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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Daily Archives: June 11, 2009

“Details are often the only difference between mediocre and magnificent.”

~Author Unknown

As a copy editor, I’ve developed a different set of eyes that detect details often unseen by the rest of the world. But let me clarify. Just because something is unseen, in no way means it has gone unnoticed. To the untrained, small mistakes can collect in the subconscious. A reader might put a book down and never know exactly why they couldn’t get engaged, or why he felt the text was too confusing, or why he simply just gave up.

Well, as they say, the Devil is in the details.

I love writing, and I love to make other writers’ work the absolute best it can be. I’ve worked with all skill levels, and after almost a decade of experience, enough writing has passed beneath my pen for me to see certain patterns emerge. I call these my Deadly Sins of Writing.  

The Deadly Sins are often among the first Blood Lessons for new writers. Why? Because formal English classes (high school and college), in my opinion, frequently:

  1. Permit bad writing habits.
  2. Encourage bad writing habits.

I’m in no way picking on teachers. It is incumbent upon any writer to learn her craft. To believe college English constitutes proper schooling for commercial fiction is like saying Home Economics is proper training for a chef. Yet, many new writers believe that because they made good grades in English, they know how to write (Yeah, I’ll confess. I was one of them).

So after a couple of years critiquing fiction, I began to notice a pattern of common errors. These flubs were so distracting that I often found I couldn’t even GET to critiquing plot, character, or voice. Thus, I wrote out my Deadly Sins as a reference. I believe that if a writer can eradicate most or all of these types of errors, then he will leave the reader with a clearer view of the story.

Today we are only going to go over three. Why? Because most of us haven’t had formal grammar since that awful experience with sentence diagramming back in the eighth grade. And while I could just list the Sins, I believe it will be more helpful if you understand WHY these errors can be so detrimental to even the best of stories.

Deadly Sin #1

Was Clusters— There is nothing wrong with using being verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, —Remember them?). But, they do tend to have a nasty habit of flocking together. A couple of being verbs are all right. But, if there are 42 on one page? You might have a problem…or an infestation.

Was often acts as a screaming beacon directing me, the editor, to places where the writing could be tightened.  Was can also lead you, the writer, into dangerous passive voice waters so beware.

The door was kicked in by the officers. (Passive)

The officers kicked in the door. (Active)

Deadly Sin #2

Overuse of “ing” Whether as Gerunds or Participles—First, a quick review for those of us who have slept since our last grammar class. A gerund is a verb used as a noun—i.e. reading glasses. Participles are often used with a helping verb to show progression (also called progressive verbs)—i.e. I am walking to the car.

***I have left Point A and have not quite reached Point B. Therefore the action is in progress, ergo the term progressive.

There is nothing wrong with using either, but like was, these critters also tend to cluster together. When they do so, they tend to:

a. Create a monotonous pattern

b. Signal places the writing could be made more active.

Joe was walking to the car while smoking a cigarette and thinking about his day. He was wondering if it was all worth the effort. Tired, he pulled out a set of reading glasses. He was scanning the Dear John letter one last time before driving home when a car came barreling out of nowhere heading straight for him.

Don’t laugh. I have seen more than my fair share of similar passages. Technically, nothing is incorrect. Yet, the pattern of ing ing ing ing ing creates a monotony that can diminish the literary effect.

Deadly Sin #3

Modifier overload.  Ever heard the term less is more? The same holds true in writing. Why? When you modify everything, you modify nothing. The reader can get so bogged down in lovely similes and metaphors that he forgets the original point of the story, and that is bad.

Have you ever been to a lecture where the speaker’s voice is flat, and nothing is emphasized? Think of Ben Stein, the guy who does the eye drop commercials.

Monotone.

Now think of that lunatic Billy Mays who does all of the Oxy Clean commercials. HE STRESSES ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING!!!! By the end of the commercial, the audience needs a nap…or a drink.

Again, monotone.

Modifiers can make beautiful writing that transports us and makes us part of an entirely different world.

Or…

It can make us feel like we’re trapped in that nightmare where we never really graduated high school, and have been forced to repeat Sophomore-Level English if we want our college degree to be valid. Jane Eyre. Enough said.

Just remember some simple rules of thumb. Adverbs are almost always a no-no. Why use window dressing on an inferior verb if there is a superior verb that can take its place?

He walked quickly across the room.

He strode across the room.

As far as adjectives, similes, and metaphors? Use good judgment. Don’t be the Oxy Clean guy. Have a fellow writer look at your work and see which ones might be weakening your story. Or, take a highlighter and strike through all the modifiers, and see how many there are, and how many can go. Heck, if they are really good, you can use them later. I promise.

Grammar is not a whole lot of fun for most people, but it is necessary to understand it as part of understanding the craft. And you are going to make mistakes. Blood Lessons are a critical part of learning. Good writing comes from wisdom, and wisdom comes from experience. Experience comes from writing some real crap. But as NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer constantly hammers into his writing protégés:

The Number One Rule of Rule-Breaking is ‘Know the rules.’ If you break rules without knowing the rules, you are not clever, you are ignorant.

Sloppy technique, bad grammar, and poor sentence construction can cling to your writing like a dirty film that obscures story and characters. Clean up your writing so your stories can shine.

Until next time…

The impetus for writing this series came from an epiphany I had this past weekend at Bob Mayer’s DFW Novel Writer’s Workshop. I had the fortunate opportunity to listen and observe the sessions as a passive participant. Now one cool talent I have been blessed with is that I tend to be good at recognizing patterns; helps make me a very thorough content editor. There are two patterns in particular I happened to spot this weekend, and I believe, if I can successfully avoid these two writing pitfalls, my writing is going to drastically improve. It is my opinion that these two covert saboteurs are responsible for more rewrite than almost any other error. In fact, I know from my own Blood Lessons that these two critical mistakes have sabotaged some really great stories, and cost me countless hours of work. 

Hazard #1—Mistaking Melodrama for Drama

Hazard #2—Mistaking Complexity for Conflict

These two related booby-traps are often hidden beneath our little darlings (clever dialogue, beautiful description, etc). That is probably why Stephen King recommended we kill them—he knew they could be rigged to explode and critically wound our manuscript. I have two novels on the KIA list, and one that has been badly injured and is currently being triaged. And if these hazards aren’t bad enough on their own, when they work together (as they often do) the collateral damage can be devastating.

Hazard #1—Mistaking Melodrama for Drama

Drama is created when a writer has good characterization that meets with good conflict. Good characterization is what breathes life into black letters on a white page, creating “people” who are sometimes more real to us than their flesh and blood counterparts. The problem is that characterization is a skill that has to be learned, usually from a lot of mistakes. To think that simple practice is enough is folly. We have to be taught to do it correctly. It is sort of like going to a gym and swinging weights around with no proper form, then thinking we just need to do it more to get the results we seek. Not true. Yet, time and time again, I see writers—as Bob would say—moving deck chairs around on the Titanic (again, I have been guilty). The writer describes the character more, or gives more info dump or more internal thought, or more back story, yet never manages to accomplish true characterization. So, when something really bad happens, we the reader just don’t care.

Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked explores this problem in detail if you would like to read more, but to keep it short and sweet I’m going to explain it this way. Most of us have driven down a highway at around rush hour, so picture this scenario. We notice emergency lights ahead.  The oncoming traffic lane is shut down and looks like a debris field. Four mangled cars lay in ruins, surrounded by somber EMTs. Do you feel badly? Unless you’re a sociopath, of course you do.

Now…

You look into that same oncoming lane and two of the cars you recognize. They belong to friends you were supposed to meet for dinner.

Before you cared…now you are connected.

That is how good characterization makes the difference. If you open your story with this gut-wrenching scene in a hospital where someone is dying, you are taking a risk. We will certainly care on a human level, but not on the visceral level that makes us have to close the book and get tissue.

Hazard #2—Mistaking Complexity for Conflict

Complexity is easily mistaken for conflict. I witnessed this pitfall tank more manuscripts this past weekend—including my own. Bob has this section of his workshop where he makes everyone show their conflict lock. Protagonist wants this. Antagonist wants that. What they each want is destined to lock in conflict.

Not one person in the workshop could do this. Not one!

Now, don’t get me wrong, there were people who just didn’t see they had a good simple conflict, and it was easy enough to remedy. But, over half of us could not say in one to three sentences what the conflict in our story was, and now we’re staring down the barrel of major rewrite. To varying degrees we had all fallen victim to Hazard #2, and thank God our fellow writers were nearby to drag us back to safety.

It is my opinion that we all knew we were missing this integral piece—CONFLICT—the backbone of our story. I think we sensed it on a sub-conscious level and that is why our plots grew more and more and more complicated. We were trying to fix a structural issue with Bondo putty and duct tape and then hoping no one would notice.

Complexity is not conflict!

You can create an interstellar conspiracy, birth an entirely new underground spy network, resurrect a dead sibling who in reality was sold off at birth, or even start the Second Civil War to cover up the space alien invasion…but it ain’t conflict. Conflict is biblical, and never changes. It most often revolves around the Seven Deadly Sins in conflict with the Seven Heavenly Virtues. Interstellar war, guerilla attacks, or evil twins coming back to life can be the BACKDROP for conflict, but alone are not conflict.

 And not only do we writers need a core conflict; we need a good core conflict.

There is a difference between…

A criminal profiler is forced to go to Key West and rescue her aunt before the mob uses an inbound hurricane to cover up her murder as payback for a dead family member’s debt.

(Hmmm…interesting maybe)

Vs.

A criminal profiler grieving her sister’s death runs to Key West only to arrive just before a hurricane.

(Who cares?)

Now these are just examples I thought of on the fly from my own writing (didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, :D). But, I hope it helps. And for those who would like to learn more about conflict, I recommend taking one of Candace Havens’ on-line workshops www.candacehavens.com, or attending one of Bob Mayer’s workshops, www.bobmayer.org. Bob’s book “The Novel Writer’s Toolkit” (you can buy off his site) and Jessica Morrell’s “Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction” are two excellent resources I recommend for every writer’s collection. If anyone reading this blog has additional suggestions, please leave them in the comment section. I am sure we would all appreciate it.

So, after all of this, what is a good way to spot these two hazards?  William Faulkner is said to have advised writers to kill their “darlings,” those little bits of glitter a writer thinks are simply marvelous. To the reader lacking that maternal attitude, they are at best distracting, at worst a reason to stop reading. I sincerely believe these little darlings are like fluffy beds of leaves covering pungee pits of writing death. Be truthful. Are your “flowers” part of a garden or covering a grave? We put our craftiest work into buttressing our errors, so I would highly recommend taking a critical look at the favorite parts of your manuscript and then get real honest about why they’re there.

Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out. — Samuel Johnson

Good luck, and happy writing!

 http://www.bobmayer.org/index.php?id=4

http://www.amazon.com/Bullies-Bastards-Bitches-Write-Fiction/dp/1582974845

http://www.amazon.com/Hooked-Write-Fiction-Grabs-Readers/dp/1582974578

There are many times throughout the day that I simply pause and think how incredibly blessed I am.  Almost ten years ago I made the fateful decision to become a writer. It has been an amazing journey, and the most humbling experience of my life. I have toyed with blogging on different subjects, but often found it difficult to stay focused very long. Why? Three reasons:

  1. For those who love to write, they often have so many stories to tell it seems one lifetime is not enough. There is so much commentary bubbling inside that we can find it depressing to have to light on one subject.
  2. Discipline is a character trait that, sadly, is not just encoded in one’s DNA. Like getting in the gym or saying “no” to that next slice of pizza, writing anything (blogs included) takes focus, willpower, and work. (Yeah…I was kind of bummed about that, too).
  3. I think many new writers (and even some of us seasoned ones) struggle with feeling legitimate. I know well-published authors who still find it tough to think of themselves as writers, let alone “experts” with anything noteworthy to say.

The last item in that list, I believe, is what has held me back the most in regards to blogging. I critique/edit hundreds of pages a month—fiction, non-fiction, marketing, etc, and have done so for going on a decade. I edit for some of the best authors in the business. On my desk are stacks of signed books from grateful writers, and a few of these books even has my name printed in the acknowledgements. And strangely, even though I possess quite a dossier of success in the writing world, I have a hard time believing I am an expert in my field. Silly, I know. But, part of growing as a writer is developing a greater degree of self-awareness.

Back to the why I am so blessed part, because that is really important and will help you understand why I have chosen to write this new series. I have the most amazing friends any person could ever wish for. Among those friends are some extremely talented writers (Candy Havens, Rosemary-Clements Moore, A. Lee Rodriguez, Britta Coleman, Nell Noonan, Dr. Mike Bumagin, Debbie Gillette…just to name a few). But, one of my closest friends is NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. This friendship has changed my life, my writing life in particular, more than anything else. Bob is not just a famous, talented, brilliant author; he is also a former Green Beret and leader of an A-Team. He teaches how to blend the warrior spirit into the craft of writing in his book “Who Dares Wins,” and in July he is launching the first all-day workshops called “Warrior Writer” to teach writers (published or unpublished) how to think like a best-selling author. I count myself fortunate to have had such a mentor.

This past weekend, I helped Bob run his “DFW Novel Writer’s Workshop.” I had the super important jobs like refilling ice chests of cold drinks, handing out workbooks, and rescuing attendees locked outside on the bottom floor. Hey, I’m not proud. If I have to make two hundred ham sandwiches and scrub smashed Doritos out of the carpet to listen to a best-selling author teach me how to write, you can bet I am so there.

Like all of the attendees, I walked away a changed writer and person. First, I saw another layer of fear that had been dictating a lot of my choices (like being afraid of blogging about writing even though I WORK as an editor—dumb. I know.) But I also learned some mind-blowing lessons about the craft that I intend on passing on to you, my loyal blog readers.

First…let’s point out the pink elephant in the room.

Yes. There are some people who write their first novel and—POOF—they are instantly a NY Times Best-Selling success. This is a reality that cannot be denied, just like there happen to be people who win a hundred million dollars playing the lottery. These individuals do exist, but I don’t think lottery tickets are a wise investment plan for the rest of us. Yet, how many writers (and I am so guilty of this, too) write our first book and think we are going to be the next (insert name of super mega best-selling author here)? For those writers who emotionally survive that first slap of reality (known as a tall stack of rejected queries for your 170,000 word romantic-comedy-historical fantasy-science fiction-suspense novel that your mother just LOVES), the road to publication is fraught with peril.

Most won’t make it.

The bitter reality is that the road to publishing success is littered with the corpses of rejected or unfinished manuscripts, soaked in the lost lifeblood of what used to be a writer’s ego. For those who dare to take this path, they will learn a lot of Blood Lessons along the way.  Those who are smart will learn, but those who are wise learn from others.

Blood Lessons come in many forms as you will read about in this blog. I will post lessons about writing, of course. But, most importantly, it will be my goal to post lessons of life, camaraderie, and character. As I stated earlier, I have been greatly blessed to be friends with caring, talented individuals. I always joke that Guantanamo Bay was using my first novel to break terrorists until the UN intervened (Water board me pleeeease! Just not another chapter of that BOOK!).

 

I still remember sitting in the Southwest Fort Worth Library parking lot crying after my first critique…and second…and third. When it finally sank in that I was not going to be living off my royalty checks in the French Riviera within the year, I became deeply depressed. In fact, I would have tossed myself off my apartment balcony, but the drop was only far enough to maim me. I would have tossed my computer off the balcony, but I had spent the last of my savings to buy it.

Despite the crushing blow to my ego and general sense of worth as a human, I kept at it—and I am so glad I did. I have won quite a few awards for my fiction, even though I am still trudging the road toward finishing/publishing a novel. I have been president of the Freelance Writers Network for going on five years, and I also sit on the board of directors for the DFW Writers’ Workshop. Through perseverance, I’ve earned my stripes as a critique/editor and I have managed to make a nice living doing what I love. It hasn’t been easy—the path of the Warrior Writer never is. And, though I’m sure all of you will learn your own Blood Lessons along the way, maybe I can help spare you a few…or at least inspire you.

All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. — from Seven Pillars of Wisdom

 

 

 

I hope to pass some of this wisdom on to those of you who choose the path of the Warrior Writer.