Number 1 — September 24, 2004
Today I begin what I am sure will be a long and happy association with Jay Johnson at Banyon Publishing. This is the first column in a weekly series on creative writing. I begin with some background.
Number 2 — October 1, 2004
A common saying in the writer's world is this puzzling instruction; show, don't tell. What exactly does it mean and how to do it? To avoid telling, use action-oriented verbs. Even in a scene as simple as a man strolling down a street, the job is not to tell the reader, but to depict actions.
The problem in this descriptive passage is the abrupt change in the author's technique. In the first sentence, what did the prosecutor do? Look at the verbs. This is action—parading and holding. In the second sentence, what did everybody else do? We don't know because the author stopped the action, substituting telling instead of showing; no character did anything. To deliver Images of disgust, anger and outrage, the author must continue the action by describing the characters' behavior, not the courtroom's. Questions the author could consider while developing the scene.
To avoid a similar mistake in your writing, provide details of characters' movements and facial expressions that create a mental picture of the scene you intend to portray. Let the reader see the actions. A stage actor does not turn to the audience and say, "Watch this, I'm going to be disgusted now." Of course not; and neither should an author.
Number 3 — October 8, 2004
An astute reader filed this question drawn from last week's article. "You wrote to avoid telling, describe action even in a scene as simple as a man strolling down a street. How do I do that? Clip-clop. Clip-clop?" [RJW. Thank you.]
Here is the resulting description.
Sight, smell and hearing satisfied my needs. I thought Royce might stop to buy and eat betel nuts, but I didn't know the taste let alone how to describe them.
Number 4 — October 15, 2004
As a sub-leader at a recent writing conference, I asked off-the-cuff questions about grammatical construction of sentences. Questions such as:
The lack of responses startled me. I concede a sampling of forty-six people among a population of three hundred million cannot have any statistical meaning. Nonetheless, the forty-six participants in the test all claimed to be writers, some published, some not, yet only two could answer the first question and none the other two. A review of grade school grammar seemed fitting, perhaps not only for my audience, but for my readers also.
A compound sentence is two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. [Definition 1.] Ah! What's an independent clause? It is a simple sentence that states one thought, combining a verb and a subject with a direct object, although both the subject and object may be implied. It cannot exist without a verb. An example of a one-word sentence; "Speak." Depending on the context, the implied subject could be "you" and the direct object could be "to me."
Remove the subordinating conjunction [while] and insert a coordinating conjunction [and] in the middle; the complex sentence becomes a compound sentence [two independent clauses]:
Break the compound sentence into two simple sentences:
These are the choices as you revise your work, but how is one to choose? Answer: Look at the action words. It is plain in the last example [two simple sentences], one group celebrates while the other blames independently of each other. No cause and effect relationship exists. The first sentence [complex] clearly establishes the cause and effect; while one group celebrates the victory attained through inflammatory rhetoric, the other blames it for the loss. The second example lessens the emphasis tending to diminish cause and effect thereby equating their value.
Number 5 — October 22, 2004
Continuing my discussion of grade school grammar, I turn now to clauses. You may remember the second question I posed last week: What is a relative clause?
Note that commas do not set off the name. But suppose I went to the event with my daughter. Then my report would be:
This is non-restrictive in that I have only one daughter and do not need a name identification about which daughter. By inserting her name, I am not restricting the information to a specific identity, I am adding the information her name is Sheila. This is non-restrictive and should be set off by commas.
The underlined clause identifies the boy who fired, making it restrictive and hence no commas. Change the context to boys wearing a red hat and a green one. Now, I have identified them.
This time the underlined clause is non-restrictive [set off by commas]; it adds information about the boy in the green hat, but does not add anything to his identity.
What different information do these two sentences deliver? In sentence 1, the comma makes the clause who stood beside the pulpit non-restrictive [set off with a comma] meaning there is only one deacon who happens to be standing beside the pulpit. In sentence 2, several deacons may be present, but the one beside the pulpit received the collection. [No comma.] The punctuation changing the meaning of the sentence is the presence or absence of a comma.
Sentence 3 is non-restrictive: the files should be saved and they are on the desk. Sentence 4 is restrictive; save only the files on the desk (and presumably get rid of the others). In restrictive clauses, the pronoun that is often unnecessary and may be omitted without sacrificing meaning. The files on the desk should be saved.
Number 6 — October 29, 2004
We come to the last of my questions raised in Article 4. What is an appositive? It is a non-restrictive or restrictive noun or phrase that identifies the preceding word or idea. The terms non-restrictive or restrictive have the same meaning as with clauses and use the same punctuation; set off with commas when non-restrictive and without commas when restrictive.
Before I leave clauses, I would be amiss not to mention phrases. A clause has both a subject and a verb; a phrase does not. Common types of phrases are prepositional, infinitive and participial.
A prepositional phrase consists of a preposition and its object. Examples:
An infinitive phrase consists of an infinitive followed by its object or modifier. Examples:
A participial phrase consists of a present or past participle with its object or modifiers. These are the ones that often give writers problems with the so-called dangling participle. Compare these two sentences. The error is easy to spot.
Here's one from The Random House Guide To Good Writing that is more subtle.
And the best one of all from the same source.
No, you won't—not after you've been sautéed, broiled, baked, or boiled.
You fix dangling participles by changing the subject of the sentence. Sautéed, broiled, baked, or boiled, our delicious chickens will thrill your guests. I think this type pf error is more common by self-publishers, primarily because publishing houses have copy editors whereas do-it-yourselfers rush the editing process. Take care.
Number 7 — November 5, 2004
A recent article on writing opened with this statement: "Begin with the action. Setting and background can wait." In my view, this is poor advice, especially since it contains an ambiguity. Does background mean the backdrop or framework of the scene, or does it refer to the back-story? I would amend the recommendation: "Open your story by integrating action and setting. The back-story can wait."
Robert Ludlum starts The Bourne Identity with this sentence.
. . . and the author is well into the action in a recognizable situation. It would be a different opening had he reversed these two paragraphs.
John Le Carré starts The Night Manager with the following paragraph.
In each case, the opening paragraph by these three famous authors shows the reader where the action is taking place. Le Carré includes a date, a practice I recommend, but is not always possible. A book taking place some time in the future may not have a date. I do not believe an author should fire the gun at the neglect of depicting the place where the shooting occurs. The first paragraph of a story should integrate action into the scene environment.
Number 8 — November 12, 2004
· Previous · INDEX · Next · I went to school this week; grade six to be exact. The teacher asked me to talk to her class about creative writing. I elected suspense as my subject, which hinges on a simple premise: "What's next?"
I went to school this week; grade six to be exact. The teacher asked me to talk to her class about creative writing. I elected suspense as my subject, which hinges on a simple premise: "What's next?"The teacher warned me the class consisted of boys, some of whom were difficult at best, impossible at worst. I decided to talk about baseball, to ignore those who didn't want to listen and to hope for the best. The result was better than I expected.
QUESTION 1: Saint Louis is a long way from NW Arkansas. To go to the game, the boy must be excused from school. What problem arises?
QUESTION 2: How is the problem solved, meaning how will the teacher's objections be overcome?
Now, I switched my technique to have the students define the problem.
QUESTION 3: They are driving to Saint Louis. What problem arises?
QUESTION 4: What problem arises?
QUESTION 5: How is the problem solved?
By this time, most of the boys had become involved and the others were at least paying some attention. The class was a bit rowdy, but I didn't lose control, although more than once I thought I might.
QUESTION 6: When they arrive in Saint Louis, they have difficulties. What problem arises?
QUESTION 7: How is the problem solved?
We are in our seats at the game. I asked the students to create an exciting ending. The summary of their best ideas: The bases are loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning. The score is 7 — 4 for the visiting team. Edmonds is at bat. The count is 3 and 2. Edmonds swings. We hear the smack of the bat on the ball.
QUESTION 8: What is the question the author must answer?
The students had a plot. The teacher instructed them to write the story at home. I suggested ideas such as the boy dreaming how much he would like to see Edmonds hit a home run; how he hopes the Cardinals will win; how he fears being late for the game and missing a home run. In the end, the reader learns the answers to all these questions.
Number 9 — November 19, 2004
· Previous · INDEX · Next · This is the first of a series of articles on characterization. I notice in my lectures on creative writing, a recurring lack of understanding about the terms subjective and objective characters. These two characters must be given a reason to oppose each other, that is to have goals that clash, which creates conflict, the all-important acorn from which the mighty story grows.
This is the first of a series of articles on characterization. I notice in my lectures on creative writing, a recurring lack of understanding about the terms subjective and objective characters.
These two characters must be given a reason to oppose each other, that is to have goals that clash, which creates conflict, the all-important acorn from which the mighty story grows.
Number 10 — November 26, 2004
· Previous · INDEX · Next · In the last article, I defined two characters—the Main and Obstacle Characters—confronting each other about a particular story problem. The next character to consider is the Protagonist who, by definition, is the prime mover of the story with the role of finding a solution to the problem that is the cause of the story difficulties.
In the last article, I defined two characters—the Main and Obstacle Characters—confronting each other about a particular story problem. The next character to consider is the Protagonist who, by definition, is the prime mover of the story with the role of finding a solution to the problem that is the cause of the story difficulties.