How to find your way around

I’ve been blogging for a while now and the number of posts has grown. Time to pin a short post here to advise anyone unfamiliar with WordPress sites how to navigate around the blog. Let’s say you’re a writer interested in posts about editing or grammar, you probably don’t want to be scrolling down oodles of posts you’re not interested in. There’s a search function and previous posts are archived according to month posted, but the simplest way is to use the Categories menu. It’s on the right—you might need to scroll down a little way to find it. Simply click on the category you’re interested in and you’ll be presented with the posts relevant to that subject-matter. The system’s not perfect—there are some posts that come under more than one category—but it’s the easiest method to find your way around.

Oh, and if you want to leave a comment or read existing comments, you have to be on the post’s page (by clicking its title), rather than on a page containing more than one post.

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 3

“The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar.”
― Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays

Another post about grammar? Yawn off, Sam.

There’s no need to be like that—I’m merely going to talk a little about some of the so-called rules that surround writing. If you frequent any forums inhabited by writers, you’ll see these ‘rules’ mentioned frequently. One or two may be more accurately described as ‘myths’, yet are held up as gospel by some. I’m going to keep this light-hearted—there are plenty of places where you can read serious discussions on these matters if you are so inclined. Let us begin…

To boldly split infinitives
We’ve all heard the rule: you should never split infinitives. Yeah, yeah, tell that to Gene Roddenberry, or whoever wrote the tagline for his most famous creation.

This edict arose from grammarians in times long gone objecting to separating the ‘to’ from the verb (to eat, to sleep, to read, etc) because the infinitive was never split in the Latin form of the verb. Well, it wouldn’t be, seeing as Latin verbs are usually only one word. A bit tricky to stick the Latin version of ‘boldly’ (audenter) into the middle of the Latin version of ‘to go’ (ire) and still have it make sense. And it wouldn’t be anywhere near as catchy.

If you want to split infinitives, go at it. There’s nothing wrong with writing, ‘I ran upstairs to quickly brush my teeth.’ But be cautious. Usually, we’re taking about separating the ‘to’ from the verb with an adverb and these ought to be used sparingly (see below). Take an example: ‘After a moment’s hesitation, I decided to briskly walk after him.’ For a start, that doesn’t sound natural to my ear—better if ‘briskly’ comes after ‘walk’. Better still, a new word could be substituted for ‘briskly walk’; there are plenty to choose from, such as stride, rush, hurry.

Liberally applying adverbs
Stephen King famously wrote: ‘I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs…’ [On Writing]. Some writers take this to mean that we should never use adverbs. Ever. Don’t believe me? Take a peek into any writers’ forum when this topic comes up and you won’t have to wait long before someone will come along and decry any use of the humble adverb, often trotting out this King quote in support of their position.

He is particularly scathing about adverbs used in dialogue tags, though he freely admits that he has been known to use them on occasion. I’ve just picked out one of his books at random from my bookshelves: Hearts of Atlantis. It took me under a minute to find an example: ‘“Go in your room, Bobby,” Ted said quietly.’

“No, no, no!” the naysayers will protest. “The phrase ‘said quietly’ should become ‘whispered’ or ‘breathed’ or ‘muttered’.” I heartily disagree. It’s about nuance: saying something quietly is not the same as whispering or breathing or muttering it.

To me, adverbs are another tool in the writer’s shed and to avoid them altogether is to unnecessarily limit our ability to paint the fullest picture with our words. Having said that, they should undoubtedly be used with care and often a better word will present itself. So slam the door rather than shut it firmly; shout rather than exclaim loudly; sprint rather than run quickly. But by all means sweat profusely if sweating alone doesn’t fully convey the image you want to portray.

He and she and they
Ah, gender-neutral pronouns. A tricky one this. Easy to use ‘they’ when referring to more than one gender-unspecified person; not so easy when referring to only one.

Historically, ‘he’ was understood to include ‘she’, but that is rightly no longer considered acceptable. Indeed, clumsy constructs like ‘he or she’ and ‘he/she’ are now regarded as non-inclusive since they exclude those who regard their gender as neither. (If you want to read more about this, there are many instructive articles out there, such as this one: how-to-use-gender-neutral-pronouns)

‘They’ seems to have become increasingly acceptable as a gender-neutral pronoun when referring to only one person, even though it is, technically, a plural pronoun, not singular. It doesn’t always work well, though. Take a simple, contrived example, where the writer doesn’t want to reveal the identity of either character and so conceals their gender:
‘The murderer picked up the knife; the victim cowered. They thrust it into their chest.’

I try to get around it in my blog by writing ‘he (or she, but let’s take that as read)’. That’s no less clumsy but I can get away with it somewhere informal like a blog. And I ought probably to write ‘he (or she or any pronoun of your choice, but let’s take that as read)’ so as to include those who don’t identify with either he or she.

As for fiction writing, the best advice to avoid clumsy structures like the example above is to rewrite it.

Redundancies
A mention of a couple of my pet hates, though they’re becoming so widely used that I suspect I’m railing against them in vain.

‘PIN number’ – PIN is an acronym for Personal Identification Number so we don’t need to say ‘number’. PIN alone will suffice.

‘for free’ – free means ‘for nothing’ so we don’t need to say ‘for’. ‘You can get it free’ suffices. With this one, in particular, I know I’m not so much peeing into the wind as into a force-ten gale. They even use the expression ‘for free’ on the BBC, for goodness’ sake.

That’ll do for now. If I think of any more pet hates, I’ll include them in the next grammar post. What, another one…?

Guest Post – Maggie Plummer

Today I’m hosting another guest, the free-spirited Maggie Plummer. I’ve known Maggie (in an online sense) for a number of years and always found her bubbly and delightful. She’s going to talk about how writers can use their real-life experiences in their fiction. Over to Maggie.

Turning Life into Fiction

When You Can’t Trust Your Memory…

Authors hear this again and again: Write what you know.

For years I thought about that, wanting to write my travel stories from the 1970s. I imagined a collection of short stories that would be called Tales of a Volkswagen Gypsy or something similar. For some reason, I just couldn’t get going on the project. Then I considered writing a memoir about those years, but quickly realized that my memory is too befuddled to attempt a non-fiction book about my life.

Gradually I developed the idea of a novel loosely (and I mean LOOSELY!) based on my ‘70s wanderings. After working on it for several years, Bell-Bottom Gypsy: A Jessie Morgan Novel is finally published and available on Amazon.

The process of turning my stories into a novel has been a revelation. It’s true what they say: truth is stranger than fiction. The thing is, fiction has to be believable.

In other words, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

There are pitfalls to avoid when writing autobiographical fiction. I think the biggest problem is a tendency to be too attached to memories. A fiction writer has to let go of the reality, and let the drama fly. The needs of the fiction must come first, no matter how fond a writer is of his/her real stories. That means:

  • Bending and stretching real people into credible fictional characters. This is especially important when the writer is the main character. Don’t forget, the novel’s protagonist has to be believable.
  • Making events fit together in a way that’s satisfying for a reader. Things must happen for a reason in a novel, moving the story forward. Always look for the conflict. A string of cool but disconnected anecdotes does not a novel make. Plan fiction with the narrative structure in mind.

The process of writing my new novel has been strikingly different from that of my two previous novels, Spirited Away and Daring Passage—both of which are historical novels set in the 1650s. As I wrote the two earlier novels, historical research played a major role in developing the novels’ plots. Bell-Bottom Gypsy, however, required that I look deeper into my story to create a plot with tension and conflict.

I not only had to embellish, I had to lie.

When it comes to writing fiction, the more dramatic the lie, the better. The thing to do is deliberately change a major element in the story. Take Twisty, my “bad guy” in Bell-Bottom Gypsy. In real life, my boyfriend was nothing like crazy old Twisty. Some of the details were similar: like Twisty, my boyfriend played guitar, sang, loved black and white photography, and was tall and dark. But his core character was totally different. My boyfriend was gentle, quiet, and mellow (in fact, sometimes he was too mellow for me! But I digress…). In order to write a decent novel, I turned him into someone edgy and potentially dangerous. It made all the difference.

Here are more tips for turning life into fiction:

  • Describe everything in detail. Too much detail can be edited out later. When writing what you know, it’s easy to forget that the reader knows nothing about you or your story.
  • Point of view can be tricky. In Bell-Bottom Gypsy, I used third person point of view, because it flowed well and I wanted Jessie, the main character, to be included in the scenes. Some writers use first person point of view in their autobiographical fiction. It might be good to experiment with both.
  • Define an enduring theme. What is the central message you want to get across? Find the story within your stories, making sure the narrative has enough depth to keep readers going.
  • Create composites. Feel free to throw the best tidbits of real life into the novel’s scenes, regardless of when they really happened.
  • Try to create a sense of distance from your experiences. I had an advantage as I wrote my new novel: the distance of time. My travel stories are from the early 1970s – almost fifty years ago! (That’s hard to believe, isn’t it?)

The main thing is, don’t be afraid to use real life in your fiction. Mine it like gold, but craft it carefully.

Then sit back and enjoy. To those who are horrified by the things that happen in your autobiographical fiction (like some might be by scenes in Bell-Bottom Gypsy), repeat after me, loudly and proudly: “It’s fiction! It’s fiction!”

Maggie Plummer is a multi-genre author based in northwest Montana. Along the winding trail, she has worked as a journalist, school bus driver, Good Humor ice cream girl, fishing boat mate, and race horse hot walker, among other things. Bell-Bottom Gypsy is her third published novel.

Links:

Bell-Bottom Gypsy: A Jessie Morgan Novel (Kindle edition)

Bell-Bottom Gypsy: A Jessie Morgan Novel (paperback)

Spirited Away: A Novel of the Stolen Irish

Daring Passage: Book Two of the Spirited Away Saga

To connect with Maggie:

Website

Twitter

Facebook