Back to the Basics

Many months ago I bought books. Lots of books. So many books that I’ve forgotten which ones I’ve read. That’s just my poor memory kicking in.

During my book buying binge, (say that five times fast), I picked up a few grammar ones as well, including this one by Pamela Rice Hahn. The title does confuse me; I think it’s part of a series, but I bought it because you shouldn’t “judge a book by its cover,” right?

Three chapters in and so much is already highlighted. So below are ten tips a writer at any stage in their journey would find helpful.

“Providing yourself with a map – whether it be a rigid formal outline or an informal listing of known purposes for the communication – actually frees your mind to get to work on deciding how best to complete the task.”

This directly correlates with that “pantser” vs “plotter” trend going around Twitter. “Pantsers” write and weave their stories as they write. “Plotters” prefer to adhere to a guide like an outline, chart, or whatever method works for them. The book doesn’t use this terminology, but it does encourage sticking with what works for you. Me? I’m definitely a “plotter.”

“Style is something that is peculiar to each individual writer. […] As you develop your writing style, it will turn into your personal ‘voice.'”

During the beta reading process for my MS, one of the first compliments I received was, “Girl, you’ve got VOICE.” Um, what? Even when someone attempted explaining it to me, it never made sense until I read the section on it. I had a complete light bulb moment:

When I first started writing I tried too hard to emulate writers of the era my novel is set in, and I tried emulating my favorite authors. No. Don’t do that! Readers will recognize the attempt and they’ll want to read your book for the story YOU want to tell them, not what’s already been written.

“Stick to traditional punctuation styles and grammar usage.”

What may have worked in novels a decade ago may not work now. Or in the 50’s, 20’s, etc. This is a tricky one for me because my novel series spans a thirty year time frame. Even though I’m not aiming for true historical accuracy (inspired by real events and people with adventure mixed in), I was trying too hard to use every bit of research I dug up to “sound smart” and write how they would. Nobody speaks like that anymore. We can be enchanted by it, and the notion, but who really talks like Jane Eyre?

Nobody but Jane Eyre.

“Writing isn’t about making things sound pretty.”

*insert that Star Wars clip of Admiral Akbar saying, “It’s a trap!”* Oh this is such a tough one for me! Early on I found myself trying to avoid modern phrases by over explaining or spending hours on thesaurus.com. No.

I need to build my vocabulary up the normal way, by actually writing the words and then reworking sentences later on during the editing phase. I’m a sucker for description. Several of my early childhood book favorites include lots of description.

This leads to the next point:

“The consensus for most fiction is that you ‘start with the action.'”

This is quite hard for me as well. I want to spend time IN the scene itself. I want to see, taste, feel, experience as much as possible within a location before the action starts. I know they say that you’re telling yourself the story with the first draft. But I want to take readers on the whole journey. Maybe in some future edition? I don’t know. It’s VERY hard for me to start with action, which is probably why I didn’t start my writing journey with science fiction!

“An effective opening is one that engages the reader from the git-go.”

Opening lines. They define a writer just as much as the rest of the story does, don’t they? I used to harp on this and I still do to a certain degree. “This will be the first line anyone ever reads!” “What if they hate it? Or find it too cliche?”

As with anything else I’ve written, the perfect words don’t come straight away. In fact, my novella, For One Night at the Winter Garden, is in a current state of disarray. Also known as a rewrite. It’s even more intimidating now than when it first began.

Is it “get-go” or “git-go?” I suppose it depends on where you’re from.

This is just me, nitpicking word choices!

“Remember to stop where the story ends. […] As long as the major points of the story are wrapped up, you can leave some things unsaid.”

Think back to all the endings The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King had. One would fade to black and a millisecond later we’re wrapping up someone else’s story. I remember many high school classmates express their annoyance with it. I have, ahem, a few cousins who enjoy analyzing and critiquing films. While I appreciated the time the LOTR took to try and satisfy everyone with this method, I can see how some Tolkien fans felt it was just too much.

Ending stories has always been a problem of mine, and one I can’t seem to grasp. Yet. One day, this series of mine will be completed! One day…

“Using correct grammar not only conveys a precise meaning, it also gives readers confidence that you know what you’re talking about.”

English Prep was the worst class for me in high school. I hated how EVERYthing in the English language had a secondary name attached to it – metaphor, homonym, onomatopoeia – and didn’t excel when it came to those multiple choice questions on tests. I just wanted to write.

Some number of years later I’m wishing I’d paid better attention to it. My mom’s the dork who absolutely LOVED diagramming sentences. (Do they even teach that technique anymore?) And I “let” her just take over on that. Yes, I was THAT student. Sometimes I wish I could repeat high school for the sole purpose of diving back into English grammar.

If I don’t have confidence in my own skill set, how can my potential readers have confidence in my authorship qualifications?

“Overuse of adverbs can detract from your message, causing the reader to get hung up on words instead of the point you’re trying to make.”

I feel that this doesn’t apply only to adverbs. You know that technique where the author uses three words in a row, each starting with a consecutive letter in the alphabet, to drive a point? The “a_________, b_________, c__________” kind of thing?

Overusing technique to drive points home can be a trap all on its own. I need to learn to use these sparingly, if at all. Maybe in a first draft, but work them out in later versions. Unless they actually work, of course!

No matter where you are in your writing journey, I hope you found these tips helpful. Granted, they weren’t all grammar-based, but sometimes we just need little reminders. They most certainly were for me! Thanks for stopping by today’s blog post and I hope you have a fantastic day, wherever you are!

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