editing

Speling Matturs

“What do you dew when everyone you know – friends, family, everyone – is trying to kill you? You RUN.”

The above is the tagline for my amazon.com bestseller, RUN.

Or rather, it isn’t.

The tagline actually reads:

“What do you do when everyone you know – friends, family, everyone – is trying to kill you? You RUN.”

It’s a small difference – only one word. But about fifty percent of the readers of this article would probably have a fully-formed opinion of RUN without ever looking at it if all they saw was that first tagline. To wit: the tagline has a misspelled word, so the book itself must be bad.

This is the effect of typos, poor word usage, or lazy grammar: it turns people off. And since your job as a writer is to captivate your readers, a “turn off” should be viewed as anathema.

I worked for a time as a script reader for several production companies, and nothing distanced me from a screenplay faster than typos. They might not have been a one hundred percent certain indicator of the quality of a script, but they provided an immediate – and extremely negative – impression. Put simply, I assumed that writers who did not care enough about their craft to learn how to spell or write a proper sentence probably had not taken the time to learn the proper use of the much more difficult and complicated arts of plot, of pacing, of dialogue and character.

And I was being paid to read. I would trudge through a wasteland of bad grammar and glaring punctuation problems only because I knew I would not be paid if I did not finish the script. The average reader of your work, however, has no such motivation. Indeed, the opposite is true: they are probably first seeing it in a bookstore or as a free sample on amazon.com, and so are looking for something they will likely enjoy. This translates implicitly into a person who is looking for things that will disqualify a book. After all, if the book costs the reader anywhere from ninety nine cents to fifteen dollars or more, that reader is not going to assume that typos are a rarity if he or she spots one. Rather, the reader will more likely assume that this writer doesn’t know how to write, will put down the writer’s book, and will move on without a second thought. They simply will not finish (or even buy) a poorly written – that is, sloppily checked for errors – book.

That’s fifty percent of your audience, gone.

Words matter to the average person. And to a writer, they are a major part of what you are. Respect them, or you will quickly find yourself to be a writer without an audience.

Ewe may think I’m kidding.

But I’m knot.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

Die, Poop Bird, DIE!

One of my least favorite things about today’s world is the prevalence of people who say, “It is what it is.”

Forget about the threat of global financial meltdown, skyrocketing teen pregnancy, and the pervasive appeal of the Kardashians – whenever I hear someone say, “It is what it is,” it makes me want to weep and run for the hills.

After punching the person who said it.

I mean, really, what the heck does that even mean? “It is what it is.” Huh? You ever walk up to someone and say out of the blue, “That water sure is wet,” or “I find almost all ice to be cold”? Those make about as much self-defining sense as “It is what it is.”

That being said, there is one area where sometimes you can legitimately say “It is what it is” and actually have it mean something. And that area is writing.

I’ve gotten many emails and personal queries about how to keep writing when the ideas aren’t flowing. As a novelist, I try to get out at least 5,000 words a day. 10,000 is not unusual. I write anywhere from three to eight books a year, along with numerous screenplays, blog entries, short stories, etc. etc. blah blah blah. And they don’t suck, either: my last book, The Haunted, spent almost two months on Amazon’s Horror Bestsellers list (and is still selling quite well), and (I was recently informed) is an official Whitney Awards nominee. So I must be doing something right to get that many people willing to shell out a couple bucks for my work. And when other authors and aspiring authors hear about how fast I work, they want to know my secret.

My secret is simple, and not very secret at all: sometimes you just gotta say, “It is what it is.” By that I mean: most people who suffer from “writer’s block” don’t really suffer from any kind of block. Rather, they suffer from what one of my old writing teachers called the “Poop Bird.” (He didn’t actually call it that, but the word he did use was a naughty one, so I’ll leave it up to you to figure out.)

The Poop Bird is an imaginary creature that sits on many writers’ shoulders and whispers, “That’s no good,” as they type. If it’s your typical PB, he (or she, the Poop Bird comes in many shapes, sizes, and genders) will even try to get a jump on his work by telling you, “That idea is no good,” before you even start typing. This is what most “writer’s block” really is: a self-editing function that insists on a perfect first draft.

This is bupkis. First drafts are supposed to be messy. They’re supposed to need work. That’s why God invented White Out and “delete” keys.

So what’s my secret? What’s the method I use to make sure I get out hundreds of pages when others are still working on an opening paragraph? I’ve killed the PB. I have learned to say, “This isn’t perfect. It’s a first draft. Mistakes are okay.”

In other words, I can look at a word or a sentence or a page and know it needs work and still be okay with it.

Sometimes it’s the time that you put in that matters as much as the quality. Sometimes being a “good writer” means being able to just get mediocre words on the page. Sometimes…

… sometimes, it is what it is.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

Chubby Writing

Let’s talk about our activity levels, shall we?

Obesity, as I’m constantly being reminded every time I turn on my radio, is one of the top problems facing America’s people today. It comes largely from a sedentary lifestyle, a passive engagement in activity.

Okay, then let’s talk about the darker side of that problem: fat writing.

Fat writing, like fat people, suffers from inactivity more than anything. Just as an obese person lives on a diet of junk food, fast food, and various things you can find fried at the county fair, so chubby writing exists on a steady and corroding diet of passive tense. Tossing back any form of “to be” adds ten pounds to your sentence, making it slow and clunky.

Check out these two paragraphs. The first one is from my book, The Haunted, which at the time of this writing is in its second straight month on amazon.com’s bestselling horror:

Then, just as he felt himself about to give in, about to lose himself in the irrational fear (and what other kind of fear was there but the irrational, for rationality fled in the face of terror, the ability to be a thinking human being ran before the onslaught of horror), his fingers felt the cool links of the chain. He grabbed it like a man about to fall off a high cliff would grab a tethering line.

Nice, huh? It moves forward, actively and resolutely. It’s a decent example of well-weighted writing. But add just a few junk-food “to be” words, and see what happens:

Then, just as he was about to feel like he was about to give in, about to be lost himself in the irrational fear (and what other kind of fear was there but the irrational, for to be rational was something that would flee if it was faced by terror, the ability to be a thinking human being would have run before terror which was like an onslaught of horror), his fingers were able to feel the cool links of the chain. He was going to hold it like a man who was about to fall off a cliff and was going to grab a line that would tether him.

Wow. Chubby writing. Worse, this writing is downright riddled with lard and excess weight.

Writing should involve the reader. It should activate the reader’s passions, and engage the audience’s senses. This cannot occur if the writer insists on turning verbs into adverbs or nouns by overusing various forms of the word “to be.” Passive writing is good for one thing: to avoid blame. Thus, when my mother burst in on me as a child and asked what had happened to the cookie jar, my answer was, “It was broken.” Not “I broke it.” No. “It was broken.” That way the facts were presented in the dullest manner possible, and there was no specific actor – and thus no one who could be grounded or have dessert rights taken from him.

But though good for avoiding blame for broken cookie jars and (in extreme cases if you are BP) for pumping millions of gallons of oil into otherwise clean water, overuse of passive voice absolutely wrecks prose. Particularly when you are writing a thriller or horror piece, you want your prose to be a driving force, to push the reader from page to page, to grab them and drag them mentally through the book without releasing them for so much as an instant. Your goal should be for your readers’ loved ones to find your readers’ dead bodies, dehydrated, malnourished, and with exploded bladders because they just couldn’t stop reading.

Passive tense doesn’t do that. Passive tense is more like a butler standing at your side as you read and asking in a polite and insistent voice if perhaps you might not be better suited doing something else. Something more active. More interesting. Like fixing the garbage disposal, perhaps. Or going to the bathroom.

You get the picture, right? If not, I’ll just sum it up for you here:

Passive voice = bad.

Active voice = good.

Thus endeth the lesson.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice