There are thousands of books, articles, Internet sites and opinions on what process is required to develop commercial grade prose. The welter of these materials can drown an aspiring author in a tsunami of information.
I have spent years learning the terms, tools and self-editing skills needed to construct acceptable fiction. The advanced editing of a text is far beyond the scope of this article, and to be frank, I don't want to work that hard writing about something so well documented.
I have more pressing things to work on--how to say tentacle seven different ways in a short story, for instance.
The new writer faces incredible hurdles in order to achieve publication. Editors reject work with little or no explanation. The primary reason they do this is their workday never ends. Far into the late hours, the editor of a publishing house is still working, plowing through a pile of manuscripts on the nightstand. Their lack of supportive feedback has nothing to do with the quality of their philanthropic leanings, and everything to do with time.
They just don't have it.
This naked fact means that as a writer, you have to do your job well enough to make it to that nightstand. Lack of presentation, polish and originality will land your sweat and tears in the round file--a polite euphemism for the trashcan.
I have met so many writers in workshops, critique circles, website communities and in person that are infected with a strange and juvenile attitude distortion. There are repellent sub-varieties of this attitude, but the common traits of it are unmistakable. Their frame of mind goes something like this:
'I am a creative genius. My lumpy prose, tedious subject matter, myopic descriptions, gross adverbs, withered cliche©s and convoluted grammar should be published, because I wrote it. The rules of good writing do not apply to me.'
Earth to Major Limp Pen, reality check. If a stranger came round with a basket of burned pastries, full of weird spices, chunks of raw batter, and gritty texture, would you buy one?
I should hope not--if you do better head for a convent, or maybe a good therapist.
I doubt you'll feel It's€™s your job in life to teach them how to bake either. Not only would you pass on sampling any more of their offerings, you would probably look for the fastest way to get rid of them.
In the writing world, professional presentation and original products are king. Unless you want to spend the rest of your life blackmailing ego strokes from your poor family and unfortunate friends, without the validation of publication and and a paycheck, you better learn the basics.
Let's look at a few critical terms you'll need to understand in order to begin writing anything acceptable for human consumption.
Outline: An outline is a writing tool that some writers use to keep themselves on track. It involves creating a skeletal structure for your story or article. It can help you stay on course. There are multitudes of outline templates on the Internet, for every kind of writing project. They vary in style depending on what your writing about.
First Draft: This refers to your first attempt to write something. This is when you allow your words to pour onto the page. This is my favorite time, primarily because I don't have to clean up the mess yet. The only drawback is the less you know about the basic rules for creating good prose, the bigger mess you will make. The hours spent poring over the text later is the most compelling argument for self-education.
Don't bother correcting anything until your first draft is done. Just let yourself go.
Revision: Revision literally means to "see again." It is a process meant to address fundamental structural and content problems in your work. In order to gain a useful critical perspective of your own work, put the piece away for a time. Enough time needs to pass that you can sit back and read it with a detached mind.
I don't know about you, but I suffer internal and psychological pressure when I do this. When I first write something, my heart clamors to show it to someone. It's like a brand new puppy. I am dying to show it off, even if it pees on someones rug. Ignore this if it happens to you, or any other feelings for that matter. There is no room for emotional dysfunction in the pursuit of good writing. Whatever you experience, feel it and then move on.
It all boils down to a simple choice. Do you want to be paid, or would you rather showboat for attention and instant gratification?
Second Draft: This is what you produce after the tedious process of revision. The errors you must address in this second copy are numerous and time consuming. Ineffectual plot, rickety structure, lack of clarity, inconsistent tone and texture, alliterations, adverbs, and cliche©s--all these issues can infest the bedrock of your prose, threatening the foundations.
Without this vital process, your writing will reek like a zombie in a suntan booth.
Hook: A hook usually begins in the first paragraph. It refers to the method you use to grab your readers attention in a way that makes them forget about everything outside of what they are reading. A good hook can land you new readers and maybe even a fan. A great hook can earn you immortality and a place in common language. This is a critical opening maneuver that can mean the difference between success and failure.
If no one keeps reading, your story is worthless.
I believe the foundation of a good hook is a something that startles a reader. A revealing slice of the mind of an unknown character, a startling setting or whirlwind event, the revelation of an ability to do something extraordinary--anything that will jar the brain of your reader. If your opening lines trigger surprise, emotion or intrigue, you have them (for now).
Here are two different opening paragraphs for a story. Which one makes you want to read on?
1. Betty bent over the trashcan, groaning at the pain in her back. Her little snookums was due home from school any minute, and she couldn't seem to get the bag out of the can. She sobbed wildly and tanked at the plastic again, but it tore, spilling coffee grounds all over the linoleum.
It just wasn't fair. If her husband could hold a job, she wouldn't have to slave like a maid all day.
2. Considering all the obnoxious byproducts of humankind, you'd think one of the worst of them would have been discarded for the garbage it is, centuries ago. I glared at the tin in my hand, stamped on both sides with the legend 'Spam'.
I sighed and tossed the ration to Tetze, who caught it with his deft mouth tentacles. Sometimes I envy his flexible digits, both the number of clusters he has on his head and limbs, and the speed with which he can employ them--his skin resembling upchucked sperm rat, not so much.
Cliche©: A cliche© is a term or expression used so often it fails to engage a reader in an effective manner. These pestilent groups of terms wreak destruction on your presentation. Even if a reader doesn't know what a cliche© is, they will recognize its presence. The infuriating thing is they sneak in, like sewer rats, regardless of how much you know about them. This is because we use them so much in everyday conversation. They are hard to spot--we are so accustomed to hearing them.
Cliche©s weaken the impact of what you're trying to relate, rob your pockets by wasting time, and bore your audience. They toss up road signs that scream of laziness, ignorance, or just plain incompetence.
That's not an impression I want to make.
Here are a few of the most common.
1. black as coal
2. tired as a dog
3. blast from the past
4. born yesterday
5. all thumbs
6. better than ever
7. bottom line
The best cure for a cliche© is to replace it with a decent metaphor. The art of the metaphor is an advanced form of writing magic. I refer you yet again to other sources to explore its many facets.
Adverbs: Recognizing an adverb is the simplest task of all. Any word used to modify a verb is an adverb. The presence of these graceless words is a literal mud-on-your-face billboard for writing mediocrity.
My editor once told me that if she sees a single adverb in the first page of a manuscript, she flips it open to a random page in the middle of the work. If she finds another adverb, she doesn't bother reading any further. Adverbs do have a purpose, but the situations in which they are effective is rare, and if you want to know more about when to use them, better hit the books.
This writing pest bristles with destructive potential. I think of them as cockroaches. If you do not murder them, they will murder you--every important goal you have concerning your creative efforts, every minute you spend struggling over your writing, will be for nothing. If you spot an adverb in your work, kill it!
Here are a few examples of common adverbs.
The fastest way to find them is to search your document for anything ending in 'ly'. Not all adverbs end with these two letters, but the worst sort do.
There are reams of material on the Internet and in books regarding adverbs
Metaphor: A device that likens one thing to another. There are many breeds of metaphor, identified by how they are employed in the text. The skilled use of metaphors can bring a story to life, paint fantastic mental pictures in the mind of your readers, and offer a chance for interactive participation in your story. It engages the imagination of your audience, stimulating thought and emotions.
Here are two examples of the metaphor for your consideration.
1. The mystery chained her mind
2. Trepidation drilled her heart.
A creative or clever metaphor can induce a powerful response. Skilled use of this device can lift your writing into the realms of literary genius, and create an experience so compelling in your reader that the story will come to life for them in a spectacular immersive way. This is another critical tool of good writing--it is essential to your success.
Active and Passive Voice: A sentence demonstrates active voice if the subject of a sentence performs an action specified by a verb. For example, this sentence demonstrates active voice: The tiger mauled the man.
In a sentence using passive voice, the subject receives the action expressed by the verb. For example: the tiger mauled the man.
There are very few instances that passive voice is effective. The use of active voice provides clarity and concise linear events that don't confuse your audience, or cause them to stop reading to try and figure out what they just read. It is important to grasp the difference if you are not familiar with the terms. Passive voice is another flaw that will result in an editor scrapping your work.
Colloquialism: This term refers to the use of slang or everyday language in your writing. A skilled author can use it to set a tone, establish the texture of a different culture, and many other subtle uses. There is a danger in using colloquial terms--they are usually region specific. If you employ them in your writing, you run the risk that a reader who does not live in your area will not be able to understand what the slang means.
This will not help your writing age well, and it will shrink your potential audience. Everyday language changes over time. Anyone who remembers reading Shakespeare for the first time will understand this concept at once.
Proofreading: Proofreading is the last stage of the editing process. This is the time to correct punctuation, spelling, grammar, typing errors and other small problems. An extra pair of eyes can reduce the tedium of this polishing period. There are many methods to ease the chore of this final effort.
Reading the text aloud is one of the best.
These terms are only a tiny portion of the things you will need to understand in order to become an author worth reading. Still, to risk an old cliche© I will close with the maxim "You must crawl before you can walk."
Writing is a craft and a discipline. There are no shortcuts, only hard work, practice, and continuous enrichment of your knowledge and understanding of the process will allow you to succeed as an author.
Good luck on your journey of creativity and communication. May your words all come alive and live in the minds and hearts of your audience forever.