Saturday, February 05, 2011

How To Write Magical Words: Chapter One

Following this little intro is the first chapter of a recent book of which I am contributing editor (meaning I got to abuse all the other writers and still have the fun of being in the book with them. Truly, the best of all possible worlds). How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion is a distillation of three years worth of how-to writing advice from the blog, Magical Words. Although I’ve only been working with the Magical Words crew (Faith Hunter, David B. Coe, Misty Massey, A.J. Hartley, Stuart Jaffe, and C.E. Murphy (who is on an extended hiatus at the moment) for a little over seven months now, I’ve been watching them since the beginning because I always thought that their blog was a great idea, extremely well executed.

First off, the blog is filled with advice about the craft of writing, offered from multiple perspectives. Over the years I’ve read plenty of books about writing and one thing that always struck me about the vast majority of them was that it was one writer, saying THIS is the way you do it. Problem is, there are as many ways to DO IT as there are writers. Obviously some ways are more effective than others, but this is writing, people, not religion. There is no ONE TRUE WAY to be a writer. And Magical Words acknowledged that. Heck, they played with it and made it fun. I respected that tremendously.

The other thing I believe Magical Words has done well since the very beginning is that they give comprehensive and honest business information. As much as writers are artists creating whole worlds in their minds, there comes a point when writers have to take off their artist hats and put on their business-person hats. If you have any thoughts about getting published, the business side of things can not be ignored any more than the craft side.

My own involvement with Magical Words came late one night in June of 2010. I was having drinks with the MW gang (minus Catie, who lives in Ireland) at a convention in Charlotte NC, when I said the fateful words, “You guys have already written a lot of great stuff about writing. You should collect it all together and put a book out.” Someone—David Coe, if memory serves—replied (a little too quickly, I thought), “We’ve considered that, but we need an editor to put it together.” Before you could say ‘Buy me another beer, Batman,’ I was not just editing a book, I was a regular contributor to the blog.

Building a book from three years worth of blog posts was more challenging than I ever would have anticipated, but it was educational and exciting and fun, too. We were able to find a small-press publisher (Bella Rosa Books, who have a number of award-winning titles to their credit) who not only gave us total control of what the book looked like and how it was put together, but was able to get it into print much quicker than any big NY house would have been able to do. We went from concept to finished product in under six months. Six months. If you know anything about the publishing business, you know that doesn’t happen often. Yet despite the speed with which we put it all together, it’s still a book I’m very proud of, which is why I want to share it with you today.

So, without further adieu (which translates from the French to mean “babbling on my part”), I give you the first chapter from How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion.

They’re Not Rules, They’re Price Tags

Edmund R. Schubert

Never write in second person.

Always start with a powerful first line.

Never change POVs in the middle of a scene.

Eschew adjectives. And adverbs.

Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah . . .

How To Write Magical Words is devoted to helping people write better, and there’s a lot of great advice to be found here.

And it’s all negotiable.

Seriously. There isn’t a bit of writing advice here that someone, somewhere (probably multiple someones and multitudinous somewheres) hasn’t broken, and broken really damn well.

So should you listen to what Faith and David and A.J. and Misty and Stuart and Catie have to say about writing? Of course you should. They’ve been doing this for a long time; they know what they’re talking about.

Well, then what the heck are you talking about, Edmund?

That would be a logical question.

What I’m talking about is this: I’m replying to a certain question before it’s even asked, a question I hear all the time. The minute any writing conversation turns in the direction of “rules” or “guidelines” or even just plain old “advice,” it inevitably crops up.

That question is: “Yeah, but what about ____x____?”

Because yes, there are exceptions to every rule. In fact, those exceptions are usually exceptional. People hold them up as shining examples of why the rules don’t apply. They do so wrongly, but that doesn’t stop them from doing it.

That’s why I want you to stop thinking of them as “rules” and start thinking of them as “price tags.” Even the rules of grammar and punctuation. They are all price tags.

Why price tags? Because there is a price to be paid for breaking the rules. If the gain outweighs the loss, then it’s worth doing. If not . . .

Let’s start with the rules of grammar and punctuation; they seem to be the most immutable. You want to break those rules? Generally, the price you pay is a lack of clarity and, as a result, a lack understanding. There’s a great book that came out several years ago called Eats Shoots and Leaves that talked about the importance of punctuation. Just punctuation. That subject alone filled an entire book. But look at the difference one little comma (or the lack thereof) makes in the title. If you say “eats shoots and leaves” without the comma, you’re talking about a panda’s diet. What do they eat? Bamboo shoots and leaves. But add one little comma so that it reads, “eats, shoots and leaves,” now you’re talking about a mafia hit-man who sits down in a restaurant, eats his dinner, kills the guy at the next table, and then walks out. A panda bear and a mafia hit man—and all that differentiates the two is one single comma.

There simply aren’t a lot of good reasons to mess with punctuation. Period. But grammar is a little more flexible. Look at the second sentence in this paragraph, the paragraph you’re reading right now. That’s really not a sentence, is it? “Period.” There’s no verb, there are no independent or dependent clauses; it’s just one word, sitting there, all alone. It’s—gasp—a sentence fragment. And doggone it, it’s not the first one that’s been used in this piece.

What price did I pay? Not much of one, because there was no loss of clarity. I knew when, where, and how to use them. What benefit did I gain? That fragment carries extra emphasis. It makes it perfectly clear that I think there are very, very, very few reasons to mess with punctuation. And that’s what fragments do best: narrow the focus down so as to emphasize a point. But you still have to be careful to construct. Them properly. Because the sloppy. Unintentional use of sentence fragments only causes confusion (see my previous sentence-fragment mess, right before this sentence; yes, that was intentional. But it was still ugly.).

Here’s a different example, one that comes up frequently when we’re talking about writing: don’t write in the present tense, or, heaven forbid, the future tense. Has it been done? Of course. Should it be done? Well, that’s really up to you. As always, there’s a price to pay.

In this case, because past tense is the tense used in the vast majority of writing today (especially if you disregard “literary writing,” which accounts for two-thirds of the uses of other tenses), unless present or future tenses are used seamlessly, it’s going to jump out at the reader. Look at me, it screams. I am writing in the present tense. I am going to be writing in the future tense. If that’s the effect you want—if it serves your story somehow—then by all means, go for it. Some writers can do so in a way that’s unobtrusive, so you hardly notice it’s being done. But here’s the thing: most readers want to be swept up in a story and carried away by it. They want to be immersed in the world they’re reading about to such a degree that they forget about the real one they’re living in. That can not happen if the writing is calling attention to itself. Using tenses that scream “look at me” are not going to allow that to happen. Again: “Can it be done” is not the question you should be asking yourself. “Should it be done” is the question.

I could go on about this at length, but I’m sure by now you see my point. The bottom line is that the rules are there for a reason. And it’s not to say you can never, ever, ever do ____x____. It’s to say that if you do _____x_____, make sure you know why you’re not supposed to do it. Make sure you understand the price tag that comes with doing it. Make sure that you understand that even though great writing breaks a lot of rules, no one breaks the rules effectively without thoroughly understanding them.

Once you really, truly understand the rules, then by all means, go ahead and break them. Break them into a million shining pieces that people will hold up and bask in the glory of.

Break them so well that you’re the one that people are talking about when they come up to me at my next convention or workshop and say, “Yeah, but what about ____x____?”

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