GREEN RIVER WRITERS, here in my neck of the woods, has opened its annual contest.
Two grand prizes @ $175 for first place, 13 other categories all with cash prizes, $3 entries.
Fortunately for me, the members of both of the writing groups I belong to don’t traffic in most of these pointless prescriptions and proscriptions. I do, however, agree that too many people have a basic fear of the word “was.” As Allen points out, there’s a big difference between “I was reading when she came in” and “I read when she came in.” Also “had.” Sometimes the past perfect is just necessary. Do you have any “stupid rules” to add, or do you take exception to Allen’s judgment on these?
I love Anne R. Allen’s blog. I learn something new every time I visit. This is an excellent piece about bad writing advice. Check it out. Just click on the highlighted link below. ❤
Stupid Writing Rules: 12 dumb things new writers tell each other. Ignore this bad advice from misinformed people in critique groups.
Here’s a great piece from Sue Vincent that echoes what I’ve often thought about those mechanical editing programs that try to lure us into their World of Rules.
I will add to this: The darn programs are all too often just plain wrong! Can’t tell you how many sentences Word’s editor labeled fragments, and how many actual fragments it missed! And any time a mechanical “editor” gives you a piece of advice about punctuation, check the editor’s rule against at least a couple of standard handbooks before kowtowing to some dictator’s orders.
I can’t say enough for real readers. Okay, so they, too, are sometimes “wrong.” Or wrong-headed. But a) they can and usually do explain why they reacted a certain way to something you wrote, and b) they respond to the very things the robots and aliens discussed in this article glide right past—the emotion, the rhythm, the energy, the joy.
Don’t pore over some grammar or editing site. Join a writers’ group!
From the archives – May 2015:
I was curious. Being a writer, I keep seeing articles about the editing software available online to help writers and, over coffee, I thought I would have a quick look. I browsed a number of them, duly pasting a chunk of text into their little blank boxes to see what they had to offer.
After five minutes, my blood was boiling.
Writers, it seems, are being encouraged to use these programmes. Not, as I mistakenly supposed, in order to check their grammar, spelling and punctuation… say, as an extension to spellcheck or as a different perspective on work we are too fond of, and too involved with, to see clearly. No. We are being encouraged to use them in order to erase our personal voice.
Okay, I know… that probably isn’t entirely fair.
There are those who swear by their usefulness, though these, I…
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This article provides excellent, detailed discussion. In critique groups I’ve been enrolled in, some critiquers seem terrified of the progressive tenses, and some believe that using a present-participle phrase as a modifier constitutes “mixing tenses” and therefore incorrect. The article is on point that glomming onto such rigid rules limits writers’ options for rhythm and meaning.
And the discussion here of dangling modifiers should be required reading for all aspiring writers. i see so many of these. Otherwise competent writers seem oblivious to them. The examples here precisely mirror what I see. Here’s my rant on dangling modifiers.
I think writers need to READ, widely, and not just the latest free examples of their favorite genre, to see how good writers make use of many available strategies and apply rules thoughtfully rather than blindly.
If you’ve ever been told to cut “-ing” words, take the time to read this!
I wish there was a magic wand I could wave to correct my grammar as I continue editing my novel. How about you? Read this comprehensive article about editing and how to fix some of your mistakes. This is a MUST-READ! ❤
There’s a lot of conflicting advice that tells writers to never use words that end in -ing or to not use -ing words under certain conditions. Explore both the advice and the rationale behind it.
V. S. Anderson always been a horse nut, and as a young person, was a rabid horse-racing fan. So it’s no surprise that her first novels were about horses: the Kentucky Derby and the glamour of a Thoroughbred breeding farm—but with a little mystery and mayhem thrown in! For King of the Roses and Blood Lies, she drew on her years of working in the horse world, teaching riding, showing hunters, moonlighting on the racetrack, and for a while, owning and galloping her own racehorse.
Since then she has used her doctorate in English to teach writing at a regional campus of a Midwestern university—right across the river from Louisville and the Derby, in fact! She lives in New Salisbury, Indiana, where she gardens, watches birds, writes mystery/suspense (three novels in progress!), and rides Paddy, her sweet, sweet horse.
Visit her at
or follow her…
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Here’s a comprehensive “editor’s POV” discussion shared by Chris the Story Reading Ape. In my experience, careful reading of directions and the ability to follow them is a learned skill. On the one hand, as a teacher (and as many of my fellow teachers regularly lamented), getting students to follow written directions was one of the greatest of pedagogical challenges. Yet I’ve found myself misreading directions or missing an important caveat or guideline—especially when I’m trying to do something technical online :-(. So I can’t be too judgmental!
Have you ever been in an editor’s shoes? How has the experience affected your own relationship with editors?
“Illogic” is my number one pet peeve as a reader.
Well, one of my number one pet peeves: it’s definitely one of the experiences that throws me right out of a story, like hitting a speed bump at 40.
So what do I mean by “illogic”? Well, the most common form of illogic that I see is:
a character behaving in a way that no normal or ordinary person would behave, not for some logic that the writer has deliberately and strategically built into the character, but because the writer needs the character to behave this way to further the plot.
Perhaps other readers don’t share my sensitivity to these bones of a writer’s process, but for me, they can be quite visible, and usually painfully so.
Now let me stop for a minute to assure you: as a writer, I’m not innocent of these glitches myself. Fortunately, my writing group pays attention. More than once, they’ve pulled me out of the path of my own rush to get to the next scene (thank you all yet again!).
One common form illogic seems to take: the information dump.
A writer needs to convey certain information to his readers. So the story slams to a halt and characters are plunked down in illogical situations that give them a chance to tell readers what the writer needs them to know.
A character has just undergone major, major surgery and has just been wheeled into the ICU. A second character manages to wheedle his way in for just a few minutes to—one would suppose—convey his well-wishes to the surely woozy patient.
But no. Because the next plot point requires the well-wisher to perform a particular action that needs some justification:
a) the recently anesthesized patient is able to carry on an extended (three-page) coherent conversation, using formal, complex syntax, without even an expression of discomfort;
b) the well-wisher lingers for these three pages exchanging complex information with the patient even after having been ordered from the room by a nurse;
c) the nurse conveniently twiddles her thumbs, giving the conversation exactly the time it needs to wind to the necessary close.
Sorry, I don’t buy it.
This scene could have been made more palatable by a simple recognition and acknowledgment of the limits of the situation. And a strategic use of them! A patient who must gasp out garbled instructions, a well-wisher who must struggle to make sense of the incoherent drug-slurred communications in the seconds (not minutes) before the nurse storms back in—now the well-wisher has more mental work to do, and the reader’s sense of mystery is deepened, not thrown off track.
A second common form of illogic is the coincidence, the accident that somehow sets up a vital scene—just a little too helpfully for my taste.
The protagonist and her ally face a violent confrontation with the evil, evil and physically powerful villain. The ally pulls out his cell phone to call for help—and he’s forgotten to charge it. It’s dead.
Speaking of convenience.
Folks, cell phones have presented a whole new raft of challenges to mystery/suspense/thriller writers. Those of you who have grown up with cell phones will not recall the days when you could manipulate events by the simple act of preventing your character from finding a handy pay phone. And there were times when few people had answering machines and no one had caller ID. It was waaay easy to make sure someone missed out on an urgent message.
No more. And it’s not fair to exploit the plot devices of the old days by disabling the realities of the present.
Now, if a villain snatches a cell phone and smashes it, that’s one thing. If you must get rid of that phone (and I can certainly imagine, and have needed, scenes where that darn phone creates a real problem), have it happen that way. Or find some clever way to make the phone play a role in the deception.
Here’s my own biggest illogic temptation: in my mystery/suspense novels, it’s often really tough to keep the characters from simply going to the police. But if they go to the police and tell all, the story’s over! I admit to not always being completely convinced I’ve explained away a character’s decision to keep things to him- or herself so the plot will keep to its prescribed route. I’ve tried to build the decision into the characters’ ambivalences, their failures to be completely honest with themselves about their motives, and to make that ambivalence a driving force in the story. I think I’ve had mixed success.
This is one of the best compendia of guidelines for troubleshooting a novel-in-progress that I’ve recently come across. My own constant struggle is the interior monologue, wherein my character thinks through her motives. Some of this is necessary, but in my current very rough draft I’m noting again and again, “Too long! Cut!” Fortunately, I have an excellent writing group that will call me out on this sin.
I’m working on a post about what has stopped me from finishing some of the books I’ve been reading in my quest to understand the indie landscape. Hamilton’s list captures many of the problems that I’ve encountered (and fight like crazy not to commit): 1) Lack of a story arc–in a couple of cases, everything seemed to be resolved mid-novel; why keep reading? 2) Detail-heavy, clunky prose I had to wade through. 3) Pages and pages of setting and character-building before anything happens. I love the comment that we all should wish to see ourselves as others see us! Hooray for honest readers. May they long thrive!
Beginning novelists are like Tolstoy’s happy families. They tend to be remarkably alike. Certain mistakes are common to almost all beginners. These things aren’t necessarily wrong, but they are difficult to do well—and get in the way of smooth storytelling
They also make it easy for professionals—and a lot of readers—to spot the unseasoned newbie.
When I worked as an editor, I ran into the same problems in nearly every new novelist’s work—the very things I did when I was starting out.
I think some of the patterns come from imitating the classics. In the days of Dickens and Tolstoy, novels were written to be savored on long winter nights or languid summer days when there was a lot of time to be filled. Detailed descriptions took readers out of their mundane lives…
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We fiction, memoir, and essay writers are all bombarded—understandably—with the need to SHOW, not tell. The temptation to tell rather than show—at its simplest level, to write “he felt sad” rather than letting his actions and dialogue reveal his reactions—haunts us all. It’s easier: We don’t have to hunt for ways to describe expressions and behaviors. And after all, “he felt sad” takes up a lot less space than “The room around him seemed to darken, the sounds of cheerful conversation to slow to dirge-like rhythms.” And hey, will readers interpret such descriptions the way you intended? Maybe the guy is just having a heart attack.
Hardest of all may be recognizing when we’ve slipped into telling. In my writing group, we all get called on it regularly.
One exercise I’ve found extremely useful in helping me recognize telling is the SCREENPLAY exercise: convert a troublesome scene to screenplay format.
Why does this work? For me, it works because, unless you allow yourself the indulgence of a voice-over, filmgoers must rely on action and dialogue to interpret characters’ moods and thoughts and to understand what’s going on.
The rules are simple: at no point in the conversion of your scene can you indicate in your stage directions that “he thought” or “he worried” or “he felt—afraid, tired, hopeful, disappointed.” You may never enter your character’s mind. After all, your audience can’t. They can only see and hear what’s on the screen.
Too stifling? Surely in a mystery, for example, the character has to speculate internally about the meaning of clues. In a romance, the protagonist has to tell us of her ecstasy. Well, maybe. The screenplay exercise can clarify just how much telling we really have to include.
For a sense of what this exercise can contribute, here are a few lines from my novel King of the Roses and the corresponding lines structured as a screenplay. Note that I converted the whole book, a choice that requires me to scrutinize every word because screenplays are radically length restricted (a 358-page book becomes a 100-page play). But casting individual scenes can provide some of the same benefits.
Set-up: A criminal who demands that Chris hold the Derby favorite finds Chris alone in a restaurant and escalates his threats. The criminal speaks the first line.
“I tried to get a hold of you last night. Why didn’t you answer the phone?”
“I was out.”
“No you weren’t. You just didn’t answer the phone. This isn’t a little romance we have here. This is business. What about it?”
Chris felt his spine crawl as if he were already dead, with demons dancing on his grave. The man stared at him steadily, tilting his head a little so that Chris could see his white, speckled scalp where his hair thinned on top.
“So when would I get paid?”
“You jocks is all the same. Money, money.”
“I haven’t seen any money.”
The man’s lower lip went on curling, but his eyes hardened. He stood up suddenly, clutching his overcoat to his paunch.
“I’ll tell you one thing I bet you have seen,” he said. “I bet you’ve seen what a jock looks like when he falls off in a race and gets his face stepped on. I bet you’ve seen that. Huh?”
I tried to get hold of you last night. Why didn’t you answer your phone?
I was out.
This isn’t a little romance we have here. This is business.
So when would I get paid?
You jocks is all the same. Money, money, money.
I haven’t seen any money.
The man stands, clutching his coat to his paunch.
I tell you one thing I bet you have seen. I bet you seen what a jock looks like when he falls off and gets his face stepped on. I bet you seen that, huh?
So what has this exercise done for me? Above all, it has forced me to look really hard at the inner reactions I’ve chosen to include in the prose-narrative format. Obviously they aren’t essential to meaning. I get to ask myself whether they add enough to justify the departure from action, from showing.
So the conversion allows me to see where my dialogue on its own takes readers. It also forces me to find the actions that express the characters’ reactions. I have to convert feelings into motion. Once discovered, these motions and actions can go back into my prose.
Again, you don’t have to go this spare. But you might make decisions about where to cut and where to add with more insight if you’ve tried the bare-bones telling that screenplays require.
You don’t need fancy software to do this. For the actual screenplay, I used Microsoft Word’s “styles” to create the various format patterns screenplays require. (The formatting didn’t translate directly into this blog post.) By the way, learning to use “styles” helps when you convert your Word document into the format for various e-publishing contexts. The important thing, however you structure your exercise, is to remember: no “feelings.” Just things viewers can see: action and dialogue.