Thursday, May 31, 2012

June 2012 - Had is a Handicap

    "The most useful skill a wrier can acquire is the ability to edit one's work ruthlessly. --Paul Raymond Martin, GETTING PUBLISHED

While browsing Wikipedia, I came across:

1) Had is an alternative for Hadit, the Thelemic version of an Egyptian god.

2) HAD is the abbreviation for Hole Accumulation Diode, a technique for reducing electronic noise.

3) Had is the abbreviation for technology blog hackaday (usually written as HaD

Who knew? However, these oddities aside, for a writer and storyteller "had" is a verb, the simple past tense and past participle of the word "have."

Although had seems like such a little word, an inconsequential word, one to be skimmed over, failure to understand its impact on the reader leads many writers astray. And as useful as had can be when working with past tense, the danger is, of course, overuse either as unintentional "crops of" (repeated in a short space of paragraphs) or "peppering a page or pages."

The second red-flag danger is the "apostrophe D" dilemma. Does an "apostrophe D" mean: had or would? (I'd, He'd, She'd, They'd, etc.). Most people will read it as "had" so, if there will be any doubt--and for clarity's sake--write out "would" and the reader never has to be jarred out of the story to go back and translate.

Of course, had is especially useful when dropping into a bonafide flashback. However, once in the flashback, the idea is to stop peppering the segment with hads and make the flashback run as if it were a scene happening in the now. Then, when it's time, transition out of the flashback with a couple of hads and return to the present story world.

Lastly, there are passivity issues with using had because had is often accompanied by "been."  Such constructions as "had been gone" or "had been seen" should be double checked to see if one good, vivid, image provoking verb might work better or if the sentence needs to be recast.

Of course, a writer cannot eliminate every instance of had or had been but cutting down the frequency helps the reader continue reading (and they won't notice a writer at work). So, place "had" and "apostrophe D" on your revision cheat sheet so you do one pass for them. You do have a revision checklist, right?

Stop by July 1 for a look at "And and But."

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Sampler - May 2012

To Paragraph or Not to Paragraph

    "A paragraph indentation cues the reader to pause and take a deep breath."  --WRITERS LITTLE BOOK OF WISDOM

Wall-to-wall words is a grey wall that turns readers off.  A manuscript page with four or fewer paragraphs is bordering on wall-to-wall words and so each paragraph should be looked at to see if too many "topics" or "ideas" or "actions" were run together.  Paragraphing is also used to achieve a balance and to control the story's pace.  Both result in the easy flow and enjoyment of reading a story.  Paragraphs also open up a page to white space.  That paragraph-generated white space is an important mechanical device to use judiciously and for effect.

However, an easier way for a writer to understand when to paragraph boils down to thinking of paragraphing like this: The reader is in a theater seat watching the story play out on a stage. Onto that stage comes Character A. The reader is fascinated by Character A and keeps their attention on Character A while he handles props, moves about, thinks, breathes, and speaks.

Now Character B comes on stage to interact with Character A. The instant that Character B entered, the reader immediately switches their attention to what Character B is doing and saying. When Character A replies or reacts to Character B, the reader must switch their attention back to Character A.   In other words, if you're writing genre fiction (not mainstream or literary) every switch of the reader's attention means a new paragraph.

Such switching also applies to a noise or other stage business happening either on stage (like a phone ringing) or a car backfiring on the street outside.  In a nutshell, any worthwhile distraction that the reader must pay attention to gets paragraphed.  For example:

    Marsha grabbed the revolver from under her purse.  She pointed the weapon at John. "Don't make me use this."
    John growled low in his throat and glared at Marsha. "You won't shoot me, I'm your husband!"
    The doorbell chimed.

It's not: 

    Marsha grabbed the revolver off the counter top.
    "Don't make me use this."
    John growled low in his throat.
    He glared at Marsha.
"You won't shoot me, I'm your husband!" The doorbell chimed.

Another type of paragraphing is the "transition." That is, it's a word, phrase, or as many words as is necessary to alert the reader to a change of location or the passing of time, like: 

             Meanwhile back at the warehouse, Tom cursed his luck.
          Two hours later, Tom's plane landed at LAX

What seem to confuse a lot of writers is paragraphing dialogue. Whenever possible, dialogue remains with the focal character who the reader is supposed to be paying attention to.  For example:

    Marsha glanced at the gun she'd laid her purse over. Then she looked at her husband and the hard expression in his eyes frightened her.  He was not about to leave. In as calm and controlled voice she could muster, she said, "Just leave, John.  I don't want any trouble."


  Marsha glanced at the gun she'd laid her purse over.
  Then she looked at her husband and the hard expression in his eyes frightened her.  
  He was not about to leave. 
  In as calm and controlled voice she could muster, she said, "Just leave, John.  I don't want any trouble."

Lastly, paragraphing helps set the story's pace--short paragraphs increase pace, long ones slow it down.  Short paragraphs with short sentences really speed up the read.  Long sentences in long paragraphs really slows the read to a crawl. Such paragraphs also govern if the material will be formal or informal (i.e., usually literary equals long paragraphs and genre equals short paragraphs). 

As Theodore Rees Cheney said in GETTING THE WORDS RIGHT: A paragraph, for example, might be unified in its subject, scope, tone, style, point of view, character, scene, and tense, but unless all the logical connections between sentences within a paragraph and all the logical connections between paragraphs are clear, the total piece is not coherent.

Cheney also said that no one knows the proper length for a paragraph . . . no one can give any very helpful guidelines for the length of an "average" paragraph.  This is so very true.  Unfortunately, paragraphing is something learned by trial and error and figuring out what works and what doesn't work for the individual style of narration being used and the story being written.  Yet, the more knowledge a writer has, the more educated choices they can make. So, on your revision "cheat sheet" make a note to look at your paragraphing.

And do stop back to this blog on June 1 for The Sampler's: "Had is a Handicap."

Catherine E. McLean
KARMA AND MAYHEM, a paranormal-fantasy-romance from will be published late this summer.   Http:// or go to my home web page 

Guest blogging May 1, 2012 on the NINE TYPES OF WRITERS a Strands of Pattern