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Finding problems in my writing is like finding bugs coming into my home after the hurricane. I’ve got to get a flashlight, shine the light down on them, expose them and then squish them!
I survived Irma with my life intact. I was very lucky that the hurricane died down before it hit the city where I live, none of the tornadoes came my direction and the building was concrete. I spent most the night watching the water rise towards the building and praying it wouldn’t make it to the door. Thankfully, it didn’t.
There is still a lot of clean up to be done in my city and in the entire state of Florida. Hurricanes don’t mess around.
As we dig in for Hurricane Irma here in Florida, I ran across a random reblog on tumblr about using filter words that made me think about my writing.
When I started writing, there wasn’t a lot of advice out there for budding authors that was easily accessible. (Not that I would have taken it if there had been.) Unlike today where you can sign up for tumblr or twitter and follow half a dozen writing advice blogs and people with just a couple of searches and a few clicks. (Who all reblog each others advice.) I had one tiny writing advice book that was almost a novelty item rather than a book, instinct, a whole lot of trial and error and fiction books to read on my bookshelves. And then I wrote. I wrote a lot.
And there were a lot of great pieces of advice in the little writing novelty advice book, “Writer’s Little Book of Wisdom by John Long” But there were perhaps two pieces of advice that saved me a lot of trouble and kept me from bad habits in my writing. They were in brief. 1) Use an active voice to bring your characters to life. 2) Avoid filtering an image through an observing conscience. Two came before one but two can really be seen as a corollary of one. If you apply an active voice. You are more likely to avoid filter words.
What is an active voice? The active voice is when the character is doing something to the object of the sentence. I really like the example from the book. “She slapped the Deacon across the face.” It’s energetic. It’s exciting. Who is this character? Why is she slapping the Deacon? What did he say/do? Did he really deserve it? So many questions from seven words!
She breathed heavily. Her heart pounded. Her nostril’s flared. Her fists clenched. She trembled with rage. When using an active voice, the character is engaged and doing something. It shows through her body language and her bodily reactions that this character is angry. All without the writer having to tell the reader “She was enraged.” (Though writers will do both, show and tell to make sure everyone knows exactly what is going on.) “She was enraged (by zombies)” is a passive sentence by using the verb to be in front of the active verb.
Nobody wants to be chased by zombies! “The Deacon enraged her” would be the active voice example of that sentence. (Thank you Professor Johnson of USMC for the handy ‘by zombies’ trick.)
Now, to expound upon that example and explain filter words. Filter words are words that try to describe something through the character’s viewpoint. These are words like felt, heard, saw, noticed. “The Deacon felt his cheek burn.” Is an example of using filter words. Whereas, it is much stronger and more active to say, “The Deacon’s cheek burned.”
The Deacon’s cheek burning brings the reader into the character’s world rather than being a third party to what the character sees, hears and feels. “His face felt hot” or “he felt hot” may be correct grammatically. But still aren’t as visceral as “His face heated” or “He heated.” And those are an active voice!
Using an active voice really brings the reader into the story. It keeps their eyes glued to the page. (It’s why I don’t really like present tense. It doesn’t feel ‘active’ enough to me and if I do end up reading a story with it I translate it to past tense in my head. I recognize it as a viable style. It just isn’t my cup of tea.) If the author wants to be able to explore their character’s head and thoughts more fully, then by all means use a first person point of view! That way there is less temptation to use filter words and keep the story in the active voice.
It comes down to a matter of style and balance. Too much active voice, the scene might feel too choppy. Too much passive voice and filler words the reader will fall asleep and feel like they’re slogging through the book. As a writer and a reader, I know I prefer the active voice to the passive voice or using filter words because it keeps me a participant in the story. It pulls me into the world of the characters.
Now, I know I’m not perfect. (I should probably read every draft of all my books while exhausted that way I can make sure my prose isn’t confusing.) I know I might use “she felt” or “She heard” in my writing. Because sometimes it is a choice between “she heard.” or using comic book style noise words like “pow” and “clatter” and “thump.” Sometimes I wish hearing was as simple as “water dripped in the corner” and “crickets buzzed outside.” Usually it helps if the character knows what the noise is. (but no, usually it’s a ‘what was that?’ type of thing.) So, if you decide to read my books and come back to point out my egregious errors where I didn’t use an active voice, then by all means have fun!
I know it is something I will keep my eye on in the future.
For every aspiring author out there in the world, all the writing advice floating about in books and on the internet can be condensed into one word, “write.”
There is no magical list or fairy dust powder that is going to make your words more powerful than actually sitting down and writing them. I see lists about “How to write action,” “avoid filter words,” “words to use other than very” and “Stephen King’s top 20 pieces of writing advice.”
Stephen King writes everyday. Thousands of words, every, single, day.
There are writing advice columns where writers ask “how can I make my protag do this?” “My protag is this, how can I have them do this?”
Sometimes when people find out I’m an author they ask me questions about who I’ve read and that I should read this writing advice book or that writing advice book or this author. And most of the time, I can honestly say, “I’ve never read that author’s writing advice book.” I have shelves and shelves of books about the fashion industry and fashion business. I have less than half a shelf of books about writing, most of them are about the perils of publishing, dictionaries of words and proper names. I have shelves and shelves of fiction and there are several shelves of non-fiction reference. But instead of spending hours and hours on reading books or advice columns about how to write, I sit at my computer or with a notebook and write.
When you write, you develop your own style, your own voice. You learn about yourself and what is important to you. I don’t want to be Stephen King. I don’t want to be Orson Scott Card. I don’t want to be GRRM. I want to sound and write like myself with my own voice.
If you want to write for fun, you write for fun and style and grammar and the ‘techniques’ of writing may not be so important. When I was writing for fun, I still wanted to improve. I still wanted to get ‘better’ at writing. (Because when I first started back in 7th grade, I sucked.) So, I chose one portion of my writing and I focused on it.
I wanted to write better dialogue. I didn’t want to write question and answer exchanges. I wanted dialogue that felt real instead of stilted. So, I wrote dialogue. I analyzed my dialogue. If I saw there was a question and answer exchange over and over. I went back and rewrote the questions into statements. I wrote so much dialogue that it became such second nature that I can’t tell you how exactly I write dialogue anymore. These characters in my head have conversations in my brain and I’m a vessel to get them from my brain to the page.
I decided later I wanted to write action scenes. So I wrote action scenes until I felt that I had finally found a way to write action that worked for me. Action that suited my style. I decided I wanted to work in writing description and try to figure out how to do it without disrupting my narrative flow and dialogue. So, I write description.
The day I figured out how to write a plot with conflict. Well, err, the Lone Prospect was born. Sometimes, plot and conflict comes deliberately and sometimes before this it was completely accidental. Now, I can look at my work and go “I can’t write anything until I have a plot and conflict.” Or “This story has no tension, what happened to the conflict? Drat. Must go find it. Rewrite.” Whereas before, if I had a situation, I’d just write it no matter what. This led to some very entertaining yet boring stories all at the same time.
As I have developed my writing I start to see things that I do that could be annoying and disruptive to readers. Then, I try to change them. I can see the bad habits in my writing. I can see where in sentences that my brain runs off on a tangent that would be better served as a sentence later. I notice where words are out of place. (And if it is a writing piece for fun, I don’t care and won’t change it. If it’s for publishing, I’ll fix it. The point is I see the flaws.)
If you’re unhappy with your writing, write more until you are happy. Write realizing that you can always improve if you want to do so. Write knowing that everything you’ve written can be changed if it has to be. Because if you don’t write, you’re never going to be an author.
You can only get better with experience. Being a writer, being an author, experience means writing.
People sometimes want me to help them with their writing. Then they get shocked when I ask them to write more than one hundred words in a week. I patiently try to tell them if they don’t write then me trying to help them is a waste of both of our valuable time. You can only improve by writing more words down on a page. (This honestly helps me sort the diehards from the dreamers.)
The basic rules of language and writing haven’t changed since high school. High School English classes about grammar and creative writing will teach you the basics of everything you need to know. (And I was taught Bob Jones English, which is horrible and I still know the basics of active versus passive, basic story structure, basic themes, basic conflicts.) You can learn and learn and learn, and it will do you nothing until you apply it by writing.
I’ll be fair. I have one writing catch all advice book. I can read it in ten minutes. The Writer’s Little Book of Wisdom by John Long. It has saved me from filter words, daffy dialogue and the peril of expecting people to give feedback on my work or notice it exists. It has reminded me there are three rules for a good novel and no one knows what they are, not to mix my metaphors and shoot epitaphs. I got it in high school. It’s turning yellow. There are passages highlighted of my favorite pieces of advice. I’m surprised I haven’t lost it. (There have been a few panic inducing close calls.)
So here are the first two pieces of advice from it. “Art without practice is nothing. Sit down everyday and write.”
Sometimes, I feel this is the theme song of my life.
“People down here think I’m crazy, but I don’t care…. look out boys I’m coming through. Because I’m almost there.”
There are plenty of days where I don’t feel like an adult. Adults have steady jobs that pay the bills. Adults drive cars. Adults get married and have children. Adults do this and that and everything else that seem to be this long check list of life goals and achievements that makes me take my covers and drag them over my head and go “not today.”
Somewhere, some when, somebody decided what the ideal “adult” life should look like and decided to make everyone try to fit that mold. Or else. Or else you’re a failure and not an adult. Whoever that person or people were, they were dead wrong and need to be forgotten.
Because being an adult isn’t really about any of those check lists of an ‘ideal’ adulthood. It’s not about having a steady job or owning a home or paying bills and taxes. Those things are possible when you’re an adult. But they aren’t part and parcel of this “adultness.”
Being an adult, in my opinion, is taking responsibility for yourself and your own choices. It’s thee ability to plan things and then follow through. It’s the ability to recognize that you may be wrong, apologize for it and work on not doing it again.
Paying taxes. Calling utility companies. Making appointments. Being able to vote, serve in the military, drink and smoke. Those are some of the perks and realities of being an adult.
As an adult, you get to decide if you want to pursue those things you wanted to do as a child, but your parents didn’t have time or money. As an adult, you get to eat ice cream for dinner and pie for breakfast if you choose. As an adult, if you want to watch My Little Pony or play Pokemon Go. Then that is your choice. As long as you aren’t harming yourself or others, then follow your interests and dreams.
Today when I picked up my key to my new place. I felt like an adult. Not because I had used Friday to call up utilities to get them moved or that I’m almost packed or I have most of my address stuff changed over. I felt like an adult because I had done what I had set out to do. Created a plan. Followed through with the plan and took responsibility for myself.
It’s a powerful feeling. And sure, there are times when I’ve been anxious and fretting. But now that I’m close to the end, close to the goal. I can say with confidence. “I can do this.”
And next time, maybe it won’t seem as difficult.
A favorite Uncle. Horse Thieves. And no way to contact home. When an easy mission goes sideways, Billy “Rodeo” Marson feels he has more than he can handle to get his people back to Jasper safely. Reacquiring their cargo may be the easy part, supervising young werewolves in love and feeling the responsibilities of the father of the pack is what is keeping him up at night.
Rodeo’s Run is the second of the Heaven’s Heathens MC series. The first book, The Lone Prospect isn’t required reading to understand what is going on in this book, but is highly recommended.
(I also have no idea what is going on with the formatting of the description in the paperbacks. This is the second time Amazon has done this, apparently whatever bug it is, they haven’t fixed it. If I find a free moment from moving, I’ll probably truncate it.)
So, it’s the middle of the month and I need to be moved out of my apartment by the end of the month. This whole “your lease is up at the end of August” has been giving me anxiety since January when I found out about the sale of my building. However, my health was in the middle of the ‘winter nosedive’ as I’m coming to call it. (I dread November.)
But the good news is that I’ve found a place, half the size of what I’m renting now, that is in my budget and I should be out of here next week. Phew. Someone is looking after me.
Moving is hectic. It’s all about finding boxes, filling boxes, jumping through hoops on where you’re going and dealing with all the adult things, including the things I hate most, making phone calls. I’m trying my best to do things one small step at a time. Find a place. Get movers. Deal with utilities, which ends with “call landlord and have him come and get the key.” Sometimes, one step at a time is all I have.
Progress is progress.
It’s enough that I’m doing my best. (Even with a hard deadline.)
Now, despite the hectic details of moving, I can breathe a little and relax. I’m getting there.