Creating Your Personal Writer’s Bible

Recently I wrote an article for a blog for a FB group of which I am part.  The following is that article:

There are as many writing styles as there are stories written, to be sure.  We all have our own.  But one thing I have come to believe is that everyone, regardless of writing style, can benefit from a personal writer’s bible.

I remember when I first began making a serious study of writing.  I had ‘The Professor’, a knowledgeable editor/writer who prefers anonymity, to guide me.  We met with two other writers weekly and voraciously delved into the inner workings of writing for the better part of three years.  Our meetings were not necessarily a writer’s club, but more of a class or workshop. Each week we focused on a specific aspect of writing, from simple areas like the power of the comma and how to avoid info-dumping, to more in-depth character arcs over series and subtext.

Slowly but surely my character development and plots came into focus, but still there was something lacking in my writing.  One week, The Professor had us bring in one page of our WIPs.  We exchanged this page with the intention of focusing on the descriptive words we chose and why.  This was an eye-opening night for me.  For the first time I realized where I could make a vast improvement, but it was not found in those descriptive words of which we were searching.  It came when one of my classmates said, “you say ‘looked’ a lot.”

I quickly read my page and saw that my characters “looked” no less than five times on that single page!  This was truly alarming to me.  How could I have not noticed this?

The professor said, most likely in an attempt to rally my spirits, that we all have words we use like a crutch.  But that these words, though they help us get our story on the page, should be found and obliterated.

That night I went home and began scanning my work not for what writers deem most important like backstory or plot, but for simple overused words, like “turned” and “looked”.  Over the next week I found over 12 words I used as a crutch that needed to be thrown out.  So I wrote down each word and began searching my document one word at a time to alter each into a more descriptive or useful option.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was the beginning of my writer’s bible, because once I bandaged these words, leaving few instances where the offending word still remained (because let’s face it, at some point our characters have to look and turn) I began to see other failed words in the form of phrases.  For example, my characters, when they were angry, never stopped ‘gritting their teeth’.  What I ended up with were a lot of characters with nubby teeth because they had no other option for displaying their anger.

Something had to change.

Like the Christian bible teaches and cautions against fault and sin.  My writing bible was also a teacher and a caution.  I had committed egregious writing sins which needed to be wiped clean from the page.  This bible of mine helped me attain a higher level of writing peace.  (Perhaps the analogy is over the top, but you get my point.)

Over the next year or so my personal bible evolved to included not only crutch words and phrases, but many others, like tautologies (of which the sin was great), purple prose, and superfluous adverbs.  As each shortcoming manifest itself through my own editing or through the help of wonderful beta readers, I would add to my bible the “commandments” of which I should be most warry.

Finally, a wonderful thing began to happen.  The work I’d put in became part of my writing style. The more I corrected these problems, the easier they became to spot as I wrote my first drafts.  I was able to delete the word or phrase before it ever darkened my page, making it easier to focus on those more important aspects like bonding to my characters, creating voice, and developing plot.

A personal writer’s bible took my writing to a more elevated level.  No one is perfect and all drafts are just that, drafts.  But being honest with yourself about your shortcomings, changing what doesn’t work, and taking advice and critique from others is the only way to hone your skill as a writer.  It is a messy business.  Sometimes the red ink can be overwhelming, but as in life, a good bible by your side will make it easier bear.  Bare?  Baer?  Whelp.  Homonyms.  There’s another one for my writers bible.  Best of luck!

Favorite Quote March 2017

“There is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation – veneer isn’t worth anything.”  – George Washington Carver

What in inspiration George Washington Carver is.  He was an example of real achievement.  Born into slavery and became a scientist and inventor.  He embodies the true spirit of the the American dream.  Freedom, hard work, brains and a life long thirst for knowledge.  Thank you Mr. Carver.

March 2017 Book/ Movie of the month

This month the book and movie are one in the same.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare.  What a pleasant read.  Not only is the play witty, but it is a testament to how great writing can truly be.  What great character development!  What a great view into history and morality of the time.  I hope you will take the time to give it a read.  One of my favorite lines: “He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man. He that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.”

The movie is the same, as I mentioned.  There are, I’m sure, many theater companies in many cities across the country who perform this play in a years time and that would of course be a fabulous way to see this story, but the movie I recommend is the Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson version released in 1993.  This movie was filmed while the two were still married, and it is remarkable.  Their banter is on par with the best of them.  (Yes, I realize there is an out of place performance by a young Keanu Reeves, whom I actually really adore.  Think Matrix.  But he is on screen for less than ten minutes and only speaking for five, so we can forgive him this.)  On the whole, it is a marvelous and enjoyable film adaptation.

8th Law of Joni’s writing Bible

Thou shalt not lose sight of thy plot.

Easy right?

WRONG!

I remember writing my first novel and being so excited.  I thought I had created a masterpiece.  I emailed a few sample chapters to The Professor, as I lovingly refer to her.  She called me the next day and asked me a question that made me think.

“How serious are you about wanting to write?”

Funny, I thought I already was writing.  I told her, “Very serious.  I love writing.”

She then told me we needed to meet.  And that meeting changed everything.  Not only did I learn that what I had typed was not writing, but that I truly had no idea what real writing entailed. Writing is not just coughing up a story.  Anyone can do that.  It is about developing a relationship with your characters.  So much so that their world becomes the reader’s world and their journey (or plot) becomes the reader’s journey.

In the easiest of terms a plot is nothing more than the events your character’s life in a sequence.  Again, simple?

Seemingly, but no.

A plot is like a stippled piece of art.  From a distance it seems like a solid picture.  Like: Jack and Jill go up a hill to fetch a pail of water.  Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.  Easy right?  The stippled art is one solid picture that we think is wonderful.  But, on further inspection of the artwork, you realize there are thousands of tiny dots all working together to create that piece of art, and we see the intricacies.  Like: Jill tricked jack into going up the hill and when they got to the top she pushed him down the hill for the insurance money.  But when he didn’t die, Jill threw herself down hoping to die so she wouldn’t go to jail.

Plots are messy.  Not only are there story arcs, character arcs, plot holes, plot devices and foreshadowing, but there is also subplot to work out.  ARG!  There is so much to worry over and edit out.  Because in this mess we can sometimes lose focus of our main plot.  Our main story arc.

I’ll tell you one thing that truly can help.  After you have written your first draft front to end, you may want to physically write a run down of your plot chapter by chapter.  Not an outline, but a paragraph or so of exactly what happened in the chapter.

Example:  Chapter one.  Jack married to Jill.  He is at work.  Jill meets him for lunch.  Jill seems agitated, but says she is nervous about an interview later.  Jack brushes it off goes back to work.  Jill texts him two hours later and says she wants Jack to meet her for a romantic dinner at the top of their favorite hill.  He agrees.

After you finish this process for each chapter, you must then go through each chapter and ask yourself, “Did this scene add in any way to the plot.  Did the dialogue further my story or character?  Did it move us forward?”  If the answer is no, you have a useless scene that will best serve your deleted file.  (I keep a file called “thebooktitle extras”.  With everything I delete, in case I happen to need it back for some reason.)

If I am writing about Jack and Jill and in chapter three Jack takes a trip to the local bar to cheat on Jill, great! Leave it in there.  That could be why Jill pushes him down the hill, he’s a cheating dirt bag and she knows it.  But if in chapter three he spends the whole chapter at the bar chatting with his Dad about his day at work, it probably needs to be cut down or cut out completely.

You may love the scene between Jack and his dad.  You may think it shows real growth in their relationship.  Cut it.  So much of my stories, never make it on the page.  It’s backstory or side plot that just has to go.  I would estimate that I cut at least one third of every story I write in the first edit.  Mainly because the scene doesn’t matter in the long run.

I’ll be honest here; it hurts to delete that line of dialogue you really loved, or that cute thing your character did that struck a chord with you, but your story will be better because you trimmed the fat so-to-speak.

Good luck staying on plot!

7th Law of Joni’s Writing Bible

Thou shalt show the reader the emotions of thy characters.  Not tell them in a dreary way.

I think this topic may be revisited again someday because it is so very important and there are so many facets to this idea of “showing”.  Today I think I will focus on the very basics.  In elementary school we are taught to tack on an adverb to tell what a character in our story is feeling.  Even when reading children’s books today I see it done constantly.  Why?  It is done because children are too young to understand similes, analogies, alliteration, and word painting so authors are allowed to “tell”.  They also will not pick up on subtle hints of emotion from dialogue.  Also, these words are overused because children’s brains are unused to the written language, and need to be exposed to not only new words, but new emotions.  It is good practice. Here’s an example of what I mean.

Jack pulled Helen’s hair very hard.

Helen spun around to Jack.  “I hate you!” said Helen angrily.

This is blatant telling what Helen feels.

This kind of writing cannot be done in books beyond the children/juvenile realm.  Thankfully it appears less in Mid-grade and should be obliterated by YA and Adult fiction.  So how do we leave the telling and foray into the showing?  First, follow the previous lesson on superfluous adverbs.  In my short example above the “very” and the “angrily” are useless words.  Jack did something mean and Helen just shouted ‘I hate you’.  The words themselves showed us, and the exclamation point drove it home.  But even without an exclamation point (which should be used sparingly in your prose) we would still feel the anger because of the act by Jack and her dialogue.

Yes, that was very basic, but hopefully you got the idea.  Let’s move on to something more complex.  Showing emotion, to me, seems to be a marriage of the right dialogue, the right physical action or inaction, and proper alliteration and word painting.  Today, let’s focus on the right dialogue with the right physical action or inaction.

I hope you already see your characters as real people.  If not, use your imagination and try to visualize them.  What are they doing in the scene?  Let’s imagine that Helen is an adult of twenty-five and her fiance has just told her he just cheated on her.  What would she do?  What would you do?  What are the subtle ways a person can say “I hate you” even without saying the words.  This is where people watching can become very important.  Watch people flirt, fight, or laugh.  What are they doing?  What are they showing us?  In a fight, nostrils flare, teeth are bared, fists are formed, muscles are tensed, insults are cast, voices are raised, faces are reddened.  We have a never ending arsenal of words to draw on that will make the showing easier, and thus our reader will feel more connected to the story.  Nobody wants to be told what to feel.  We want to feel it with our characters.

I am no expert at this and I still find myself practicing this art.  I will use an excerpt from my own book.  How it “was” in my first copy and what it became.  (It is embarrassing to show a first draft of anything to anyone so be kind.)

“You screwin’ that kid?”  Carl suddenly said, his voice was thick with accusation.

“No,” Lila whispered.

Strangely, that was it.  No explosion.  This was not like her dad at all.

Okay, in the example I tell us.  Twice.  I beat us over the head with “His voice was thick with accusation” and “This was not like her dad at all.”  Cut both of those telling pieces and not only does it read better, but the less is more is visible.  You can feel more, insert yourself more into Lila’s thoughts.  Here is what the scene ended up becoming:

“You screwin’ that kid?” He turned to her.

Lila looked at the floor.  “No.”

“Then what the hell was that?”

Hopefully you can see that less is more.  Just from the dialogue and Lila’s action of looking to the floor, we see the accusation.  We feel the tension.  Don’t beat the reader over the head with it.  I guess it all boils down to the idea that a scene will mean more to the reader if they get to use their imagination and work for it just a little.

Good luck with this step in the editing Bible.

Favorite Quote January 2017

This month quote is one that I feel is beneficial for our country, given the intense and even hateful sentiment surrounding this last election and inauguration.  I hope everyone will step back and take a breath and perhaps listen to those who have a smaller voice and those who know that hate begets hate and violence begets violence.

“There are seven blunders that will destroy us: wealth without work, pleasure without consequence, knowledge without character, religion without sacrifice, Politics without principle, Science without humanity, business without ethics.” – – Mahatma Gandhi universally credited

January 2017 Book/Movie of the month

And I’m back.  I wanted to post in December, but truly that wasn’t going to happen and I was a fool for thinking it would.  Though I try my hardest to keep the Holidays in check, I love it all so much that I over plan, over purchase, and over watch every classic Holiday Movie.

Now down to Business.  My picks for this month are the same

Book:  Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  This book is timeless.  What a perfect piece of real, historical Americana.  Alcott wrote a beautiful piece that feels real and not infused with the politics or morality oh her time as so many do as they write historical fiction.  Yes, the book is said to be geared toward younger females, but the story is such that an adult male and female can benefit from the story, the ideals, and the lesson of staying true to yourself no matter what.

Movie:  The same.  Little Women.  There are three notable versions of this movie that Hollywood has given us over the last century.  The First was in 1933 and starred Kathrine Hepburn, whom I adore.  However, that version of the movie is not my first recommendation.  It is worth the watching because it has it’s moments, but I felt Jo’s character was not for Katherine and it never resonated with me.  Another version, and one I do NOT recommend and NEVER will recommend is the movie produced in 1994.  It starred Susan Sarandon, Wynona Ryder, Claire Danes, and even Christian Bale, whom I would trust in almost any film.  That being said, I still will never recommend this movie.  Yes, it had big Hollywood names, but that was all it had.  The story was a gross overstep of the book and was infused with the exact political and moral climate of the time the movie was made.  That is a no-no in historical fiction.  It is truly not worth the rental fee.  Finally, the version I will recommend and the point of this whole rant today: the 1949 version of Little Women starring June Allison as Jo, Janet Leigh as Meg, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, Margaret O’Brien as Beth, and Peter Lawford as Laurie.  All of these actors are amazing.  I am a fan of each individually and collectively they created a timeless movie without the political rhetoric of 1949 of which there was plenty!  Though the movie does not follow the book as closely as it could have, the overall theme is correct, the overall feeling is the same and I believe that if you never read the book, you would feel that you understood Alcott’s intent.  Go rent this version.  Or purchase your own copy.  It is a wonderful movie for a snowy, winter night.

6th Law of Joni’s writing Bible

Thou shalt be honest with thyself and realize that thou dost overuse certain words to the detriment of thy writing.

I call the words I overuse my “go-to” words.  These are the words we always use to show what our characters are doing or feeling.  Some people call these words “crutches”.  In our first draft they are fine.  They are place fillers for the actions or emotion we will hopefully add later, but don’t forget about them.  In your second or third edit you must eradicate them from your manuscript.

I keep a running list of my “go-to” words so that when I finish my first draft I can go back and find these little demons and destroy them with what I was really trying to say.  Here is a list of some of my offending words:

Suddenly

Looked

Turned

Felt

Kind of

I think

Eye brows creased

Frowned

Smiled

Racing heart

Clenched jaw

Deep breath

Yes, you may use these.  In fact, I dare you to write a book where someone doesn’t “look” somewhere once or twice, but it cannot be the only thing that your character does.  But, you can’t have your character constantly turning circles, looking, and frowning.  Have her “hitch up one side of her mouth” instead of smile, have him “purse his lips” instead frown, have them “search” instead of look.  We create hundreds of expressions of actions all day.  Take time to note your actions and the actions of others so your characters become more human.  Good luck.

5th Law of Joni’s writing Bible

Thou shalt remove superfluous adverbs from thy prose.

When every writer starts out, we have a tendency to whip out those lovely “ly” words (yes I am aware that lovely is an ly word) to try to get our point across.  It’s not our fault.  We learn it in grade school.  Our teachers want us to learn vocabulary and word associations by having us use adjectives and adverbs in a flooding way that can damage our writing later.  I will give you an example from my own writing.  This is an excerpt from my first attempted Novel about eight years ago.

“I hurriedly scanned the terrain for signs of life.  The silence densely lay across the charcoal ruins like a being itself, the only thing left of the woods; and the breeze that had quickly chilled me on the water had calmed to a sinister motionlessness in the forest remains.”

Yup.  I kept this original version of my story as a reminder of how bad writing can be when you are first learning your craft.  Now, please, don’t misunderstand as we move forward.   Yes, you may use adverbs, but you do NOT need them in every sentence.  One well placed adverb in an entire page can be poignant.  But over use will diminish your verb, your action, by clouding it as adjectives can cloud a subject.

Let’s see how we can rewrite these sentences without most of these adverbs.

“I hurriedly scanned the terrain for signs of life.”  Scanning something is already a quick motion.  If my character were studying the terrain, that would be a slow action.  So if we have already picked the appropriate verb, the adverb “hurriedly” becomes superfluous.   Now it would read.  “I scanned the terrain for signs of life.”

Next: “The silence densely lay across the charcoal ruins like a being itself, the only thing left of the woods;”.  Okay so I am not opposed to the word dense in this sentence, but I am opposed to densely.  We can use dense as an adjective rather than an adverb.  (And if I’m being honest I don’t like everything tacked on after the word ‘itself’.  So I will nix that also) Now it reads, “The silence lay across the charcoal ruins like a being itself;”

Last: “And the breeze that had quickly chilled me on the water had calmed to a sinister motionlessness in the forest remains.”  Yeah.  That’s just bad.  So many unnecessary words here and not just adverbs.  I will of course be getting rid of quickly and motionlessness.  But to do so will have to rearrange the sentence.  There are many ways to do this, but here is the example I’ll give you.  “The breeze that had chilled me on the water felt sinister in the forest remains.”  More concise, yes?

Lets put them all together and see what we have.

“I scanned the terrain for signs of life.  The silence lay across the charcoal ruins like a being itself; the breeze that had chilled me on the water felt sinister in the forest remains.”

We cut the word count down from 49 words to 34!  And not only did we tighten our prose, but the sentences drive the feeling better than did our wordy quickly’s and hurriedly’s.

My advise is to do a search for these types of words.  Especially “very” and “really” and then revise.   It is better, really.  (see what I did there? HA!)

November 2016 Book/ movie of the month

The book of the month for November is Anne of Green Gables.  The kids and I read this book also for homeschool this month.  What a beautiful story.  The language is such that children must listen attentively.  Though it is not as difficult and scripture or Shakespeare it takes a certain amount of allowance for phrases and dialogue that kids may not understand, but the story is wonderful and the worries of youth captured so perfectly.  I recommend this good read!

 

The movie of the month is Singing in the Rain starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds.  This classic musical is one that holds serious nostalgia.  When my dad bought our first VHS player in the 80’s, this movie was one of the first he bought and we watched it over and over and over again.  We didn’t have cable television and sometimes there was just nothing on.  Like seriously, I remember a couple of local channels being off the air.  But we could pop in a musical like this and watch all the grandeur the Golden Age of Hollywood had to offer in this slight parody/ romantic comedy.  If you have never seen the greatest musical ever made, buy it now!