"The only thing you own are the skills in your hands and the knowledge in your mind." – Mac Slavo
This year the Writers Cheat Sheet blog returns to first-of-the-month topics. We begin the year with discussing four major bloopers and blunders.
— A blooper is an embarrassing mistake.
— A blunder is to commit a faux pas or make a serious mistake or be clumsy.
For a writer, and in addition to the usual typos, grammar glitches, and punctuation pitfalls, blunders also include heavy-handed prose, going off on tangents, pontificating, and other elements that turn readers off.
Unless you're a genius of a writer and storyteller, who turns out a perfect manuscript the first try, most first drafts are riddled with an assortment of bloopers and blunders. What I'm about to address is not the nitpicking stuff but major bloopers and blunders that have to do with basic techniques and devices of great fiction. Devices and techniques that are not taught in schools. A few writers learn fiction techniques and devices by osmosis because they are extremely avid readers. Other writers learn such skills by studying and taking courses on how to write good fiction.
Over the years, I've accumulated a list of sixteen craft blunders and bloopers, which appear in the manuscripts of contest entries and the work of novices and self-published writers. I have also made this "C.E.McLean-16 Bloopers & Blunders List" into a free Writers Cheat Sheet, which is available HERE
Of those sixteen items, four top my list as chronic. It's not a matter of reading about the craft skills, it's a matter of understanding and mastering them that will set a work apart from everyone else's in the e-universe and the realms of publishing. The four are:
1) Point of View (POV) and Viewpoint
2) Show, Don't Tell
3) Cause-Effect Sequences
4) Dialogue (both internal and spoken, plus dialogue mechanics)
Why is POV-Viewpoint number one? Because 90% of the story depends on who is narrating.
Notice I did not say first-person, second-person, or third-person narration. Those are pronouns. Keep in mind that the voice coming up off the page, the voice a reader hears, is the true storyteller of a tale. For example, as you read this post, you hear my voice in your mind. It's one distinct voice. It's not a hodgepodge or a mix of viewpoints. Believe it or not, for readers, the simply told tale works best. Which means a writer must pick and adhere to using an effective narrator to tell the tale.
Next on the list is Show, Don't Tell. POV-Viewpoint affects all aspects of show-don't-tell. In the majority of reader-favored stories, showing is preferred over telling. Showing allows for high emotions and high drama. It allows for a vividness that helps create a motion picture in the readers mind as the reader reads. It's the difference between writing "dog" and "Doberman."
However, most writers' schooling is about "telling" and "reporting" which enables them to communicate in the world. It's not about writing quality fiction.
Of course, POV-Viewpoint that shows means the narrator, that voice coming up and off a page, the voice the reader hears in their mind, is the witness who observers and who draws conclusions based on their background and experiences in life. They will, in their own vocabulary, diction, and syntax, relate the tale with their highly biased and opinionated view of what transpires.
As to number three on my list, Cause-and-Effect Sequences, that's as hard a subject to grasp as POV-Viewpoint. But there is one "red-flag" word that should be looked for when self-editing a work. That word is "as" and especially when it leads a clause at or near the end of a sentence. Nine times out of ten, that "as" indicates a reversed or skewed cause-effect. For example—
The icy wind lashed his faced and whipped through his hair as it blew in from the chilly Arctic Sea.
Yes, there's more than just a cause-effect error here. There's also a pronoun reference error with "it" that adds confusion. Since a pronoun refers back to the last used noun, here "it" refers to "his hair." This means "his hair" blew in from the chilly Arctic Sea.
In the correct sequence of cause-effect, and correcting the pronoun reference error to provide the reader with instant clarity, here are two examples of how the sentence might be re-written, and which eliminates "as" altogether—
1) The icy wind, blowing in from the frigid Arctic Sea, lashed his face and whipped through his hair.
2) Blowing in from the frigid Arctic Sea, the icy wind lashed his face and whipped through his hair.
Which is best? That will depend on the overall POV-Viewpoint chosen for the entire tale.
And, lastly, number four on the list is Dialogue. The most prevalent problem with writing dialogue is that the rules of grammar and punctuation do not necessarily apply.
It doesn't matter if the words are spoken out loud, thought internally, or even heard or voiced telepathically. Why? Because for a reader to believe the dialogue, that dialogue must sound as if it would have been spoken by a real person.
It's been said a thousand times that one of the quickest ways to destroy a character's voice and credibility is to adhere to strict rules of grammar and punctuation. That's why writers must master writing Standard Written Dialogue and utilizing the best Dialogue Mechanics to "show" not tell how the words are thought or spoken.
One of my favorite examples of destroying a character's voice comes from a short story I wrote years ago where my starship captain heard "farting" biotubes. A steeped-in-proper-English editor wanted to change farting to the "flatulence." I'd like to hear Captain Kirk of the starship Enterprise say flatulent bio tubes, wouldn't you? Then again flatulence also means "pompously embellished language."
Knowledge is power. When you learn the techniques and devices of writing quality fiction, you gain the knowledge to write well and tell a story well—and go from being just another writer to becoming a competent—even great—storyteller.
Learn fiction writing techniques and devices and you will own the knowledge. Then you will have the power that enchants readers.
***Next month's topic will be "Eye and Brain Coordination?"
Upcoming online course Feb. 1-27, 2017
Flyer Available HERE
****** Free Writers Cheat Sheets available HERE
Available soon - REVISION IS A PROCESS
Available now - TERRIFIC TITLES
# # #