Monday, July 9, 2012

The Importance of High School English

I recently saw a tweet about a newly published werewolf book. I love werewolves, so I immediately went to check it out. The cover grabbed me immediately. It was totally different from any other werewolf cover I've seen. It said 'this is something different' - and when you've read every werewolf book you can get your hands on, something different is a big deal.
So, I was really excited when I opened the preview. Mentally checking the budget to figure out when I could squeeze out a few bucks to treat myself to a new (and different) werewolf book. The excitement died with the first sentence. By the end of the first paragraph all interest was gone. I figured that the author may have been playing for an unusual writing style for the prologue, and pushed through the first chapter. Then I closed Amazon and chalked it up to another self published author who needed to go back to high school English, or maybe just had a crappy English teacher (because, hey, there are way to many of them).

Three Keys to Good Composition (Courtesy of Mrs. Cs 9th grade English class)

There are three mistakes that I see self published authors doing over and over again that kills their work. Three rules of composition that are getting totally forgotten. These mistakes are actually easy to avoid, but can also become huge habits. And yeah, mistakes I made for years, until experience and a couple of patient freelance clients gave me refresher on stuff Mrs. C had already spent 9 months pounding into my head, once upon a time.

So, with out further ado, here are three basic rules of composition that make a huge difference in your writing (and are a deciding factor in whether or not I drop money on your book).

Over Use of 'to Be'
'Be' and its conjugations are very useful words. However, overuse of them gets boring quickly.

Anytime you have a sentence with either of these words, try and figure out a way to rework it so they aren't necessary. Sometimes they are necessary, and sometimes a sentence is stronger with 'to be' and its variants. But 'Is,' 'was' and other 'to be' variants are being verbs. Sentences with them are statements of existence, but telling a story is about things happening. Action, not existence, is what grabs the reader.

Ivan was stopped at the light. 
Ivan waited for the light to turn green.

Janice was playing with the other children.
Janice played with the other children.

Can you see the difference?

You will often see overuse of 'to be' confused with passive voice. Passive voice involved a lot more than use of 'to be' or its conjugations. Wikipedia actually has a good explanation of passive voice. Meljean Brooks has a great post about the difference between 'to be' and passive voice.

One Idea per Paragraph
God how my teachers pounded this into my head. I still struggle with it - Why should I use 3 or 4 sentences when one does just well?

Except... one doesn't do just as well. The best structure for a paragraph really is one idea and several sentences expanding on it. Take a look:

Alice got off the train. A steward handed her her bags. Looking around, she saw a strange woman holding a sign with her name on it. 'Thank must be the governess,' she thought.


Alice got of the train. Hesitantly she looked around trying to figure out where she should go. Nothing was familiar.

A steward handed out her bags. He was emptying the baggage car, but he paused a moment to ask if she needed anything. She silently shook her head and he went back to work.

Looking around, she saw a strange woman holding a sign with her name on it. The woman was severely dressed, in strict black with no hint of decoration or enhancement. Her eyes twinkled with merriment, a sharp contrast to her clothing, and her cheeks rosy.

'That must be the governess,' Alice thought. Taking a deep breath, and a tighter grip on her valise, Alice started walking towards the stranger. It was a relief to know she hadn't been forgotten.

The same four ideas, but when they are lumped together you have a recital of events. When each is given its own paragraph and supporting sentences, you have a scene. In this case, a far from perfect scene, but a scene.

Show, Don't Tell
Arthur got angry every time Blue talked about Barbara Sue, but he tried to stay calm.

Arthur felt his hands clenching and barely stopped himself from growling, he wanted to pound Blue into the mud for talking about Barbara Sue. Instead he took a deep breath and forced his hands to relax. 

Do you see what I'm getting at here? ;)

Show, don't tell is actually very similar to active voice. Both are about using words to create a sense of something happening.

Basically, go for visual imagery, or get inside the character's head so we know what they are thinking. Instead of stating was is happening, describe what is happening.

Obviously, there is a lot more than this to writing a novel (or short, or flash, or...); there is structure, plot, characters, theme, phrasing, dialogue, this list goes on a while. Unfortunately, you can have the most amazing plot, the best characters, as many superlatives as you can imagine, but if your writing isn't good enough to get your reader through the first chapter, what you have is a draft.

Writing Challenge:
Take a look at your current work in progress. Read the first three paragraphs and see if they follow these three rules of composition. If they do, that's great! The rest of your writing probably does too. If it doesn't, rewrite them following these three rules, and post a comment about the difference it makes.

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