. . . If you have a computer and can check out Editing 101 at Chris the Story Reading Ape’s blog. Susan Uttendorfsky of Adirondack Editing provides a host of FREE lessons on everything from “Removing Filter Words” (a must-read) to when to use “which” or “that.” I’ve found Susan’s posts to be accurate, clear, and friendly. Check them out!
Category Archives: Learning to write
Thanks to Andrea Lundgren posting over at A Writer’s Path for addressing an issue of craft I see us all struggling with all the time! I like a variation on number 4: dropping in short fragments of backstory in the course of ongoing narration. For example, when a new character engages with the protagonist, he or she can fill in a line or two to bring readers up to speed on the past relationship: “The last time Mark met Jane, the experience had been traumatic for both. He’d been in the middle of X, she’d been involved in Y, etc.”
Similarly, when a character enters a setting, a few lines of backstory can set up the role of that setting in the character’s life: “The first time she visited New York, she had been young and naive. . . . ”
It doesn’t take an entire flashback to establish histories like these. Simple inclusions in description and dialogue can tell us much about characters’ pasts.
The big caveat, for me, is that our readers don’t need to know EVERYTHING we know about our characters. Just as with all descriptions and exposition, I have to work to find the information that is really relevant to the story, perhaps to what’s happening in a particular moment.
Thanks, Andrea, for touching on a part of craft we all wrestle with in our writing!
By Andrea Lundgren
Every story has exposition–details of the character and world that you, as the author, need to pass on to the reader. You’ve spent hours fleshing out the world of your story and learning about your characters, and now you have to find some way of getting this information (or at least the essential part) from your head to the readers’. (This is especially true in science fiction and fantasy, where you need to tell how the world of the story differs from our world.)
So what’s an author to do?
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This column is near and dear to my heart. I’ve posted on dangling modifiers before, and I see them all the time in my critique groups.
A couple of thoughts:
First, the aversion to “splitting infinitives” comes from an 18th-century spurt of wishfulness that English could be elevated to the status of Latin—in which infinitives are one word and can’t be “split.” Note that in Romance languages like French and Spanish, this still holds true; how can you “split” an infinitive like “hablar”? But English is not a Romance language, despite having picked up many words from French, Spanish, and Italian, in particular. So those “rules” never rightly applied.
Second, note that “to boldly go” is in iambic pentameter, Shakespeare’s meter, and a natural meter in English. That’s why “to go boldly” just doesn’t have the same ring.
Dangling modifiers, on the other hand, cause problems for me because there’s a brief mental hiccup when the modifier has to hunt for its appropriate noun or pronoun. Sure, I can figure out who or what is doing the action of the modifier, but do writers really want readers stopping, even for a second, to puzzle?
Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.
Courtesy of Adirondack Editing
Split Infinitives and Dangling Participles
Editors frequently correct both of these, but one is actually ok to use, while the other is not. Care to make a wager on which one is which before I get started?
What is a split infinitive, after all? It’s a sentence where a word, usually an adverb, interrupts a full verb (or full infinitive). A full infinitive is the verb with the word “to” in front of it—to run, to walk, to spit. The most famous split infinitive is “to boldly go.” Editors and teachers used to mark this as incorrect, but it’s all right to split an infinitive. Some examples are:
Lyn continued to quickly run toward the burning building.
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The “7 Rookie Mistakes” from Phoebe Quinn over at A Writer’s Path ring true. For example, I agree we tend to recycle clichéd characters from other things we’ve read or TV we’ve seen. It’s because we do this that literature in all its forms has such a profound effect on our values. We think “heroes” MUST behave like the hero in a popular book or that people who behave like the villain we just saw on Netflix are also villainous. It’s tough in writing to catch yourself scribbling in these “types.”
What do you think of Quinn’s fixes? I’m still a pantser, and I do pay the price—but I want to be surprised by my own writing, and outlines take that surprise away.
This post from Writer Unboxed plugs Donald Maass’s latest book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: Writing the Story beneath the Surface. But: a) you may want to know about this book, and b) the included interview is worth reading in itself. I’ve been sharing with some of my Internet Writing Worship cronies some thoughts about that “story beneath the surface” that strokes in depths beyond simply solving a problem, depths that help us think about what the real problems are. This concept is similar to what M.Dellert calls the “plight,” the question behind the plot that the character and the reader must struggle to define together—and often cannot rationally answer. The plight, the story beneath surface, are the forces that shape our human understanding, not just our ability to string cause-and-effect together. It’s been a while since I bought a book on craft, but I just may buy this one. I thought you might like this news.
Absolutely one of the best dicussions of story structure I’ve read. Resonates on so many levels for me! I just wrote to a writing group colleague that a story that’s working tells me what it’s about, and I think that sentiment jibes with this discussion. Let me know what you think!
“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
— C. J. Cherryh
The goal of the rewrite is simple, but not easy. You want your story to live. To accomplish this, it’s helpful to have a basic confidence in the arc of your heroine’s journey before getting more specific with character, dialogue, and the refinement of prose. You’re seeking to create a story that amuses and entertains, but also captures some complexity and truth about the human experience.
This is a daunting task because—be honest—there’s a bit of inflexibility in your relationship with your first draft. On the one hand, you fear that if it’s not told as precisely as you imagined it, it won’t work. On the other hand, it feels somewhat unsatisfying as written.
So the biggest challenge in the rewriting is being able to make a thousand little painful paper-cut changes while avoiding…
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Reading this piece from Nicholas C. Rossis, I couldn’t help giving a mental high-five. Starting sentences with gerunds (and various other odd bits of language) is absolutely okay! I would caution that starting sentences with -ing forms of verbs can all too easily lead to “dangling modifiers,” for example, “Reading this, it was a really good discussion of an issue we all face.” If you’re not sure why that sentence DOES contain a sentence-structure error, look up “dangling modifiers.” Returning, however, to the question of prescriptive versus descriptive language mavens, I ask only—well, mainly—that the parts of sentences hook up logically so that I can tell what modifies what and who’s doing what.
I have a feeling this is sliding into a rant. Check my series on “How Much Grammar Do You Need,” and here and here, for my largely descriptivist views.
When I published The Power of Six, my first collection of short stories, a reviewer said that the book had grammatical errors, albeit small ones. This shocked me, as the book had been professionally edited and proof-read. So, I reached out and asked her for an example. “You start a sentence with a gerund,” she said. “So?” I asked. “So, that’s wrong.”
I was baffled by this. Surely, that’s a matter of style, right?
This seemingly innocent question actually led me into a minefield. As The Economist points out, for half a century, language experts have fallen into two camps. Most lexicographers and academic linguists stand on one side, and traditionalist writers and editors on the other. The question that defines the to camps is deceivingly simple: should language experts describe the state of the language accurately? (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, in 1961, shocked the world by including common…
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