August 26, 2008 / 2 Comments

Akeelah and the Bee

In these heady days of internet communities, text messages, and failing school systems, spelling and grammar have fallen on hard times. There’s a fair share of people who even think we should just do away with “traditional” spellings. After all, if you can understand what the writer was trying to say, that’s what matters, right?

Alas (or perhaps, thank God) this view is not taken by any serious publishers, agents, or readers.

Some of you are going to chuckle, but it’s funny how many editors, professional readers, agents, and contest directors bring up this same point again and again and again when asked about tips for up-and-coming writers. Grammar. Spelling. These two things are a must. There is no easier way to distract or derail a reader and make them put your manuscript in the large pile on the left instead of the small one on the right.

For now, let’s look at the easiest one to deal with—spelling. Take a look at the sentence below and try to spot the misspelled word.

Two cell eh vampire yew most half eh would steak.

Not too hard, eh? Of course, you understood what I was trying to say, so some people would claim that’s acceptable, right?

(If you are one of those people, stop reading now, turn in your pens and word processor, and go ask to pick up a few extra shifts at Jack in the Box with all the extra time you’ve got.

Go. Go now!)

For those of you still reading, that’s a pretty horrific sentence, yes? And not just because it talks about killing poor, misunderstood vampires. But let’s move on to stage two of our little exercise—how many of you know which words are spelled wrong in that line?

See, here’s the catch—There aren’t any misspelled words in that sentence up above, and a spell-checking program will tell you that too. Because from its point of view, there aren’t. Smell-chick doesn’t help yew if all then warts are spilled write but are ill jest the wrong wards. Every single word in that last sentence is spelled correctly, too, so Microsoft Word will skim right over it without a second glance.

If you want to be a writer, you need to be able to spell. You, not your computer. Your computer, if I may paraphrase someone far smarter than me, is a very sophisticated idiot. It doesn’t understand context. It doesn’t know colloquialisms. Split infinitives will give it panic attacks. You cannot depend on your computer for grammar and spelling checks. Cannot, period, done, end of story (see that? That makes microprocessors cry). If you can’t do it yourself, your career as a writer is going to be a verrrrrrrrrrrryyyyyy long, uphill battle.

Do you always use there, their, and they’re correctly? All three are spelled right, all three sound alike, but they are not at all interchangeable. What about its and it’s? Complement and compliment; wile and while; humans and human’s; peek, peak, and pique. If you don’t know what the differences are between all these words, stop reading this and start looking over all your stories right now…

Any one of these mistakes can kill your chances with an editor or an agent. Will your story, script, or novel get rejected just because you don’t know the difference between it’s and its? Well, it probably wouldn’t be just off that (for the record, with an apostrophe is the contraction of it is, without one is possessive). However, it could be the thing that knocks a “strongly consider” story down to “maybe consider,” and “maybe consider” down to “Thanks for querying, but at this time…” If nothing else, it guarantees your work is giving off the immediate, subliminal message amateur writer to anyone who reads it.

Read your own writing. Don’t just skim it or run it through a spellchecker. Sit down and go through it word by word, line by line. Know what words mean and how they’re spelled. Don’t think you know. Be 100%, absolutely, willing-to-sacrifice-your-right-hand sure you know.

In a similar vein, Stephen King once said “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” This little maxim cuts both ways, for the record. It’s also the wrong word if your readers need to go looking for what it means. Using extremely uncommon or antiquated words like titian instead of red, glabrous instead of bald, or atramentous instead of dark may show off your vocabulary, but the moment the reader has to stop and wonder about what a word means, they’ve been taken out of your story. And knocking people out of your story is one of the certain ways to make sure the reader puts your script in that ever-growing left-hand pile.

Consider a bad sci-fi story. I can tell you that Angnagrog took his zheraful out for a twenty wobosa drive along the neerwoks of Qin’nixxia, but that really doesn’t mean anything, does it? Sure, you could probably sit down, diagram the sentence, and get some very rough ideas of what one or two of these words mean. Maybe. How often do you want to do that, though? Can you imagine weeding through a whole paragraph like that? Or multiple pages?

Of course not. You’d much rather read that Angnagrog took his hovercar out for a twenty minute drive along the ocean cliffs. So would an editor. The fact that you’re not wasting time with silly or pretentious words tells the reader you’re more interested in getting to the story. As I mentioned before with characters, what every reader wants to see is forward motion. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short story, a script, or a novel, the last thing the reader wants is to get hung up on something that just does not matter.

A few great books every writer should have on their shelves—

The MLA Handbook. If you went to college, odds are you already have it. Update it every four or five years or so to get an idea what general standards are. They don’t change much, but they do change.

Webster’s Dictionary or the good old O.E.D. Have an actual, physical dictionary on your desk. Dependency on the internet is a form of being dependent on your computer, and we already discussed that. Plus, you’d be amazed how many interesting words you’ll come across once you get in the habit of reaching for that Harry Potter– sized reference book.

Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. It’s a fun step-by-step guide to basic grammar. A good read and great for all those “I could never really figure out…” problems or questions you may have.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. Punctuation at its finest. She’s approaching things as a Brit, so there are some intercontinental differences (notice my ethnocentric bias in assuming you’re all from North America), but she usually points those differences out. For the most part you can follow her lead, especially when it comes to apostrophes.

If you want to be a writer– in any format– it’s essential you have a grasp of the written word. You, not your word processing program. It sounds harsh, but if you don’t, you don’t have a chance of succeeding.

Now get back to your writing.

June 13, 2008 / 1 Comment

The Rules

One of the challenges with writing is that it’s something you can only learn by doing. You can take classes, read books, and study examples, but at the end of the day the only way to improve your writing is to write. I’m not saying all that other stuff is bad, but remember my single, simple rule—find what works for you.

As you study the act of writing more and more, you’ll begin to discover countless hints, tips, and tricks. Each one has its own faithful followers, and some of these folks will swear by three or four more of these ideas. After awhile, you’ll find a large number of people fall into one of two camps.

First, there are those who think of writing as a mechanical process. They’ve broken it down to a hard, cold science with no talent or experience needed. There are set moments and beats and page counts and pacing and all of that. All paragraphs are three sentences minimum, seven maximum. Scenes are never longer than two pages. Introduce your main character by page six, and your first plot point by page eleven. Your conflict by page nine. Your antagonist by page fifteen. Action begins on twenty with a major turning point on page fifty-three. These are the folks who will quote Syd Field to point out the flaws in your screenplay, or use the MLA Handbook to explain why your novel will never be published.

These folks, by and large, are wrong.

At the extreme other end of this are the folks who think none of this matters. They’re the ones who broke the rules, tossed the guidebook out the window, and still roared past the finish line. Kevin Smith. Diablo Cody. Cormac McCarthy. Robert Rodriguez. These writers started from scratch, winged it, and came out on top. And, of course, they’ve got legions of students and online fans who all say “Well, if they did it, of course I can…” Page counts don’t matter. Formatting doesn’t matter. Spelling and punctuation don’t matter. What matters– the only thing that matters– is the pure, raw creative genius and letting it shine through, because that’s what people will see on the page and that’s what always matters. If you constrict yourself in any way with rules or guidelines, you’re just hampering your muse and diluting your talent.

These people are also wrong.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend conferences twice now where I got to listen to a very well-spoken agent by the name of Esmond Harmsworth. He gave a wonderful little talk the first time I saw him on ten rules for writing a mystery novel, and he set down some basic commonalities that all such stories have as far as location, characters, and complexity. What was even more interesting, though, was when he started talking about breaking these rules.

You see, if you follow every single rule for writing a mystery novel, a screenplay, or even a blog post, you’re following a formula. As in, a formula story. It’s where anyone with the slightest bit of experience can predict X, Y, and Z when all they’ve seen so far is A, B, and C. If you’ve watched a movie or television show where you can immediately guess who the murderer is, who the girl’s going to end up with, or how Captain Scarlet’s going to stop the missile launch, it’s probably because the writers are following a formula.

Now, that being said, you’ll notice there’s a lot of formula stuff out there. Formula is not necessarily bad. It’s the foundation and the ID card of every genre, and it’s the common thread that lets all of us access material. Hundreds of writers make really good livings writing novels, television shows, and movies that follow a formula.

Am I saying all formula is good? No.

Every now and then something comes along that breaks all the rules, twists every expectation, and is still magnificent. The novel (if it can be called such) House of Leaves is a prime example. Trying to even define that book is a whole separate post. It’s got a cult following and has been a bestseller in several countries (and several languages) for the past decade.

Does that mean any writer can do whateve they want? Nope. Especially not an unpublished, unproduced writer.

As a writer, you need to know what rules you need to follow and which ones you can get away with breaking. Which means you actually need to know what the rules are and how you’re breaking them. Study your chosen format. Study your chosen genre. Be aware that if you’re going to break a rule, you need a reason, and it can’t just be “because I felt like it.”

The vast majority of the stories you read will follow most of the basic guidelines for their form. The memorable ones will break a rule or two. The truly spectacular ones will break three or four. And in very, very, very rare– exceptionally rare– cases some writers may get away with shattering the rules altogether. The real trick is knowing why and how.

And if you don’t know why and how, don’t assume you’re the exception to the rules.