Articles

Here are some articles about writing from our members.

TEN QUESTIONS TO KNOW IF YOU’RE A PRO

by Lisa Morton

I love writers. All kinds of writers. In my fiction I’ve likened writers to magicians, and I believe that: Who else has the ability to create something from nothing and to transfer their thoughts and dreams into another’s head?

I consider myself a professional writer. I consider a lot of my friends to be professional writers. But I’m equally comfortable with some friends who write at a non-professional level. I don’t call them “amateurs” because that word comes with implications of lesser talent. I call them “hobbyists”.

The only time I get upset with hobbyists is when they call themselves professionals. Working in any job at a professional level involves not just making money at that job, but thinking of that job as your career. When you have a career (as compared to simply a job), you sacrifice for that career and you look for ways to advance in that career and practice it way more than just forty hours a week. If it’s wrong to get irritated at people who call themselves professional writers but haven’t really put in the hard work that I have…well, I accept that judgment.

I recently stumbled into a discussion group of people who I thought had called themselves professionals, but their conversations revealed them to be hobbyists. They chatted about health and told jokes and moaned about personal problems…anything, in other words, but writing careers.

It occurred to me recently that we’ve seen lots of essays about what distinguishes professionals from hobbyists, but these things usually boil down to money, or grammar, or editing, or whatever.

It’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty.

Below are ten questions. Ideally, you should be answering “yes” to all ten, but I’ll cut you a little slack and say you can get off with 80% and still call yourself “professional”.

Do these questions seem harsh? Extreme? Brutal? Really? Then consider this: You are competing against people who can answer “yes” to all ten of these, and you might well be competing against a LOT of them. They may all be as talented as you are; no matter how good you are, at least a few of them will be more talented.

If you’ve already glanced at these questions and scoffed, you are a hobbyist. And that’s okay, as long as you don’t call yourself a professional. At least around irritable me.

Onto the questions:

1. Is your home/work place messy because that time you’d put into cleaning it is better spent writing?

2. Do you routinely turn down evenings out with friends because you need to be home writing instead?

3. Do you turn off the television in order to write?

4. Would you rather receive useful criticism than praise?

5. Do you plan vacations around writing opportunites (either research or networking potential)?

6. Would you rather be chatting about the business of writing with another writer than exchanging small talk with a good friend?

7. Have you ever taken a day job that paid less money because it would give you more time/energy/material to write?

8. Are you willing to give up the nice home you know you could have if you devoted that time you spend writing to a more lucrative career?

9. Have you done all these things for at least five years?

10. Are you willing to live knowing that you will likely never meet your ambitions, but you hold to those ambitions nonetheless?

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Here’s a link to author Brian Keene’s thoughts on Lisa’s article. There’s been a metric ton of discussion regarding the article, mostly on Facebook. What does it mean to be a professional author? I think it’s open to interpretation. I also believe Lisa was not intending to include most writers who need to work day jobs in order to support their writing habits.

Also: please know the views expressed in any articles on this website are not necessarily the views of the parent HWA organization. I’ve posted them here to create a forum for discussion, and in the conscious decision to not censor any possible inflammatory or unpopular views or ideas. Not sure if the parent organization will be cool with me/us doing so, but for now, I’m thinking it’s perfectly fine for writers to express their views on wiriting and the business. Dialogue is very important, and I, for one, welcome it.

– John Palisano

http://www.briankeene.com/2013/08/04/on-professionalism-elitism-and-things-more-important/

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Here’s a great article from the one and only Hal Bodner.

Creating Effective Characters
by Hal Bodner

I wanna let y’all in on a little secret: I hate doing these online advice-to-writers columns as I never know what to say.

I got shang-haied into this one because of an old friend I’ll call “Sally” who is a brilliant, multiple award winning author of thrillers. It seems that someone from the HWA Los Angeles Chapter (who I will call “Jason” in order to protect him from Sally’s wrath!) was volunteering as the Guest Coordinator at a literary convention not too long ago. This is a thankless job as it mostly involves wrangling all the invitees and making sure they get to where they’re supposed to be on time. Sally was one of the guests of honor and due to speak at a panel. Forty-five minutes before the panel was to start, Jason went to her hotel room to get her and Sally was nowhere to be found.

If any of you have ever been to one of these things, you’ll know that the most interesting events usually take place in the hotel bar. Fortunately, Jason is a pretty smart cookie and Sally’s reputation had preceded her. So, with the panel about to shortly convene, he headed immediately to where the spirits were being served and . . . viola! There was Sally, regaling a handsome young bartender with stories of how she won her first two Edgars, the Bram Stoker and, more recently, the Shirley Jackson Award.

Jason had little problem prying Sally off the bartender. After all, there was a wooden bar separating them . . . or rather, there was a wooden bar protecting him. From what I hear, he was blond and rather beefy and Sal sometimes finds it difficult to restrain herself when she meets an attractive young man who is her “type” . . . um . . . I meant to say . . . when she meets an attractive young man who is one of her “types” as our Sal is very liberal where her preferred  “types” of men are concerned.

Sal had, of course, been drinking. She’s a New Yorker and, though it was only ten in the morning where the convention was being held on the West Coast, the sun was already over the yardarm in New York. In Sally’s mind, that meant it was perfectly fine to have a cocktail or three with lunch. The fact that it was far too early for lunch to be served in California was certainly not Sal’s fault, was it? She’d just have to make do with the cocktails alone.

While my old friend is capable of speaking at great length – and even appearing intelligent about what she’s saying – after downing up to a third of a bottle of vodka, on this occasion she appears to have been drinking scotch.  In fact, she’d been drinking a fair amount of scotch, perhaps enough to suffice for a round at a Glasgow pub. Even so, the speaking part wouldn’t have been a problem. Once Jason had convinced the bartender not to file sexual harassment charges, all he had to do was drag Sally to the panel on time.

Navigating out of the bar and up the stairs to the conference room was, however, proving beyond Sally’s physical abilities. Worse, the esteemed author had reached the point where her vocal chords were sodden enough such that the volume control seemed not to be working. An argument with a potted plant ensued. The dispute escalated into mild fisticuffs between Sally and the plant and ended only when the flailing of fists and branches was sufficient to provoke Sal into evacuating some of the scotch. Fortunately, Jason reports that he was able to maneuver the remains of the plant’s pot into position in time and avoid the con promoters being hit with a hefty carpet cleaning bill.

The rest of the story is, I’m happy to say, far too boring to relate here except to say that Sally was, as always, brilliantly witty on the panel. By the end of the weekend, she’d decided that Jason was her new Best Friend Forever. Sal’s infatuation with Jason had not worn off when she called me at roughly four in the morning the other day and insisted I write this column. The conversation was short and sweet and basically consisted of a short monologue on Sally’s part. “Hal, you’ve got to do something for Jason. You simply must!  He’s just fabulous and he’s doing wonders with the LA HWA Chapter and he’s got this blog thing that he desperately needs people to contribute to! Darling, I’d consider it a personal favor if you would…oh damn.  The cat just threw up on the rug. Gotta run. Kissy kissy.”

I was baffled, but not by the substance of the conversation. Sal is not only a marvelous promoter who very freely hands out tips to all of her good friends, but she’s also one of those people who seems to know absolutely everyone who’s anyone and delights in matching them up to help each other out.  Rather, it was the timing of the thing that troubled me. Usually Sally wakes up around noon – my time, which meant that when she called it was only seven in the morning in Manhattan. Morning makes Sally break out in hives. Of course, she might have still been awake from the night before, but I think that’s unlikely as none of her words were slurred.

Then, the reason came to me like a veritable blot from the blue, to work an already overworked cliché.

Sally does not exist. I just made her up.

But, you feel you know her, right? Just a little?  Or, at the very least, you know someone like her. Now, granted, I was unable to do full justice to the character of Sally in less than a page but I hope I had you fooled. You may have doubted that the events weren’t blown out of proportion for comic effect, but I’m betting you did not realize from the start that “Sally” was entirely fictional.

That’s called creating character. It’s an art to be sure. Moreover, to do it effectively, it usually takes a little more than a page or two though, in truth, I’ve known authors (myself included) who can do it in a matter of a few lines if necessary. If we look at “Sally”, we’ll see there are a couple of tricks to creating character – and we’ll talk about those in a minute.

First, I want to assure you that everything you’ve ever learned in a creative writing class or writers’ group or weekend authors’ retreat is probably true – as far as it goes. The litany goes something like this: observe people around you to discover interesting things about them; base characters on real life; give them interesting “quirks”; tell your audience how your characters feel; character is more than mere description. It all works but, for me, creating a character that way is more like having to read the instruction manual in Swedish than it is like having someone show you how to put together the IKEA bookcase you just bought and is still in pieces spread out on your living room carpet.

Of course there are some fundamentals you need to know in creating effective characters.  If you like, you can always describe them physically. This is what I call creating a character “directly”. Many writers do this effectively as, to a certain degree, some character elements may be physically based.  Though Cyrano’s deformed nose is only the tip of the iceberg and, in itself, merely a contrivance.  But his character comes from how he relates to the deformity, how he reacts to other people’s commenting on it, how his perceived ugliness has created a huge insecurity and a hair-trigger temper among other traits. Too many writers assume describing the physicality is enough and either forget about the emotional impact the physicality may have or ignore the possibility that different people may react very differently to having identical physical traits.

Alternatively, a writer may introduce a character with vast paragraphs of background exposition detailing their entire lives to date. We may read pages and pages about how little Amelia was cruelly ripped from her mother’s breast and sold into white slavery, spending her tenderest years as a scullery maid before being forced into a life of prostitution. Often, the author’s intent is to provide a rough sketch for the reader to latch on to so that the plot can move forward. The thinking is that the reader needs to be familiar with Amelia’s motivations in order to understand why she is about to do whatever it is she does.

This is a flawed thinking and, in most cases, a flawed technique. First, it usually bores the reader with information that he does not really need and, very often, there’s too much exposition for the reader to fully digest anyway. It’s far more interesting and effective to show your audience how Amelia responds to the obstacles and plot twists that you throw in her way. If you’re not able to create believable situations to which your character can react truthfully, if you’re not able to use words to sculpt a character that leaps off the page with vitality, then no amount of background explanation is going to help you.

How many times have you read a book with cardboard characters who are fundamentally interchangeable except for some minor physical difference or distinguished only by the “roles” they play in the plot? How many times have you been forced to constantly flip back and forth to the various characters’ “introduction” pages to try and remember who is who?

We’ve all found ourselves wondering, “Joe..Joe…which one is Joe? Is he the surfer with the club foot?  Or is he the one who was injured in the accident? No, that’s not right. Joe is the guy having the affair with the other guy’s wife! No, wait. The guy having the affair is Bill. Who the hell is Joe?”   In cases of truly bad characterization, we may even find ourselves trying to recall whether Joe is the “blond one”, “the fat one” or “the dentist”!

In short, merely telling the reader who a character is directly – either by physical description or via a lengthy mini-biography of the past events which have supposedly influenced the character into becoming who they are – requires a mastery of language and story telling that most writers don’t have. Those of us who can do it may also find that we can’t always do it well; a lot depends on the specifics of what we’re writing. In short, this kind of  “short hand” character development can be made to work, it’s very difficult and it’s most often done badly.

Ironically, the easier method is also the more effective method. I usually refer to it as creating character “indirectly” and the technique has many wrinkles to it.

First, show your readers the character without using simple description. Instead, show them what the person does, how the person reacts, how they feel about things. Dialogue may be the most effective way to do this and, if you’re good, you can write pages and pages of nothing but dialogue without a single “he said” or other identifier and your readers will still know exactly who is speaking, how they feel about things and, in some cases, what they are doing while they speak. The dialogue trap to be wary of is this: don’t use it as a substitute way of burying your reader in all the extraneous information that you were originally tempted to put into the background exposition. There’s nothing worse than expository dialogue that goes on for pages and adds nothing to the plot or characterizations and which exists only because the author mistakenly thinks the reader “needs” to know it!

Now, take a look at “Sally” who spaketh not a word. Nor was there a single adjective used to describe her physically. Nevetheless, I’m hoping most of you conjured up some mental image of her slumped over the bar and flirting with a bartender half her age. Or maybe it was the suggestion of her wrestling with a ficus before throwing up on it that triggered a picture in your mind. The point is that what she looked like was not important for my purpose, which was to make you believe she was a real person. And I used some tricks to do it – not all of them directly related to character.

First, I blended reality with my fictional creation. Novelists do that all the time when they set a story in a real place. We use the realities to which the reader can relate as a springboard for the fantasies we wish to weave. Ira Levine’s Rosemary’s Baby is possibly the quintessential example of that technique. We see how Rosemary reacts to extraordinary events taking place in the most ordinary environment and, by seeing how she copes as things spin out of her control, we learn a hell of a lot about her. Without the reader being witness to the strength she summons as the creepiness intensifies (and when weaker folks would run screaming into the night!), her actions at the end of the book when she finally sees her baby would make no sense.

To better ground “Sally” in reality, I mentioned Jason because I knew that if you were reading this blog, you would know that the HWA LA Chapter is a real group.  You would have no reason to doubt that “Jason” was not a real member.  (Yes, “Jason” is also a construct of my imagination, I’m afraid.)  I also gave Jason virtually no character of his own. I made him unimportant, giving you no reason to doubt his existence.  He was merely a mechanism, a red herring if you like, who was invented so that you would accept him at face value and, thus, he gives further credence to the more colorful character of “Sally”.  It’s a kind of literary magician’s trick involving misdirection, the theory being that if I can get a reader to accept that one fictional character as real, the reader is more likely not to doubt the existence of a second fictional character

Second, I set my little scenario at a convention, knowing many of the people reading this would have attended one. Then, in order to set y’all up for my pulling the wool over your eyes with the fictional “Sally”… I cheated!    (I know, I know. I’m hanging my head in shame.)

The way I did it was by drawing you in and inviting you to share an “inside” joke.  I alluded to how the bars at conventions are often more popular than the actual event. By directing your memory to your own experiences at the bar at that wretched romance/horror/sci-fi convention that you once attended, I performed another small feat of literary misdirection.  Perhaps you even recalled that there was drunken guest of honor at the bar? These things have been known to happen.

I got you to buy into the scene as a whole and you never once stopped to consider that I had an ulterior purpose for doing so. I grounded the whole thing in reality and never once gave you time nor any reason to wonder if “Sally” might be a fictional construct.

Finally, just in case you were a particularly clever reader, I began exaggerating for humorous effect. Did I truly try to convince you that an award-winning author beat up a plant and vomited on it after practically raping a bartender? Of course not!  On the contrary, I expected you to reject my hyperbole while retaining a belief that the underlying character of “Sally” was either real or, perhaps, a thinly disguised version of a real person.  You might even have wondered who “Sally” was in real life.  It’s the old Victor/Victoria ruse.  Toddy creates the “Count” as an obvious fraud. Everyone is so busy trying to find out who the Count really is (because no one believes he’s an actual count), that no one stops to think that he might actually be a she.

In a few more pages, who knows what we might have learned more about Sally after witnessing her antics on the panel. Would her drunken state render her boorish and insulting? Or would she be completely charming until she simply passed out face down on the podium without warning in front of hundreds of adoring fans? How about Jason? What’s his stake in all this? Is he the long-suffering volunteer, somehow managing to overcome obstacles while chewing anti-acids the whole time? Or is he a male Eve Harrington who is set on ruining the great, but tragically alcoholic, writer’s fame for nefarious purposes? What happens if one of Sally’s multiple boyfriends waltzes in and it turns out he’s also Jason’s ex-boyfriend with whom Jason is still in love?

If you know your characters, if you have them firmly in your mind, the answers to the questions I just asked will start the process that some authors refer to as “listening to our characters”. I’ve also heard writers speak of it as “letting the characters take us places.”  It’s another little trick – and a lovely one it is too!  If you’ve set them up properly, your characters will begin to react to the elements you provide and the things you throw at them in their own unique ways. Often, I find my people taking me in directions I had no intention of going.  One NY Times Best-selling author who I know– a real person this time–calls it “learning from my peeps.”

When this happens, I almost always go with the flow so I can find out where it leads. Sometimes, it opens vistas of which I hadn’t considered. Other times my characters will “take” me to a place where I emphatically do not want them to go – usually because it mucks with the plot I’ve got in mind. Then, I have a choice. I can alter the plot accordingly or, as I more often do, I can go back to the specific event that started the character down the “wrong” path and simply rewrite the event to evoke a different reaction from the character that will bring things back onto the path I prefer.

Nor is it necessary to use only one method to create a character. Mixing and matching is encouraged! Here’s an example from one of my own novels, Mummy Dearest, where I’ve woven a bunch of techniques together.

In another darkened bedchamber, the only sound was light breathing from the naked body, fast asleep, tangled in white satin sheets. Suddenly, there was an audible click from the nightstand and the room’s peacefulness was shattered by a raucous voice singing, “I had a dream! A dream about you, June!”

The sleeper came groggily awake, his blond curls tousled, his blue eyes bleary. “Thank you, Ethel, dear,” Troy Raleigh murmured as he stretched out one lithely-muscled arm, grabbed the Ethel Merman alarm clock, and tapped her gently on the head to shut her up before she could tell him how swell things were.

Troy stretched languorously, yawning and emitting tiny squeaky noises of pleasure as his muscles and joints popped. He tossed aside the sheets, flipped over onto his tummy, his pert little rear end bared for all the world to see, and shoved his head under the pillows. Five minutes later, just as he was drifting back to sleep, the silence was once again shattered as Ethel belted out “There’s NO business like SHOW business!” with musical abandon, and if possible, even louder than before.

Troy shot bolt upright and grabbed the clock. “That will be quite enough from you!” he said irritably and shut it off. Then, as if to make amends for his terseness of a moment before, Troy kissed the plastic Mama Rose on her nose before replacing her carefully.

If I’ve done my job properly, in ten sentences, the reader already has a handle on the essence of this character. Moreover, I’ve not had to really tell very much by way of description other than that the character is blond, has blue eyes and is in good shape. Frankly, I find those to be the least effective character defining elements in this excerpt.

So, let’s take a look at it in greater detail. We have a naked man, sleeping on white satin sheets and he has . . . an Ethel Merman alarm clock. It’s the clock that does it; everything else leads up to the clock. It’s quirky, campy and makes the reader ask, “What kind of a guy has an Ethel Mer . . . ? Oh. I get it now.”

Further, look at some of the word choices: “tiny squeaky noises”, “flipped onto his tummy”, “pert little rear end”. There’s a juvenile quality to them mingled with a kind of cheery optimism. Now combine this with the blond/blue thing and the “lithely-muscled arm” and a picture starts emerging. I could easily have described Troy as “an overly effeminate young man with curly blond hair, an innocent yet mischievously elfin expression and a gym-toned body.” The waking up scene does the same thing, it’s much more fun to read and, if the image of that odd little clock strikes a chord in my reader, it’s a more memorable experience.

It’s true we do not know everything about Troy Raleigh but as this is the first time he shows up in the book, we don’t need to know his entire life story. We need only enough to create the most basic image of who he is in our minds at this point. The reader only needs to grasp what I call the “essence” of the character; the fill-in stuff can come later. Also, I want to confess that since Troy appears in two earlier books, this passage is tailored more towards refreshing familiarity than towards the initial introduction of a character, but the techniques are the same.

I love indirect ways of establishing character. I recall a friend who was working on a book about an assassin. His protagonist enters a restaurant, sits with his back against the wall, orders food and, when the waitress drops something, he reaches out and snags it out of midair without taking his eyes off the door.  We immediately know this guy as well, don’t we? Moreover, we may even know a little something – without any specifics – about the plot and possibly why he’s in the restaurant. Our assumptions about the character may turn out to be completely wrong, but the author has given us that bit about the man watching the door and has provided our imaginations with some tantalizing clues to consider.

So, since I’m running out of space unless I want Jason to beat me to death with a red editor’s pencil, I want to wrap up with the following advice. Always try to find external and indirect ways to reveal your characters through what they do, how they react, what they say or by the way other characters respond or relate to them. By all means, you should know what they look like and how they dress. By the same token, you’ll need to know their backgrounds. But, save the direct character development techniques as fall- backs. Your job is to create vibrant characters in interesting ways and, hopefully, to leave lingering fond memories of your peeps in your readers’ minds long after they’ve read those two little words I’m about to type . . . The End.

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…and here’s a great piece on Grammar by Hal Bodner: enjoy.

Grammar
by Hal Bodner

Recently, I was on a panel at one of those public events that we authors show up at in order to promote our books, and the topic of what it takes to be an author came up.

Most established writers are used to answering that question.  The folks on this panel were no exceptions and split themselves into two distinct groups.  As is typical when the subject arises, about half of them focused on the creative aspects of being an author.   They spoke eloquently about where they found their ideas and what they felt were the best ways to express themselves.   I recall that one author was particularly eager to explore notions of what constitutes creativity.  The remaining members of the panel were concerned with the more practical aspects of authorship and wanted to talk about things like establishing a work ethic, how to get an agent, or tips for promoting one’s work.

I was the last to speak and, when it came my turn, I expressed a long held pet peeve of mine.  I said that I’ve always felt that one of the most important aspects of being an author is technical proficiency.   Dead silence descended upon the other authors.  “You know,” I sort of half-stammered, “grammar and syntax and stuff.”  Half of my colleagues stared at me blankly.  From the looks I got from the others, you would have thought that I had loudly passed gas in an elevator.

Knowing how to write and learning the basics of grammar and sentence structure isn’t very sexy.  It’s far from the fodder of late night coffee house conversations or writing groups. I suspect it’s rarely the kind of thing that pushes a writer toward an over-indulgence in absinthe or toward walking into the sea with a pocket full of rocks. It’s neither racy nor exciting.

And let’s be honest, it’s likely that most of us hated high school English classes and freshman Basic Composition 101. We were writers, dammit! We had Great Thoughts to express! The wretchedness of learning useless stuff about predicates and tense were beneath us. We were Artists, and Artists should not be troubled with such mundane trivialities.  Diagram a sentence? Pshaw!

Any time a new writer mentions that he or she is using ‘heightened’ language or that he is ‘experimenting’ with literary style, each time a budding novelist tells me about the ‘innovation’ they’re bringing to their work, I confess that I cringe.  Far too often ‘heightened’ language results in pretension and any ‘experimentation’ ends up being unreadable gibberish.  Sadly, the reason is usually that the eager beaver Nouveau Author has failed to learn how words and sentences work.

I’m not talking about spelling. Many people cry out against the purported laziness induced by spell checkers; that’s not a problem for me.  I’m all in favor of the machines correcting my added consonants in words like ‘apparel’.  I also tend to think in French so I end up sprinkling extra vowels willy-nilly throughout words that don’t need them.   Just as keyboards rendered the knowledge of calligraphy obsolete for most authors, the computer is a tool that (for good or for ill) minimizes the importance of knowing how to spell.  Of course, even with the help of a Spell Check, if the writer doesn’t know the difference between ‘they’re’ and ‘their’ or ‘passed’ and ‘past’, he is going to look like a moron.   But generally, so long as Little Paper Clip Guy remains a helpful reminder, and does not become a full-fledged crutch, it’s more important to be aware of when something might be spelled wrong than it is to actually know how to spell it.

Spelling aside, we authors must always remember that our craft is in the words and the sentences.  In the end, our art relies on communicating ideas to the reader, effectively and in new ways.

I’m genuinely appalled that many writers cannot distinguish between past tense, imperfect and plus-perfect.  ‘Had’, ‘were’ and the ‘-ed’ ending are frequently used improperly and with reckless abandon.  It’s sad that it is often only those authors who speak languages other than English (particularly Romance languages) who can appreciate the richness of difference in meaning between “She wept” and “She was weeping” and “She had been weeping.”   Similarly, the choice of active versus passive voice, or using a dependent versus independent versus parenthetical clause, are often crucial to the flow of a sentence as well as to its meaning.  Yet they get mangled together indiscriminately.

Can you screw around with tense, sentence structure and the like? Of course you can. And you should. But not before knowing the rules that you’re breaking.

A painter, a good one, would never (one hopes!) slather paint on a canvass and call it Art without first knowing the rules of color and light and composition. The Impressionists could not have created new movements in the visual arts unless they were abundantly familiar with the established structure they sought to go beyond. Yet lousy writers do it all the time, thinking they’re being innovative geniuses or, at the very least, terribly clever.

Sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and inverted subject/predicate formats can all be used to great effect.  But an author has to understand what they are and the traditional rules that apply to them before screwing around with new uses.  As for punctuation, although the dreaded Comma Rules have changed immensely during the past several decades, deciding where to place one can make or break a sentence.

Basic grammar and structure should be so well ingrained that it becomes instinctive.  True, we all have quirky difficulties with specific things.   As I mentioned above, I still often think in French.  As a result, I find myself consistently baffled by the English differences in the uses of ‘which’ as opposed to ‘that’.   I’m used to the universal ‘que’.  In French, all we have to worry about is the noun gender and its singular or plural agreement.   ‘That’ versus ‘which’ is an English grammatical rule that I may never master. Fortunately, I generally catch myself when I accidentally indulge in the Gallic practice of placing the modifier after the noun. A phrase like ‘the truck blue and pretty’ tends to stick out like a thumb sore even to me!

Funk and Wag-All (as we used to call it) and E.B. White should be on every writer’s desk. And. They. Should. Be. Used.

As for the Thesaurus, it certainly has its place.   But Thesaurus Abuse is a tragic thing.  While it is true that within its well-turned pages you may find various synonyms in concept, the words ‘comely’ and ‘exquisite’ do not mean the same thing though you may find them both under the heading of ‘pretty’.  A Thesaurus is rather like a cocktail; you may indulge in one, but do it responsibly.

Finally, there are those lazy authors who insist that the Hired Help will clean up after them.  Copy editors are, I’m sure, lovely people. They provide us a valuable service and one should not hesitate to use them.  But an author should rely on them only to catch the occasional oversight or omission.   It’s not their job to teach an author, no matter how brilliant that author may be, the fundamentals of grammar and structure.  Their purpose is to catch the omissions and the oversights that YOU may have missed on your first half dozen or so passes.  In fact, a good copy editor will soon learn your particular quirks and to look for those mistakes that you, specifically, tend to make over and over –we all have those!  But it’s unfair to expect an editor to teach you Basic Composition as much as it is inappropriate to expect them to rewrite huge chunks of your book.

Since this was originally supposed to be a relatively short post, I’ll sum things up: Learn the basics. Once you fully understand the blueprints of language, once you have become as accustomed to them as you are to breathing, then twist them, alter them, use them to shape words and sentences so that your meaning can be communicated to the reader in new and exciting ways.

As authors, that is part of our job too!

The end.