How to Write Gud, by me and George Orwell

I wrote this back in early 2013, when no one read my blog (or, more accurately, when fewer people pretended to. Since I liked it, I decided to repost it.)

GeorgeOrwellWriting

George Orwell, in his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, provided six simple rules for avoiding what he calls “bad English.” They are:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

To these, I will be so bold as to add a few more I have picked up from years of reading and editing:

7. Learn the standard rules of English grammar and style before writing. You, as author, should be the expert. (Your editor is not your mommy.)
8. Edit as you go, rather than waiting until you have completed the work.
9. Expand Orwell’s rule # 3 to entire sentences and passages.
10. It’s only “lyrical” writing if they finish reading it.

Rule #1 is simple: Orwell talks about “dying metaphors [that] have lost all evocative power” and are used only due to laziness. Some examples he provided are: “take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over,” and others. Notably, the first metaphor, and others he used, are now dead, and few would even understand their meaning. Use metaphors sparingly, and be certain they evoke the meaning you intend.

Rules #2 and #5 he summarizes as “pretentious diction.” Long words do not make you sound smart. Learned people use precise words that they know their audience understands. He provides a long list of examples, which you can read for yourself. I summarize it by suggesting the writer choose a word in order to increase understanding, and for no other reason. The “right” word will, by definition, sound best. As Orwell suggests, French, Latin, or other foreign words do not make you sound smarter.

Rule #3 is touted particularly in poetry. As poets, we are taught to examine each word. If it can be removed without altering the piece, it’s unneeded. That applies equally to prose. Orwell makes a sound argument for what he calls “verbal false limbs” that “save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry.” In short, we use phrases like “make contact with, render inoperable, give rise to” instead of the simpler “meet, break, create.” Words are not like cash. Readers do not want more words; they want fewer words and more story. As a hint, if you’ve already said it, the readers are smart enough to remember. Don’t go all Stephen King and repeat the book’s damn catch phrase over and over. Simplify, grasshopper.

I won’t beat the drum about passive writing, because it’s been beaten enough. Suffice it to say that you should reduce passivity, because readers want to know what your protagonist is doing, not what life is doing to him/her. Contrary to popular belief, passive sentences don’t have to be zero percent of your writing, but I do think you should strive for less than 10 percent.

Finally, for my pet peeves rules, I will be brief. Nothing can take a reader out of a story she wants to like faster than bad writing. However, you cannot know it’s bad writing if you don’t know what the rules are. Learn when to use (and when not to use) punctuation. Learn the basics of AP (or Chicago) style guides. Learn. Bloody. Grammar. If you don’t believe these are important, go on Amazon and start reading one and two-star reviews. You will find them littered with disgruntled readers harping about poor grammar, editing, and writing.

And while we are discussing editing, understand that it is a big job. Bigger than that. Bigger. Don’t wait for the editor to start the process; go over the last passage you wrote, and re-read for editing. It will cull the gross mistakes and make it easier for your writing to flow from one passage to the next. The objective here, however, is editing as a reader. READ the work; see if it flows, if you stumble over grammar, if it makes sense. You will be glad you did.

My favorite rule is #10. It is how I have (recently) learned to take out those bits of brilliance that I love. If it is your most beautiful writing, but they don’t read it, or if it takes them out of the story, excise it. I know it hurts, but guess what, you can use it somewhere else. Make a poem, a short story, or just stick it on your website to show how gorgeous your prose is. I’ll tell you a secret, those “brilliant” bits are the stuff you’ll read later and groan, “What the hell was I thinking?”

Simplify, grasshopper, simplify. (See how annoying that is?)

More Writers on Writing

Just what the title says. There is no best way to write. Find a process that works for you and follow it. Sometimes, as in my case, it’s not about how you write; the inhibitor more revolves around why you write. Once I learned whom I write for and why, my writing began to improve tremendously. Here are some successful authors’ views:

Charlie Rose talks to Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Malcolm Gladwell, Joan Didion, Jonathan Franzen, and Fran Lebowitz:

Fran, by the way, voices my own problem with my writing. I’ve recently encountered an impasse, not because my writing is bad, but precisely because I’ve reached that precipice where I could make The Leap. Suddenly, who cares about good? Good, as we know, is the enemy of great.

So, the problem with posting talks from writers is that even the most inhibited author is full of words. Try getting one to talk for fewer than 30 minutes. Nonetheless, here are a few  more short talks.

William Faulkner on The Sound and the Fury:

Tennessee Williams:

Anne Rice:

(Blogger’s note: I swapped out Gore Vidal because I’d decided he really didn’t say anything worth listening to.)

Elmore Leonard:

(This is my favorite of these interviews. He’s describing my current book, and now I know what my issue has been. I’ve let the characters in without an audition.)

Hope you enjoy the videos.

 

This Week’s Essays on Writing

Slide3This was the 3rd post I ever did on this blog, back on 28 December 2010. Obviously, no one really watched the videos because almost no one read my blog. I thought it worth reposting for those of you who aspire to be (or already are) writers.

Ray Bradbury on Writing Persistently

Stephen King – Advice to New Writers

Joyce Carol Oates – On Writing Characters

 

Life Lessons from a Big Dog

1. Wag more. Bark less.
2. You will live longer in a pack than you will alone.
3. Every pack needs an alpha. See if it’s you.
4. They secretly like it when you lick them.
5. Not all females are bitches. In fact, most are not.
6. Wild dogs cannot be tamed; they can, however, be housebroken.
7. Always greet your pack like you just fell in love.
8. Say goodbye like you’ll never see them again.
9. Sometimes it’s good to be a bad dog.
10. When they hit the right spot – just there – don’t be afraid to shake your leg a bit.
11. If you don’t know what it is, piss on it.
12. Mark your territory.
13. Big dogs don’t threaten, they just bite.
14. If you don’t know how to cuddle, expect to sleep alone.
15. Girls won’t kiss you if your breath stinks.
16. When bad things happen, forget about it quickly, and then wag your tail.
17. Sex is good; there is no need to be ashamed.
18. Just because she’s running from you doesn’t mean she wants you to chase her.
19. Size matters, but leadership comes from the heart.
20. A little bit of petting goes a long way.
21. Eat. Sleep. Play. Wag. Life is simple.

A Dream Is Not a Hobby

A dream is not a hobby.

The difference between dreams and reality

Some of you are already nodding your heads; others are, perhaps, confused. Let me explain. Writers, painters, sculptors, photographers, those of us who try the arts hoping to eke out some acclaim and a living, do so because we love it, to be sure. I write books and stories, for instance, because I get genuine enjoyment whenever someone reads and enjoys my stories. I probably get more satisfaction than they do. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t care about financial results.

I routinely get told, by well-intentioned people, that I should be content with “writing for myself” or that I shouldn’t care about financial rewards.

“Why are you writing?” they ask, “Is it for money or because you enjoy writing?”

The answer is, “Yes.”

“Do you want to be good, or do you want to be famous?”

Again, “Yes.”

I, in fact, am confused by the question. It’s like asking, “Do you want to have kids or do you want to see them grow up?” Um, why do you think those are two different things? The theory seems to be we artists should be content with being able to create – that the work itself is enough, if we have people who recognize and appreciate our efforts. But that diminishes our dreams of being an artist to a hobby.

I write for two reasons. One, I love to write. Two, I dream of being able to quit my day job so I can write more. Why should I be content with the first reason? Would you, well-meaning friend, be okay with consulting for free, as long as clients tell you that you’ve done an admirable job? And you, dear doctor friend, do you treat patients as a sideline (hobby) while working full-time at another gig that pays the bills? Of course you don’t, and why should you?

See, here’s the secret that your artist friend isn’t telling you: they probably work as hard at their art as you work at your job. Plus, most likely have a “real” job to go along with it. My work days, if you count the days I’m at my career, or writing, or promoting, or editing, or any of other related tasks, are 7 days a week, 52 weeks per year. I “work” probably 10-12 hours per day. The fact that the writer/photographer work is fun doesn’t lessen how hard I work at it.

If you are not an artist, but you have a friend who is, promise me something. Promise that you will never tell him or her that they should be happy just doing the work. And, if you believe that to be true, keep going to work and give them your salary. See if that feels satisfying. The work is its own reward, after all. Right? Your artist friend has a dream to be validated, which in modern society takes two forms: First, people view the work, like it, and tell others they do. Second, there is some tangible, objective measure of its worth.

Now I’m not trying to reduce everything to money. Heck, my own research indicates that the bestselling books aren’t even the ones that are critically acclaimed. However, the way I know that my short stories are good is if people are willing to give something up to read them. A painter knows people appreciate her painting because they pay for it. If they were all free, would they be important? Who knows?

I give away books to people I like. Those who care, read them. But here’s a secret – the more they like me, the more they like the book. So, am I good? Not unless objective people think I am.

I don’t have a dream to be a writer. I have a dream to be paid because people like to read my work. Your artist friend doesn’t have a dream to do a gallery showing, she has a dream to have people come to the gallery, love her art, and buy some of it. Then, perhaps, she can spend the remainder of her life doing what she likes for money.

Because, at the end of the day, isn’t that the dream we all have in common?

Writers Tip of the Day: Show, Don’t Tell … Is Stupid

show-and-tell

We’ve all heard it: writers should “show,” not “tell.” By that, the common wisdom, espoused to novelists and poets alike, means that writers should reveal a scene by allowing it to play out, not by passively sitting back and describing it. Let’s look at one example.

First, let’s tell.

Jake was heartbroken watching Ann as she stood in front of the window. She was tense and distracted. It was a goodbye, Jake knew, and though he thought her lovelier than ever before, he was powerless to stop her leaving.

Now, let’s show.

Ann paced across the wooden floor to the window and back, her bare feet softly slapping against the floor boards. The noise startled Jake, who’d been watching her for some time, afraid to interrupt. She stopped, finally, in front of the open window, her white gown ballooning with the breeze like the billows of a sail. She was, in fact, sailing, flying from him as he sank into the couch, drowning. The sun outlined her naked skin beneath the gown, and he remembered every form, every touch, every moan, none of which he’d ever experience again.

Okay, I’m not in a poetic mood, and both passages suck a few eggs, but you get the point, no? In the first passage, we are told what Ann feels and how Jake responds. In the second, we watch her movements and figure out her mood on our own. We aren’t told directly what Jake feels, but are given enough information to figure it out ourselves.

Sounds good, right? Well, it is, assuming the little scene above with Ann and Jake is important to your story. But what if it isn’t? What if all we needed to know from the scene is that “Jake still loved Ann, still found her alluring, but to no avail. She’d moved on.” I’ve just “told” you the same thing, and sped the reader along to more important parts of the story in the process. See, Show, Don’t Tell (SDT), is only applicable for the important bits. The problem with the first example isn’t “telling,” it’s that we are told poorly.

More to the point, it’s more a poetry rule than a storytelling one. We are story tellers, not story showers. Know why? Books are not movies. We don’t need (or want) the viewer to see every part of the story. Your story will drag and readers will lose interest. I’m reminded of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I loved, to a point. That point was when the author saw fit to show me every freaking object in the room in vivid detail, instead of just telling me the room was cluttered. None of the details were relevant to the story, but he showed them nonetheless. At the end, I enjoyed the book, though I skipped pages upon pages of pointless descriptors.

“But Bill,” you say, “all my writing teachers say Show, Don’t Tell.”

Mine did too. That’s why I dropped out of their classes. See, my friends, it turns out your 1st grade teacher had it right. The correct rule is Show and Tell.

Here’s what Joshua Henkin, writing for Writer’s Digest, had to say on the subject:

A story is not a movie is not a TV show, and I can’t tell you the number of student stories I read where I see a camera panning. Movies are a perfectly good art from, and they’re better at doing some things than novels are—at showing the texture of things, for instance. But novels are better at other things. At moving around in time, for example, and at conveying material that takes place in general as opposed to specific time (everything in a movie, by contrast, takes place in specific time, because all there is in a movie is scene—there’s no room for summary, at least as we traditionally conceive of it). But most important, novels can describe internal psychological states, whereas movies can only suggest them through dialogue and gesture (and through the almost always contrived-seeming voiceover, which is itself a borrowing from fiction). To put it more succinctly, fiction can give us thought: It can tell. And where would Proust be if he couldn’t tell? Or Woolf, or Fitzgerald? Or William Trevor or Alice Munro or George Saunders or Lorrie Moore?

I promise you, if you try to show everything, you will find your story balloons out of control. Rather than SDT, a better rule would be, “Don’t be Lazy.” Describe what needs to be described. Tell what cannot be seen or heard. When you choose to tell, tell it vividly and interestingly. Avoid lazy descriptors like “pretty,” since what you think is pretty may be considered skinny or funny looking by a reader. Don’t tell me your lead is a Native American girl. That offers almost no help in knowing her appearance, her personality, or even her background. Conversely, don’t send me through a scene showing her family life when I can get the same information by your describing the family dynamic and how it’s important to the story.

Remember, whether you are penning a novel or a haiku, the writer’s job is to place the reader in the story and keep her there. You do that by writing well. And that leads me to what I’ve learned is the real reason people tell you to SDT. It’s DAMNED HARD to tell a story well. Telling in way that people want to read takes skill.

Try this as an exercise. Write a story — any subject — from a 1st-person Point of View, wherein the narrator is telling the reader of an event or events that happened. Don’t resort to showing everything, just allow yourself to tell the story without using cliches or maudlin language. I bet you’ll find it’s hard to do. But when you’re done, I bet you’re a better writer than when you started.

As Joshua Henkin wrote, “You will never be told you’re cheesy if you describe a couch, but you might very well be told you’re cheesy if you try to describe loneliness.” See, telling us how a lonely woman feels is hard. You have to walk the fine line between making the reader caring about her loneliness and thinking you’re just trying to be emotionally manipulative. Too many writers take the easy way out and simply describe the character’s empty life, or her solitary walks in the park, never putting us deeply inside her head.

Let’s go back to Ann and Jake, and try telling their story better.

Jake’s head swirled with visions of Ann, the way her white sundress billowed in the spring breeze or how the sun flirted with her, daring to expose her tanned flesh beneath her dress. But he was drowning without her, could no longer remember how to swim alone when she’d for so long been his life raft. But she was leaving now, and her tense posture told him there would be no reasoning her out of it.

Show AND Tell. It’s not just for school kids anymore.