manifested itself. I staggered off toward bed to the sound of angels singing.

So upset was I by the fiasco at hand that I had not one but two panic attacks driving downtown last night, scaring the bedoodles out of my friend, who nervously offered to take over the chauffeuring job. Felt considerably better after two margaritas and a plate of hummus. Enjoyed the concert. Was pretty relaxed (heh) on the way home.

Now we know what takes care of panic attacks: margarita mix, right?

By the light of day, I’m thinking it would be good to overcome one’s cheapskate instincts and spring for the cost of DropBox’s premium service. That file recovery function is one helluva value-added feature. I’ll continue to alternate two or three external drives to back up the Mac’s software and data in Time Machine, thereby providing some protection against ransomware. Andthe extra space on DropBox will hold data files that I can’t afford to or don’t want to lose.

It’s $9 a month for the low-end subscription, and only $13 a month for the “Standard” plan that lets several people share its functions and archives files for three months. That plan gives you 2 terabytes of memory, which is twice as much as I need to back up my entire system, programs included, with TimeMachine. Unfortunately, its apparently not configured to work with TimeMachine. But it still would be worth $360 a year to have key files archived for 120 days.

Definitely worth it.

Computer: Read Me My Story!

UPDATES: Un-fucking-BELIEVABLY, Apple dorked up access this wonderful feature in updates to its operating system. In OS 10.11.4 (El Capitan), you have to go to system preferences > dictation and speech. (Note how conveniently this is different from the earlier process.) Once there, click on “text to speech.” To get the Mac to read the highlighted passage in your Word document, FIRST you have to find the “speak selected text when the key is pressed” choice in “Text to speech.” If you click on this, it should show the default keyboard command, Option+Escape. It will not run this automatically. Even though the command appears to be a default, you have to proactively SELECT it to make it work. Once you’ve done that, your Mac probably will read a selected passage in Word aloud for you.



I, Reader...

I, Reader…

Here’s something fun, kinda silly, and useful: If you have an Apple computer, you can make your Mac read copy from Word out loud.

It is a hoot. You get a half-dozen choices of “voices”:  three female and three male. They all sound equally robotic. But surprisingly, they get most of the pronunciation right, they interpret the punctuation correctly, and the result is clear and easy to understand. And — here’s the thing! — listening to some”one” else read your copy aloud helps you to catch typos and glitches that you miss when you proof your own stuff. Even when you read your own stuff aloud, that gold standard of DIY copyediting.

I tried this out on a passage from an abstruse scholarly paper emanated by one of my clients. These things start out difficult to read because they’re about as exciting as watching a tree stump disintegrate. Then the task is complicated by the fact that my clients are native speakers of languages other than English. This author, for example, is in India….

Academic paper

There are also studies that compare Indian and foreign firms. Valuation of R&D is higher in India when compared to the US or Europe, and it is much higher for Indian firms than foreign firms invested in India, although the difference is smaller in science-based industries (Chadha & Oriani, 2010). Although average R&D levels have decreased, evidence is presented of rationalization and more efficiency of R&D spending, which rises faster with firm size and is directed toward assimilation of technology imports and toward support of exports (Kumar & Aggarwal, 2005). Both studies (Chadha & Oriani, 2010; Kumar & Aggarwal, 2005) also highlight the different profile of R&D pursued by Indian firms and subsidiaries of foreign multinational enterprises. These studies indicate a need to investigate the specific approaches adopted by Indian firms as opposed to foreign subsidiaries to improve returns on R&D investments.

Ah,  yes… another eye-glazing review of the literature. But note that our robot reader has no problem pronouncing Indian names — indeed, “he” does better with those than “he” does with an Italian name. And multisyllabic words are no problem.

Here, when we hear the copy read aloud, we quickly recognize that the word “when” in the second sentence isn’t quite right — possibly “as” would work better, because he’s not talking about something happening in response to an event or a trigger. Then we see that Author uses the word “although” twice in a short span, almost back-to-back: one of those needs to be fixed. These are small things we can massage to make the English sound more idiomatic.

Having plowed through 10,000 words of this and sent the thing back to the client, I decided to try Robo-Reader on my own golden words. Here’s what happens when the thing is applied to the rawest of rough drafts:

Draft fiction narrative

When they reached the corner Merren had specified, they climbed out of the car. Merren led Chadzar to a narrow alley. The buildings’ walls blocked most of the sunlight into the tunnel-like walkway. “You say there’s a restaurant here?” Chad asked after they’d gone a few hundred feet through the gloom.

“Right up that way.”

“I don’t see any sign.”

“This place doesn’t need a sign.”

He stopped in front of a small, unmarked entrance and pushed the door open. It led into a narrow entryway and a flight of uncarpeted steps. Merren took the steps up to the landing two at a time, followed more tentatively by the Michaian. Again they came to an undistinguished door, and again Merren walked through it as though it belonged to him.

Light poured through the opening into the dark hallway. The sound of voices came with it. Inside, groups of men and women sat around long, narrow, tables. A few children played here and there or loafed with the adults, some of whom were eating, some chatting, some betting over games of budil or cards or tiny multicolored twirling tops. The windowless room was brightly lit with glow-panels that covered all four walls. A few decorative lights graced the ceiling. The scent of roasting meat and aromatic vegetables perfumed the air.

“Hey-hey!” a voice called out across the room “Here’s the Bear!” A broad smile crossed Merren’s face and he delivered a mock salute. The decibel level rose briefly as others greeted him with “Bear!” “Come on over here!” “We’ve got a seat for you, brother…” and “Who’s the new boyfriend?” A lithe brown woman bearing a large bowl of steaming food sidled up to Merren, murmured “Bear-Bear,” and hugged him with her free arm. He kissed her on the lips, eliciting a cheer from the audience.

Not bad, for a robot, eh? He kind of sounds like a character in a computer game. But he gets most of the pronunciation right — even of invented words and names — and about 95% of the time even the intonation is pretty good. In translation from the machine reading into QuickTime, our robot guy affects a whistley lisp that’s kind of annoying here but that doesn’t appear in a Mac reading before it’s recorded in QT.

Our robot reader picked up a typo that I missed over many readings and attempts to revise: the unneeded and unwanted comma between “narrow” and “tables.” And another effect of allowing the machine to read the copy while I follow along: lo! It highlights the fact that I used the word “narrow” three times in 219 words.

I have no idea whether this will work on a PC. On a Mac, though, go to System Preferences > System > Speech to bring up the program.

Interestingly, because QuickTime (the program I used to make these recordings) will pick up any sounds in the room, you could in theory add your own comments and reminders to a recording of a passage — for a writer, this could be handy. It also would be very helpful if you’re teaching writing to visually impaired or severely dyslexic students. Dang! Wish I’d thought of this when I was at the community college!

It’s kind of fun to hear some”one” read your emanations. But it also may be a powerful revision tool.

9 Myths — or Not — about Writers

Over at Facebook, David Jones posted a link to this entertaining squib at “Authors Publish”: “14 Myths about Writers.” Well, since we know blog readers LOVE lists (hence, the endless popularity, among blogmasters, of listicles), let’s see if we can come up with our own list of writerly mythoids. Hmmm…

1. We all love cats.

tabbycatNot so much. Some of us do love cats. Some of us are responsible for those cute Facebook memes of cats dancing across computer keyboards.

Some of us don’t. Some of us are allergic to cats. Some of us construct barriers along our walls to repel the cat-lady neighbor’s collection of feral cats.

2. Writers are starving artists who live in their garrets and survive on wine and cheese.

Meal, balanced

Meal, balanced

If only. Actually, most writers have a day job, unless they’re independently wealthy or they have a working spouse.

Often those jobs entail an element of writing or publishing. One of the best writers of literary fiction I’ve ever met was a Silicon Valley tech writer. Not starving.

One of my former graduate students who is also an exceptionally talented literary writer has a day job as a public relations executive at a vast regional water conservation and supply project. Also not starving.

In my own salad days, I was a journalist; served as editor for two regional magazines and published more junk than I can count in local, regional, and national newspapers and magazines. Then I became a college professor and administrator, an endeavor that supported me more than adequately, left some time for writing, and provided for my retirement.

3. You can earn enough as a writer to quit your day job and take up idyllic residence in a grass shack on the beach along the Sea of Cortez.

Nope. Few people who try to make a living publishing books — whether through traditional publishing or through the various self-publishing avenues — earn enough to put food on the camp table, to say nothing of a roof over their heads. Some people do pretty well. But they’re the exceptions, not the rule. Most authors earn less than minimum wage at their craft: “below the poverty line,” as PW puts it.

4. Writers are artists, not office workers. They don’t care whether they earn anything, because (like teachers!) they find writing “fulfilling.”

Alas, you can’t eat fulfillment. So, no. As fun as it is to walk into a store and see half-a-dozen instances of your by-line in print, baby needs shoes and mama’s gotta eat.

Yes, I find writing fun and satisfying. And just now I’m writing primarily as a hobby. That’s because I don’t have to earn a living: a successful editorial business, Social Security, and required minimum drawdowns from savings support me. If I had to make a real living with a day job, darned right I’d expect to earn a living wage!

5. To become a successful creative writer, you should get an MFA.

Will an MFA make you a better writer? Only if you enjoy wasting your money. This is a high-risk way to invest in a career. Some graduates of MFA programs do build good writing careers. Others spend years teaching adjunct — a dead-end job that often pays less than minimum wage, or going into trades or professions that have nothing to do with writing.

An MFA is helpful if you want to become a literary writer (as in high lit’rachure) or if you understand that one of its main benefits is the access to influential people in publishing and the arts. If you want to write nonfiction — the type that is not billed as “literary journalism” — or genre fiction, then you would do as well or better to just start writing. It might help you to land a full-time academic job…or probably won’t, since those are in scarce supply, and people with MFAs are anything but.

6. Anybody can learn to write.


Yeah. Anybody can learn to write their name. But real writing?

Writing is a form of thinking. If you don’t think logically, you don’t write clearly or engagingly. You would be surprised how many people don’t think logically. It’s not taught well in public schools, nor is it a habit fostered in the national media.

Most people who can string together a logical argument, however, can also write, whether it’s nonfiction or fiction. This applies to people who are not native speakers and to many (possibly all) dyslexics. You don’t have to have the grammar and spelling down pat (that’s what editors are for) to be able to write an engaging story, article, or book. But you do need to know how to build a coherent discussion, how to tell a story, and how to figure out what will appeal to your specific kind of reader.

7. You must have special talent to write a best-seller.

Have you read a best-seller lately? Apparently some of the Great No-Talents of the Western World turn that stuff out.

No. All you have to do is be able to write a simple sentence and string together a series of coherent thoughts in a reasonably understandable way.

8. Writers write when Inspiration strikes them.

writers-block-museNo. Writers are inspired by the vision of their byline on a paycheck. You do not write because you are inspired. You write because you write. That’s what you do for a job.

9. You don’t have to read all that __(fill in the blank)__ to write it.

Please. First, why would you write a __(fill in the blank)__ at all if you don’t like reading the stuff? And second, what makes you imagine that you can write a __(sci-fi novel, detective novel, inspirational book, magazine article, whatEVER)__ if you don’t even know what one looks like?

This is one of the things that most amazes me about the scribbling game. People think they don’t have to read to be writers! You’ll teach a course or do a workshop in magazine writing, and the room will fill up with people who never read magazine articles! You’ll teach the short story and find people in the group who maybe have read one or two short stories — back in high school. You’ll take on an editorial project by some would-be novelist and discover the author has never read a novel in that genre.

If you’re a carpenter or a dishwasher repairman or a jet engineer or whatever else you can dream up, you have to know your trade to do your trade. So it is with writing and publishing: to produce successful work, you have to know what successful work looks like. You need to read and read and read and then read some more.

If you don’t like reading detective novels, don’t try to write one…

The Fine Points of Ellipsis and Suspension

Plowing through 12,000 words of academic research, I find Author frequently using ellipsis points to shorten lengthy passages of quotation. The result looks like this, a gentle snowfall of punctuation error:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which…hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. … And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth…every man’s work, pass the time… here in fear. …

[‘Scuse the religion: it was the only thing I could think of offhand that’s in the public domain.**]

This hiding of deleted words is called ellipsis, and the little dots that indicate the hiding are called ellipsis points. You also can use three little dots to indicate that a person’s voice trails off or that a piece of dialogue is interrupted. Like this:

Well, I don’t know . . .

In that case, the dots are called suspension points.

Author understands the principle that three ellipsis points indicate words were dropped out of the middle of a sentence, and four indicate some passage with a period was elided — possibly even a whole sentence — or more But he is being foiled by the Weirdness That is Word.

When you type three ellipsis points in a row — that is, three periods, one after another — Word automatically converts them to a single character, one that looks like this: … 

These are not really ellipsis points. WordPress calls that character a “three-dot leader.” Ellipsis points have spaces between them.

When you’re preparing a manuscript for publication, you should avoid letting Microsoft arrogate this detail unto itself, and instead insert ellipsis points and suspension points the way they will appear when typeset.

How is that?

With spaces in between them, like this:

. . .

A four-dot ellipsis includes the period; that is, the first dot indicates the period. So when you’re trying to indicate that a period appeared in a passage that was elided, place the period in its normal place, right next to the final character in the sentence:

a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. . . . And if ye call

A three-dot ellipsis indicates a word or three were omitted from a single sentence. In that case, you leave a space before the first ellipsis point and after the last one:

Christ, which . . . hath begotten us

Suspension points have just three dots, and they also have spaces between and around them.

I just don’t know . . .

If a comma is needed in a passage with an ellipsis, place the comma right before the ellipsis points:

Christ, . . . hath begotten us

Don’t worry if the ellipsis or suspension points break at the end of a line. Remember: what you see on a word-processed page is not what you will get when the copy is typeset. The graphic artist and the editor will make the points pull up, either by kerning the characters a bit or by deleting or inserting a word somewhere in the paragraph above them. It’s far more annoying and time-consuming for a typesetter to have to change every…single…aggravating…Word-induced…three-dot character than it is to make an occasional adjustment to pull up or push down a real ellipsis point.

So something that looks like this in your Word file:

yada yada yada. . .
. Blah blah blah

Will look like this in print:

yada yada yada. . . . Blah blah blah

It has its own internal logic. But once you see what the logic is, it’s pretty easy.

Check it out: Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition: 13: 48-56


**Here’s the original of the elided passage, FYI:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,

To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, [and on and on].

And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear: [and on and on]


Characters Say the Darnedest Things!

Have you ever, in the course of writing fiction, had a character come to life on the page?

I mean…like suddenly this is a new person, not the one you envisioned? Happens to me every now and again.

Case in point, Merren, head of the Kai (roughly, “emperor”) Suhuru’s security guard. He has picked up a new man from a training center and is bringing him back to the estate, where the young fellow will serve as the first of a team (eventually to number five) devoted to the Kai’s daughter’s safety and convenience.

They’re riding a high-speed public-transit vehicle under the city of E’ho Cinnora. While they wait to arrive at their destination, they gamble at a board game and chat, tentatively getting acquainted. They live on Varnis, the center of a vast galactic empire. Chadzar is the offspring of natives of Michaia, an ice world in continual rebellion against the empire; Merren is from a world called Samdela. Merren has, earlier in the chapter, silently wondered if Chad is the son of his now-former master, Haddam. Chad’s mother is a handsome and (in Merren’s opinion) much-indulged Michaian slave woman.

§ § §

“E’ho Cinnora is big, isn’t it?” Chad remarked.

“As Varn cities go, I guess it is,” said Merren. “It’s not like Samdela, though, where the whole damn planet is a city. You’ll find it’s not very hard to make your way around.”

“You’re Samdi?” Chad asked.

“Mostly. My mother was Samdelan. They say my father was part Varn. I wouldn’t know, though — never saw him.”

“Me neither. Ever saw mine, I mean — my mother was pregnant when she was brought here.”

“With you?”


There’s a question answered, Merren reflected.

“Is it true what they say? That all of Samdela is covered with cities?”

“Pretty much. It’s all built up. Except for maybe a few mountain peaks.”

Chad seemed to think about that for a few seconds. “So, without farmlands, where do you grow your food?”

“We don’t. We eat our children,” Merren said.

The Michaian’s green eyes widened.

Merren chuckled. Gotcha! “They make food in factories. Or sometimes grow it there.”

Chad gave him a dubious glance and then laughed. “Should’ve known,” he said.

Et voilà! Merren has a sense of humor. A pretty deadpan sense of humor.

It never occurred to me that he could or would say a thing like that. During the several years that he’s inhabited the back of my mind, he’s shaped up as a hard-bitten veteran of Samdela’s criminal industries, which dominate the planet’s culture. Forcibly reformed and, by dint of talent and luck now employed in the house of a man who amounts to the king of the universe, he is stolid, wary, skilled with weapons and electronic surveillance, potentially murderous, and unwaveringly loyal. Not the sort of guy to see much  humor in anything.

Or…so I thought.

What Is “Free Indirect Speech”?


Involve an academic, and anything on this earth gets salted with arcana. 🙂 This morning I was reading some essay — in The New York Review of Books, I think — when I came across a new-to-me literary term: “free indirect speech.”

This, it develops, is a form of third-person narrative, in which, even though the narrative carries on largely in the third person, an element of the first-person is woven in. Without benefit of tags such as “he said” or “she thought,” the narrator articulates a character’s inward experience or thought.

Wikipedia, that repository of all knowledge human and otherwise, offers several examples that clarify nicely:

He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. “And just what pleasure have I found, since I came into this world?” he asked.
He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. He asked himself what pleasure he had found since he came into the world.
  • Free indirect speech:
He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found, since he came into this world?

Here you can see two variants of indirect discourse: “reported indirect speech,” in which the narrator explicitly uses an attribution tag (“he asked himself”) to present the character’s thought’; and “free indirect speech,” which characteristically uses no attribution: “And just what pleasure had he found, since he came into this world?”

There’s nothing new here, really, except for the “Theory” describing it. Chaucer apparently intended it in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Flaubert was a master of indirect discourse, Jane Austen and Goethe and Kafka used it, and it’s all over the place in current literature.

You probably use it yourself, without knowing you’re applying “Theory” to your golden words. A glance at my own draft brings an example right to hand, a brief passage in which a naughty thought about a young man’s mother enters a character’s mind:

What was going on there? Was something going on? This Chadzar was born on Varnis, yes? Was he…? Merren resisted putting that speculation in words, even in his own mind. Surely not: the emerald-green eyes hadn’t changed their startling hue to match the change of clothing — he was all Michaian, no question of that. But then…did that mean anything? A lot could happen between a man and a woman in eighteen or twenty years.

So if writers just do this kind of thing by virtue of being story-tellers, why clutter your mind with academic literary jargon? Good question, IMHO. Yet…it’s useful to be able to articulate styles and techniques — not just to know how to do them but what you’re doing, specifically. The insight builds your skill and enhances your control over your writing style.

Consider: if you were a carpenter, you’d know how to sand wood. But to know exactly what you’re doing, you would be much helped by knowing the difference between 100 grit and 500 grit sandpaper.

Comes under the heading of knowing your craft.

Images: DepositPhotos
Hands of a writer, © DmitryPoch
Hands of a craftsman, © stokkete