Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

Common Writing Mistakes: Point of View and Filtering (Part 1)

Happy Thursday, squiders! I’m doing #SFFPit over on Twitter today, so if you follow me there I apologize for the amount of pitch tweets you may or may not be seeing.

Before we get going, I just want to talk briefly about filtering. This is something I didn’t know about, or least didn’t have a name for, until earlier this year. Someone read my first chapter for me and pointed out a couple of instances. Just to show you that there are always new things to learn.

Anyway, on to it!

First off, to review, your point of view is, according to Google’s dictionary, “the narrator’s position in relation to the story being told.” In almost all cases, this will be either first or third person.

If you get confused, I like to compare it to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The “person” in this case refers to how close the reader is to the narrator. In a first person narrative, the reader is directly in the narrator’s head. First person point of views are characterized by using “I,” “me,” and associated words when referring to the character.

Example: I realized that, once again, I was cutting my blog writing close. I would need to leave soon or I would be late.

Third person is more distant, and the character is referred to by their name and the appropriate “he,” “she,” “it,” etc. words.

Example: Kit realized that, once again, she was cutting her blog writing close. She would need to leave soon or she would be late.

Third can be further broken down into limited and omniscient viewpoints. With third person limited you’re in a single character’s head at a time, going along with them, hearing their thoughts and experiencing their feelings. It’s similar to first person, but a step away. Third person omniscient is like you’re in a hot air balloon looking down on what’s happening. You can see what a bunch of people are doing at once. Some people also make a distinction between omniscient and what can be called third person objective. In an omniscient point of view, like a god, the narrator knows what everybody is thinking or feeling. In an objective, they don’t.

Understanding and sticking with your chosen point of view can be hugely helpful in solving a ton of issues.

(NOTE: Second person is rarely used, but you may see it occasionally. In second person, the narrator is talking to “you.” Example: You are reading this blog post. You may or may not realize that this post is late.)

Issue #1: Not sticking with your point of view

It is surprisingly easy to slip out of your chosen point of view. Your character can suddenly know something they shouldn’t, for example.

Perhaps the easiest and most common way people slip out of their point of view is by “head-hopping.” This is where you jump from your viewpoint character’s head into another character’s head. In an omniscient third viewpoint, you can get away with this (provided you are using omniscient properly), but in every other viewpoint it is jarring.

Example: Jane bit her lip, watching Jared walk away. God, how she hated to watch him leave, despite the great view. How could he leave her like this?

Jared looked back over his shoulder. Jane looked like she might cry.

Do you see the point of view slip? It’s a bit subtle. We’re in Jane’s head, hearing her thoughts, her feelings. We see what she sees.

Can you see what you look like? No. That’s Jared’s point of view.

NOTE: You can use more than one point of view in a book. Just stick with one at a time. Using our above example (and, indeed, many romances are structured this way), you could do one chapter from Jane’s point of view, the next from Jared’s, etc.

Issue #2: Choosing the wrong point of view

In most cases, it’s pretty instinctual what point of view will work best, based on the story you’re trying to tell, your genre conventions, how many characters have viewpoints, etc. But it is possible to choose the wrong one, and it basically boils down to your chosen viewpoint not having–and not being able to get–information necessary to the completion of the plot.

Sometimes the character you pick initially just isn’t the right person to tell the story.

That’s not to say that there aren’t published books out there that do this (if you try hard enough, you can find most of these common mistakes published somewhere), but the story tends to be unsatisfying, sometimes in a way that a reader can’t put their finger on.

A way that authors get around this with varying degrees of success is to include one or more chapters from a side character to provide the information.

Issue #3: Too many viewpoints

This one is highly subjective and depends on the genre as well. In a romance, you’re going to want one or two viewpoints. In a thriller, you can have one off chapters from any number of unimportant characters that never have viewpoints again.

The issue tends to be the most apparent when you have several viewpoints that are all vying to be important in some manner. Important viewpoint characters need to be important to the plot, which means you need to check in with them fairly regularly, they have to be advancing the plot or a subplot every time they show up, they have to be interesting, they might need a character arc, etc.

If you have two characters, this isn’t bad. Three? Sure. Some people can manage five or even seven. But eventually, there’s too much going on, too much to keep track of, too much, too much, too much. A lot of times those characters can be cut or combined to make a tighter, more enjoyable read.

Other viewpoint issues, squiders? We’ll talk about filtering in part 2 next week.

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Common Writing Mistakes: Tenses and Passive Voice

Hi, squiders! Today we’re going to talk about tenses and passive voice, since they tend to be related, and because this is a good segue from our grammatical issues into our storytelling issues.

Tense in this case refers to the form of verbs used in the prose. In English we have three major tenses: present, past, and future. In most cases, you be writing in either present or past tense.

Present tense: I type this while I wonder where I put my tea.
Past tense: I typed this while I wondered where I put my tea.

NOTE: Just because you have a main tense for your writing doesn’t mean you won’t occasionally use other tenses WHEN APPROPRIATE such as in dialogue or in complex sentence structures.

Voice in this case refers to the voice of the verb. In English, verbs can be active or passive.

Active voice: I type this.
Passive voice: This is being typed by me.

The difference between active and passive voice is in the subject. Is the subject doing something (active) or having something done to them (passive)?

Problems with Tense

By far the biggest mistake made with tense is tense consistency, i.e. staying in the tense you’ve chosen for your writing. Have you ever started writing something in past tense only to find that somewhere along the line you accidentally switched into present? This can happen for a number of reasons: you were writing in a non-preferred tense and your brain switched over to your normal one automatically, you started a new day of writing without remembering where you were or what you were doing, you switched tenses for a particular reason–such as a flashback–and forgot to switch back, etc.

The good news is this is pretty easy to catch when you read back through your work. Tense switches stand out. They’re a bit harder to fix, however, because you need to go back through and correct verb forms throughout, and also make sure the sentence still makes sense grammatically.

If you find you’re often switching tenses without noticing, it may help to put a note somewhere obvious–such as a sticky note on your monitor or even a note in the header of your document–about what verb tense you’re using. (It can be as simple as “Past tense.”) This can also be helpful for remembering point of view, which we’ll discuss next week.

Problems with Passive Voice

Passive voice is okay in small doses–and, indeed, in some cases, it’s preferable to use passive voice. When you want to emphasize something, if you don’t know who is doing a specific action, when the person doing the action doesn’t matter, if you’re stating a general truth, etc.

In general, however, using passive voice creates clunky, unclear sentences that can drag down your pacing and the flow of your writing.

Examples:

This post is being written by me. It is being written on a computer. It should be stopped soon so I can run an errand.

The sword was swung by the hero toward the villain. Dodging, the villain’s spell was released.

Passive voice can often by identified by some form of “is”: is, are, was, were, has been, etc. And if you take a closer look at the sentence, the “active” party (whatever or whoever is doing something) has been pushed into the object portion of the sentence while the object has become the subject.

(Back in the day, Word used to have a feature that would tell you what percentage of your sentences were passive. We’re talking ages ago. I was a teenager and didn’t quite know what a passive sentence was. They also had an Autosummarize feature which has also gone by the wayside, alas.)

Using a passive sentence here and there is fine. But routinely using them doesn’t work in most cases (excepting academic papers in some fields). Unfortunately, if you find that you’re using a lot of passive voice, you’re probably going to have to train yourself out of it, or else face a lot of rewriting in your revision process.

Luckily, changing from passive to active voice is pretty easy, in most cases:

Passive: This post is being written by me. It is being written on a computer. It should be stopped soon so I can run an errand.
Active: I am writing this post. I am writing it on a computer. (Or even better: “I am writing this post on a computer.”) I’ll have to stop soon so I can run an errand.

Clear as mud, squiders? Questions about tense or passive voice, or other issues you’ve noticed with these subjects?

Common Writing Problems: Dependent Clauses

Good morning, Squiders! I think this will be the last of the bad grammar sections we do before we move onto different storytelling elements.

To start off with, let’s review what a dependent clause is. A clause, according to Google’s dictionary, is “a unit of grammatical organization next below the sentence in rank and in traditional grammar said to consist of a subject and predicate.” Clauses come in independent and dependent types. An independent clause expresses a complete thought. A dependent clause does not.

Examples of dependent clauses:

  • during the summer
  • after class
  • in case of emergency
  • when I said that
  • because she said so
  • when I was young

As you can see, these are not complete thoughts and require more information to make sense.

NOTE: Dependent clauses can further be broken down into adverbial, adjectival, and nominal types, but they all function more or less the same way, so we won’t be going into that level of detail here.

Dependent clauses can go at the beginning of a sentence:

When I said that, I didn’t mean it.

The middle:

My brother, who is younger than me, studies finance.

Or the end:

I didn’t mean it when I said that.

Dependent clauses can be delineated with commas, but whether or not they should be involves the meaning of the sentence. Let’s look at an example.

I ran away after the dog chased me.

I ran away, after the dog chased me.

Do you see how the meaning is slightly different? Adding a comma loses the sense of immediacy, making it seem like the dog chasing wasn’t the cause of you running away. Whether or not commas are included depends on whether the clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

But the biggest issue I’ve seen with dependent clauses as an editor is a problem with subject/verb/object agreement between the dependent and independent clauses of a sentence.

Look at this sentence:

Dancing away, my eyes lit up.

Let’s parse this out. Dancing away is the dependent clause. It can’t stand on its own. The independent clause is my eyes lit up. The subject of the sentence/independent clause is “my eyes.”

Which means the subject of the dependent clause is also “my eyes.” My eyes are dancing away?

Here’s another one:

Hanging in the lobby, I noticed the new pictures.

The subject of the independent clause is I. I noticed the new pictures. When you apply that to the dependent clause, I am hanging in the lobby, not the pictures.

This is a tricky thing to notice. We’re taught as writers to make sure we’re varying our sentence beginnings, lengths, etc. to make sure our writing doesn’t sound or feel repetitive. Adding a dependent clause to the beginning of a sentence–and this issue is almost always only found on beginning sentence clauses–is an easy way to do this.

It’s easier to see with shorter clauses like these, but occasionally you’ll have a longer dependent clause at the beginning, practically sentence length, that is so far separated from the main body of the sentence that it’s easy to miss that the subject of the clause is different than the subject of the main part of the sentence.

They’re hard to catch as well. A lot of times they’ll sound okay when read out loud, or they’ll sound slightly wrong but it won’t be immediately obvious what the issue is. If something seems wrong, look at your clauses and check what subjects they’re pointing to.

Well, squiders, thoughts on dependent clauses? Subject agreement? Ways to teach yourself not to do this?

Dress rehearsal tonight, then practice for the other concert. Wish me luck!

Common Writing Mistakes: Pronoun Confusion

Full confession, Squiders–this is something I had problems with for a LONG time. (Doing this today because I make no guarantees about Thursday.)

What is pronoun confusion? Well, take a look at this example:

Doug and Larry decide to go to the coffee shop from some of their seasonal coffees. He decides to get a peppermint mocha while he decides to get a pumpkin spice latte, because miraculously this shop offers both at the same time. Unfortunately, his coffee is burned and the whole thing tastes bitter.

Who’s doing what?

Who knows?

Pronoun confusion is where you have a pronoun that either cannot be directly tied to the proper noun or is tied to the incorrect noun.

As a quick refresher, a pronoun is a word that replaces a noun, such as he, she, they, or it.

The above example shows a situation where the pronoun “he” cannot be tied to either Doug or Larry, so the reader has no idea who is doing what.

Here’s an example of a pronoun tied to the incorrect noun.

Laura and Susie are on a tour of wine country. They have decided to ride bicycles between the wineries just in case. At their first winery, Laura decides to start with a nice, big Cabernet Franc. She decides to have a Riesling.

Who is “she” in that last sentence? If you think about it, you’ll probably decide it’s Susie, since we already know what Laura is having. But you don’t want to have your reader have to stop and think to figure out what’s going on.

Our brains automatically assume that the last appropriately-named noun that fits is the one that goes with the pronoun. So in this case, a reader’s first thought is going to be that we’re still talking about Laura.

These are fairly simplistic examples. The real issue comes when you have two characters (usually of the same gender) doing a complex action together. Fight scenes can be the worst offenders of this, with “he drew his sword to fend off his blow” and other such sentences, but pronoun confusion can sneak in anywhere.

So, how to you guard against pronoun confusion? The first step is just to be aware that it exists. Keeping “Is it clear who is doing what” in your head as you write can help a huge amount. It can also help to re-read complex sentences after you write them to make sure all your pronouns are pointing the right way.

Take special care with “it.” It’s especially easy to stick in without properly referencing an appropriate noun. Here’s an example.

Georgie has three pets: a turtle, a cat, and a dog. It is especially friendly.

Which pet do we mean? Who knows?

To fix a sentence that has an improperly used pronoun, you have two options:

  1. Add the noun in in place of the pronoun. (“Laura sighed and put her arm around Susie’s shoulders,” as opposed to “Laura sighed and put her arm around her shoulders.”)
  2. Rewrite the sentence so the pronoun is either not needed or obvious. (“Bob told Jerry that he didn’t like the way he looked at his wife” versus “Bob said, ‘Jerry, you don’t like the way I look at your wife.'”)

How about it, Squiders? Is this something you’ve had issues with? Any other advice for avoiding it?

Common Writing Mistakes: Speech Tags

Happy Friday, squiders! Today we’re going to continue on with our series on common writing mistakes. We’re still in our first section, which is basic grammar/bad writing issues.

Today, we’re going to discuss speech tags. Just to be absolutely clear, speech tags in and of themselves are not a bad thing. You need them in many cases so it’s clear to your reader who’s talking. The problem is that people tend to feel they need to be “creative” with their speech tags, which can lead to issues.

A speech tag is a word to indicate someone is talking, such as “said,” “asked,” or “replied.”

Issue #1: Improbability

The first rule of speech tags is that they have to be something you can do with your mouth. In most cases, you do not speak with your hands, your head, your body, etc. Some of this is a punctuation problem. For example, you do not need a speech tag if the speaking character immediately does another action, but the two sentences cannot be connected.

WRONG: “It’s this way,” he gestured to the right.
RIGHT: “It’s this way.” He gestured to the right.

The second rule of speech tags that it has to be a sound you can make while talking. People often use words like “laughed” or “snorted” as a speech tag. However, people cannot easily laugh and talk in the same breath. People laugh, then talk, or they talk, then laugh. They can try to talk while laughing, but that’s something else altogether.

Issue #2: Distracting Modifiers

This is somewhat related to the filler/crutch words we discussed last week. This is something a lot of beginning authors do before they’ve figured out how to better express what their characters are trying to say, either through a stronger speech tag, the dialogue itself, or by replacing the speech tag with an action. Often, these take the form of an adverb.

Here’s an example: “That’s terrible,” she said sadly.

It’s not the worst sentence known to man, but there are stronger ways to show that the character is sad. Her shoulders could droop. She might look like she’s going to cry. Her voice could be shaky or waver.

Another example: “I hate you!” he said loudly.

Here you could use a better speech tag, such as “yell” or “scream.” You could also have the character do something, such as stomp away or ball his hands into fists.

Issue #3: Too Much Variety

You occasionally come across writing advice that says something along the lines of “Don’t use boring ol’ ‘said’! Here’s 500 other words you can use instead!”

Noooooo. No. Don’t do this. This sort of advice seems to inspire people to use the strangest and “most creative” speech tags they can think of, and to make sure they never repeat one. That’s not the point of the advice. It actually ties into issue #2, where you’re using too many adverbs as modifiers. Sometimes it is better to have someone beg or imply or protest. It’s truer to what you’re trying to convey.

But it is not an excuse to have someone bellow and your next character gloat and the one after that respond and the one after that whisper. The point is not to use a word that may not properly describe what you want just because it’s creative and special. That’s distracting to your reader and obnoxious. The point is to make sure you’re being precise.

And in most cases, you should use said. Most people just say things in most situations. And the nice thing about said is that it disappears into the narrative, so all readers take from “Barney said” is that Barney is the one currently talking.

This advice is also trying to avoid the “Bob said, Julie said, Linda said” issue, which we’ll address in issue #4.

Issue #4: Talking Heads

Have you ever seen a conversation like this?

“Look, I’m not okay with this,” Linda said.
“Do you think I care?” said Bob.
“Well, you should,” Linda said.
“I don’t care either,” said Julie.
“You stay out of this,” Linda said.

Man, all those saids are a mess, aren’t they? Let’s see if this is any better.

“Look, I’m not okay with this,” Linda yelled.
“Do you think I care?” snorted Bob.
“Well, you should,” Linda sniffled.
“I don’t care either,” inserted Julie.
“You stay out of this,” Linda snarled.

It’s not. Unfortunately, that’s what too many people do with the advice from Issue #3, when the problem is actually that what you’ve got a classic example of talking heads.

Talking heads is when your characters are just standing around, apparently doing nothing but talking. It’s boring, and it’s unrealistic. People don’t stand around and do nothing while talking. They fidget. They take sips of their drinks. They move around.

“Look, I’m not okay with this.” Linda stood, her chair tipping.
“Do you think I care?” Bob didn’t bother to look up from the letter he was writing.
“Well, you should.” Linda stalked over to the window, folding her arms across her chest.
“I don’t care either,” said Julie, sitting up straighter.
“You stay out of this.” Linda looked away from the rain just long enough to glare at the younger woman.

That’s not an amazing example, but it’s getting better. It’s fine to have a couple lines of dialogue where the characters don’t do anything else, but beyond that it gets boring. It can also help to help internal thoughts or feelings mixed in, depending on what your point of view is.

Well, squiders, did I leave anything out? Other issues with speech tags that you’ve noticed?

Common Writing Mistakes: Filler/Crutch Words

Let’s jump into our common writing mistakes series, squiders! We’re tackling grammatical and just plain bad writing mistakes first before we get into more complicated topics. And today, we’re going to look at filler and crutch words.

So we’re all on the same page, a filler word is a word that’s added into a sentence that isn’t actually adding anything to its meaning. People do this while talking as well as while writing, but these words are insidious because in most cases people don’t realize they’re doing it. A crutch word is very similar to a filler, in that it’s a word you fall back on because it’s familiar and easy.

Here are some common filler/crutch words:

  • very
  • honestly
  • actually
  • just
  • like
  • anyway

You may have a filler or crutch word you use more than others. Mine is “honestly.”

NOTE: A crutch word can be a word that is being useful, such as a verb like “smiled,” but it becomes a crutch word because it’s being overused.

Be aware that phrases can also be crutches. If you find you’re reusing the same phrase a bunch (“each and every,” “it might be hours, days, weeks,” etc.) you might be using it as a crutch as well.

There’s a couple of ways to check and see what your filler and crutch words are, such as picking a few pages of your manuscript and reading through them, circling suspicious words. Or, if you don’t trust yourself to catch them, you can ask a friend to read through, or use a feature such as Word’s AutoSummarize tool. (NOTE: Word’s AutoSummary tool has been removed from newer versions of Word.)

By knowing what your filler and crutch words tend to be, you can keep an eye out for them while writing or, if you find that’s not helping your flow, look for them specifically when revising and editing.

While fillers and crutches are related, fixing them works slightly different.

Remember that a filler word is a word that is not adding any meaning to a sentence. These are easier to catch in a revision phase than a writing one. When you’re revising and you come across a filler-type word (like just, very, really, etc.), look and see if the word is pulling any weight. In some cases, such as dialogue, these words can occasionally be left alone, because people do use fillers when they’re talking. Also look at adjectives and adverbs, which can be fillers as well. Is there a stronger word that can be used? (“hurried” instead of “walked quickly,” for example)

A crutch word is a word that you overuse. If you know what yours are going into writing, sometimes you can cure yourself of the habit just by being aware of it. You might create a new crutch word or words, however, so it’s good to check during revision. Whereas filler words can usually just be cut, crutch words are often providing some worth to the sentence, so you may need to do some rewriting.

WARNING: Don’t just go through with a thesaurus when switching out crutch words! While words may have a similar meaning, or, in some cases, you might find a better word than your original one, often times the words in the thesaurus won’t match your concept exactly. Rewriting to keep your concept clear is a better idea than just switching out a word when possible. A look is different than a gaze, etc.

What are your go-to filler and crutch words, squiders? Any more thoughts on how to catch what yours are and fix them?

Common Writing Mistakes Intro

Okay, squiders! We’re going to dive into the common writing mistakes series now on and off for the next month or so. I’m thinking the book will be divided into a couple of different sections: 1) a basic intro, 2) a discussion of common writing mistakes and how to spot them/fix them, and 3) general fixes that can be applied to a variety of writing wrongs and just to help improve it overall. I’m thinking we’ll do 1 and 2 here on the blog and leave 3 for the book.

I’ve got a variety of writing mistakes identified which basically fall into the following categories:

  1. Voice/point of view issues
  2. Pacing and structure issues
  3. Plot issues
  4. Grammar issues (just plain bad writing)

REMINDER: If you want me to touch on something, let me know!

So what makes something a “common” writing mistake? A lot of it comes from being a less experienced writer. Writing a book can be a hard thing to do, and there are a ton of things to remember, from what color that character’s eyes were on page 5 to what you named your fictional quaint seaside town, let alone where your major plot points need to be.

Some of it comes from being unfamiliar with your genre of choice. If you’re writing a mystery but aren’t used to the conventions of the genre, it can be easy to miss things.

But one way or another, a “common” writing mistake is one that probably most, if not all, writers will make at one point as they learn their craft. I’ve made most of these. But the good news is that you can learn what these mistakes look like, and you can learn how to stop making them, or at least how to fix them after you do.

We’ll dig in next Thursday, starting with grammar issues, since those are more universal across all forms of writing, and some of the other ones are more applicable to fiction specifically.