With over 200 writing articles available here, sometimes it can be hard to find exactly what you want. To help out a bit, here is a list of my 10 most popular articles as of November 2016.
Dashiell Hammett is considered the first of the hard-boiled fiction masters. He wrote over 80 short stories and 5 novels. He wasn’t a prolific writer but he is considered one of the greats because he defined a new genre. Are his books great reads? Well… they are worth reading. The problem with being first is that others will follow in your path and write differently. I’ve read 4 of Hammett’s 5 books and would class them as pulp fiction.
There’s nothing wrong with pulp fiction. It’s the basis of all action driven novels. In pure pulp fiction, the characters are all stereotypes. Writers of action novels that want to write beyond pulp go deeper into character to create better quality stories. Dashiell Hammett created realistic characters too.
Short stories are not as great as novels. No question. Writers who produce great books rarely produce great short stories. The only exceptions to this rule I’ve found are Stephen King, Haruki Murakami, and H.P. Lovecraft. I’m sure there are a few others. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write short stories. Because it’s difficult to write a good one, writing short stories helps you grow as a writer. That’s not the only benefit.
There are many ways short stories can make your novel better. The short stories you write before attempting a novel make you better at writing beginnings and endings. The short stories you write while writing your novel can be used on a short story blog to show samples of your writing and promote your novel. Short stories that are related to your novel have several uses I’ll describe below.
Short Stories as Writing Practice
Read any book or article on how to become a novelist and you will be told to start by writing short stories. The first thing you will notice is that it takes a long time to write just a few thousand words. Writing short stories gives you some time to learn to write faster before attempting a 100,000 word book.
Another advantage of writing short stories is that you will get practice at writing beginnings and endings. A good opening will hook readers into reading more. A good ending will leave them wanting more. The best place to fail on each is in short stories. Master opening hooks and satisfying endings with short stories and you’ve done a lot for your future manuscript writing efforts.
There are other skills you could use practice with too. Writing dialog, description, and narrative are all different challenges. Find a reader who’s willing to review your writing and tell you what they did and didn’t like. You’ll also want to practice editing. After re-writes, the best way to improve your writing is editing. That means cutting what isn’t necessary. It can mean adding, re-writing, and re-arranging too, but cutting is what will give your stories the biggest boost. The rule is: Cut big, then small.
Short Stories as Fiction Samples
Share your short stories by selling them to magazines or post them on a blog. There are several sites that offer free blogs as long as you don’t advertise anything except your own books. I use wordpress.com. Blogger is also popular.
When you put your work out there where people can read it, some are going to be looking for your books.
Haruki Murakami is not a prolific author. He is a great author. His books will still be read 100 years from now. While getting tips from prolific authors is great, we want to learn more than how to write a pile of novels. We want to write interesting stories worth reading again and again. Murakami writes those kind of stories.
Haruki Murakami is one of those authors whose writing was a hit from the very first novel. He didn’t write anything until he was 29 and then decided he could write when inspiration hit him at a baseball game.
His books are best sellers and have been translated into 50 languages.
I’ve read most of his novels more than once. They are not copy-pastes of one another. This is not an author who gets the job done by imitating himself. He seems to be trying to give us something about culture and relationships within the context of mystery stories. When I say mystery, you think of a crime story and the search for the culprit. These are not that kind of mystery. You’ll need to read him to find out exactly what I mean, but I’ll try to explain.
Every writer knows they need life experiences to write their stories. You never write a story completely from imagination. For example, consider the story of a squirrel who has an adventure in an abandoned building. You know what a squirrel looks like and have probably watched one or more at some time. You know what an abandoned building looks like because you’ve been in buildings. The story will be a combination of life experience and imagination.
Everything we write is based on life experience plus imagination. Even non-fiction works this way. We learned the subject before writing about it and we make what we write our own through our experiences with it and our imaginations. We write fiction based on our relationships, our work, our education, and our adventures.
We don’t need to have had every experience we put into our fiction. If we’ve worked in one trade, we know how all the trades work. If we can cook our own breakfast, we can write from the perspective of a cook. If we mowed lawns one summer, we understand what a person in a lawn care job does. Education is similar. Get a degree in one liberal art and you understand all liberal arts. Get a degree in one science and you understand all the sciences. Have enough relationships and you can understand what others are talking about when their relationship are going well or bad or weird. That goes into your fiction too. Where am I going with this?
Earlier, I posted the article Crime Writing in Canada with plans to quickly follow it with “Crime Writing in America”. Sorry for the hold up. I haven’t had good luck finding special legal issues for crime writing published in America.
America has more freedom than Canada because of the first amendment right to freedom of speech. I could find no laws against publishing “crime comics”, stories where the theme is crime, or the suggestion that all criminals be either dead or in prison by the end of the story. That makes stories published in America more realistic.
Publish in America and your main character can be a successful criminal in a story centered around crime with the main characters still alive and free at the end. Sure. You’re free to have all that in your novel, but would you want to? Would you buy a second novel from an author who wrote something like that?
Common sense is as good a censor as the law. We all like to see characters suffer for bad behavior and prosper for doing good. But enough about how lawless of a story you might want to write. What about the laws that apply everywhere, even with freedom of speech?
Laws against hate literature are nearly universal. I think this is mainly a non-fiction issue. Nobody wants to waste their money on hate literature.
You may have a group in a work of fiction that hates another group because of race, gender, religion, or some other politically incorrect category. As long as they’re the antagonists and are going to get what’s coming to them in the end, that shouldn’t be a problem. If they’re the heroes of the story, you’re heading into trouble and your problems go deeper than just your story.
The remaining issues apply to every kind of writing. They’re all to do with people and corporations protecting their intellectual property and their image.
Plagiarism is copying someone else’s work word for word without giving them credit. It depends a lot on how much you copy. If every sentence was subject to copyright, you couldn’t say “It was a hot summer’s day” because somebody has written that in a story already. Probably hundreds of someones.
Plagiarism applies if you copy an entire article or story or substantial parts of one. But what if you wanted to use “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen” as the first line in a chapter as a way to suggest you’re writing about a dystopia like George Orwell’s “1984”? It’s not a substantial portion of the novel, but the line is so distinctive it may qualify as a trademark of sorts. That’s the next issue.
If you decide to put a Starbucks Auto Repair in your novel, you’ll be committing trademark infringement. The name “Starbucks” is an established trademark and, if your book is successful enough for them to notice, you can be sued. But maybe your book will be a flop and everything will be okay.
If your characters like to meet at a Starbucks instead of a Starbucks coffee house, you’ll be committing trademark dilution. I see this in a lot of published novels, so I’m guessing companies aren’t too worried about this issue. The reason trademark dilution is a problem is that the Starbucks corporation wouldn’t want Starbucks to become the generic name for all coffee houses. It doesn’t seem like that could happen, but Kleenex facial tissues would disagree.
When you have a runny nose, you need a facial tissue. Kleenex is one brand among many. At one time “Kleenex” was used in place of “facial tissue” no matter what the brand of facial tissue. That was brand dilution and Kleenex facial tissue had to sue writers who used their brand name as the generic name. Now nobody in a novel uses a Kleenex unless it’s a Kleenex facial tissue.
How do you decide what to use? You don’t want to always need to say “Starbucks coffee house” and “Kleenex facial tissue”. That can be clunky looking. You could make up your own brands or just use the generic names. There’s nothing wrong with characters stopping at a coffee house or wiping their eyes with a tissue. You can also get permission to use company names. I suspect that’s why we see characters stopping at Starbucks and other trademarked companies without the generic name following. Some trademarks are distinctive enough to be safe from dilution.
Anything negative you say about a product, company, or person can be libelous. This is a problem in non-fiction because the book is your opinion.
In fiction, it’s not a problem that a character says libelous things. It’s the opinion of a fictional character. It may be a problem if the narrator says libelous things, but the narrator isn’t necessarily the author. Narrators can be fictitious too.
Is that every American law on writing and publishing?
It might be. If it isn’t, at least it’s a start on things to look out for in your writing. I think most of us writing novels have little to worry about, but there are those few look-outs.
Article by Ivan Izo.
Zen Buddhist meditation teaches you to clear the clutter from your mind so that you can have focus and peace.
Zen practitioners will also clear the clutter from their home. I wouldn’t recommend that move for a writer. You need to have lots going on to be a good writer; lots of experience to draw from. A cluttered home isn’t a problem. Why?
Zen meditation teaches focus. It begins with ignoring all thoughts except a nonsense phrase or the viewing of a candle flame. When that succeeds, you forget the nonsense phrase or the flame as well. If you can ignore your thoughts, you can certainly ignore your environment. Physical clutter doesn’t matter.
There are books on how to meditate, but the steps are no longer than a blog article. Do an internet search for “how to meditate” and you will find many articles.
How will this help you write more? Drop the focus on nonsense phrases or flames and focus on what you are writing. Not everything you are writing, the one thing you are writing now.
Eckhard Tolle’s variation on meditation is to forget about both the past and future so you can enjoy the moment. You can’t change the past. The future may be different than you expect. By forgetting both, you remove most causes of anxiety and depression.
Another way to look at it is this. You can’t fix the past because it’s over and you can’t fix the future because the problems haven’t arrived yet. When you focus on only your most important problem in the present, you are free to give it your full attention.
Learn to use these methods to focus on what you are writing now and you will be free of most distractions. You will be using Zen to write more.
Article by Ivan Izo.
Passive voice weakens clarity. The difference between active and passive voice is the difference between things happening to a character and the character making things happen. You should write in active voice with only a few exceptions. What does this mean? Is there an easy way to detect passive voice?
First, some examples of active and passive voice.
Active: “The cook chopped the mushrooms.”
Passive: “The mushrooms were chopped by the cook.”
In the active voice, the subject is doing something or being something.
In the passive voice, the subject is being acted upon or having something done to them.
A longer example might help. Wally can’t get the internet to come up and destroys his computer system.
First, in passive voice.
“The internet wasn’t coming up for Wally. None of his links would load. The three hole punch was in his hand before he could think clearly. The speakers went flying. The keyboard got smashed and several letters flew off. The monitor cracked as the end of the punch hit it dead center.”
Now, in active voice.
“Wally couldn’t get the internet working. He clicked links that didn’t load. He had the three hole punch in his hand before he could think clearly. Wally smashed the speakers off the desk. He smashed the keyboard and letters went flying. He smashed the end of the punch into the monitor and cracked the screen.”
Mixed Active and Passive
Beware of mixing active and passive in the same sentence.
“Jim picked up the laundry and plans were made for the day.” The second part is passive and needs to be re-written. “Jim picked up the laundry and made plans for the day.”
When is Passive Voice Okay?
Passive is okay when what is acted upon is more important. “The warehouse was burned down sometime shortly after midnight.”
Passive is okay when the actor is unimportant. “The tidal bore can be seen at 8am and 8pm.”
Passive is also okay in technical and scientific papers where the person doing the acting is not mentioned. “The test was given to 452 subjects. Non-lethal doses of cyanide were injected in half the subjects. Sugar water was injected in the other half.”
Passive voice is also useful when an object becomes a subject. “The gamers decided to go with the SWAT team format for their new game design. The SWAT team concept had been written by Kyoshi.”
The take-away from this is to be sure the subject of a sentence is the one taking action rather than receiving it and you will easily detect passive voice.
Article by Ivan Izo.
As any writer knows, it’s possible to revise forever. At some point you need to decide it’s done and move on to another project.
Two years ago, I found myself endlessly revising blog articles. The following two paragraphs outline my dilemma and solution.
I revise my writing too much. I know this because I find myself getting bored of endlessly revising articles. It seems like I’m going around and around the same group of 50 or 60 articles eternally. An article idea must have a couple of hundred words before I promote it to a first draft. The first draft must be worked on until it’s long enough and has all the components that make an article. Then, I have four revisions before I’m willing to call it finished. Even when I go through the finished articles, I won’t release them as blog posts until I’m certain they are good enough.
The endless revisions must end. But, I don’t want to stop writing. What to do? A different kind of writing is the answer. A different subject. A switch between fiction and non-fiction. A switch between articles and a book.
When you read writing books and blogs, and participate in writing forums, you find lots of rules for writing. There are shoulds and musts for everything from comma usage to major transitions. When you read a few “100 Best Books” of any era or genre, those rules go out the window.
The truth is, there is no one right way. Any way you want to write can be the right way. It would be nice if you could make your writing clearer, a faster read, or more entertaining. It would also be nice if your books would sell. For those reasons and because it’s no fun staring at a blank page, there are guidelines for how to write a book, an article, or anything in between.
In other words, it’s a good idea to learn what writing methods have worked in the past and then write what you want. The more you deviate from tradition the more likely your writing will fail. But if you don’t deviate from tradition you’re one of the crowd. It’s conformity versus deviance. Like most situations where there are two extremes, somewhere in the middle usually works out for the best.
I was inspired to write this article after reading a post about how important it was for a novel to have major changes that break it into thirds. Many of those commenting said they stopped reading books that didn’t have a major change at the 33% point. That’s some strict reading. What about the story arc novel structure that has rising action up to the halfway point, a major change, and falling action in the second half? It may have big upsets in any part of the story but only the one guaranteed upset in the middle. I guess those writers are out of luck with the three act readers.
What follows are a few examples of writing rules that were broken by great writers. It doesn’t show every broken writing rule, you have other things to do, but enough to make it clear that it’s your right to write wrong.