Magic for Your Writing: Help for the Aspiring Writer
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by Gerald W. Mills
Category: General Nonfiction/Reference
Description: Magic is defined as that essence of imagination projecting us into the world of fantasy. Adult readers have a difficult time tapping into their hidden "child", whereas adult moviegoers fare much better. Why? The answers will be found in this reference manual, Magic for Your Writing, a collection of tips and techniques that can make a striking and beneficial difference in your novel no matter the genre. Aimed primarily at struggling writers who are spinning their wheels, the manual will be helpful to seasoned writers as well. It focuses on the reader's expectations, discussing ways of helping him step away from reality into the world of fantasy and keeping him there. The chapter on Point of View and Voice addresses widespread misunderstanding of these important topics. Dialogue is covered at length, plus character development, scenes, smoothing "bumps in the road", entrances and exits, second story lines, the dangers of making a plot up front, showing versus telling, author voice, and those troublemakers that spoil otherwise promising manuscripts.
eBook Publisher: Twilight Times Books, 2011
eBookwise Release Date: January 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [199 KB]
Reading time: 119-167 min.
The Road to Magic
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Magic is that essence of imagination projecting us into the world of fantasy, be it while reading a novel, enjoying a stage play or watching a movie. It's the proverbial magic carpet, the genie's lamp, but redefined for those of us who have retained our ability to wonder.
In order for it to work, our "child" must still be alive and vibrant within. No child; no magic. It's that simple.
There are unfortunates among us, die-hard adults for whom life seems like a series of frowns. The childlike openness and ability to imagine that was theirs as a birthright has withered, never to return. Cry for them! The rest of us are luckier. We are simply older versions of the children we once were, perhaps with lines in our faces, or gray hair, or a long string of bills to pay, or worries that mask our true natures, but our child is in there somewhere, ready to appear if we let it. It's poised to help us laugh, marvel at rainbows, see faces in clouds, pretend, act out roles, play jokes. It's also the prime stimulant for creativity in our makeup, for imagination has to do with what isn't rather than with what is. We learn that as children.
The problem is that we must put away childhood things when we function as adults. Reality lurks in the shadows in case we might be tempted to sneak back to our halcyon, childlike selves, sometimes allowing us no more than a brief glimpse before we are yanked back. Take heart. The fact that we can glimpse the fantasy world at all shows that our child still exists. As readers, we need an ally to help set reality aside for as long as possible. Magic is such an ally. When we become writers, our task is to add our own brand of Magic wherever we can.
A number of novel-length manuscripts have come across my desk for evaluation and editing in the past decade, most from aspiring writers yearning to have their works readied for submission to publishers. Some of the applicants were "already published", but their books had languished. Others were obviously from novices, and some I never reviewed at all. Their brief query letters were rife with misspellings, terrible grammar and unbelievably poor letter etiquette. Why bother going further?
Still others were good at writing, but had been spinning their wheels when it came to achieving their dream.
This book is for the wheel spinners and those whose books have languished.
I've also taught writing and editing to adults at two local colleges. Most of my students have toyed with writing or tried their hand at composing a few short stories. A few were formerly English teachers or teachers of literature. Others were simply curious and wanted to learn what was involved. They seemed surprised to learn that writing a successful novel involved much more than putting words on paper or following some formula, far more than proper sentence construction or extensive vocabulary. Many were equally surprised to find that story editing involved a good deal more than finding and correcting mistakes in spelling and grammar.
This book, then, is also for all those who thought novels were just long stories, or that WORD's SpellCheck (or any other similar embedded computer program) would find every manuscript spelling error and guide the writer to success.
The same faults turn up in manuscripts I've reviewed, time after time, regardless of genre or the writer's experience. Some stories might have been salvageable, but their authors viewed them as being already perfect, wanting only confirmation of their opinion. Other works needed hundreds of hours of effort. There were practical limits to the amount of correction possible, as deep editing often takes as long as, or longer than, it took the author to create the original text. This is because the editor must become the author's alter ego where style and approach are concerned.
Editors are often on delicate ground with authors who consider their work sacrosanct, or who insist on keeping certain parts unchanged even when those parts are loaded with the same types of errors found elsewhere in the text. One author acknowledged that a particular segment contained blatant POV errors, but wanted it to stay as written. A few thanked me for exposing weaknesses and problems in their writing; others didn't bother.
The following pages may help seasoned writers as well as beginners. The content is based entirely on my personal understanding of the craft, not something I've copied from others. Not all will agree with me, nor must they, but then they may not be interested in magic at all. Their writing is "already beyond improvement" in their view. For the rest of us, there is always hope.
Keep several things in mind as you read. This is not "Writing 101," nor do I try to be politically correct using "his or her." Every rule stated in the following pages may be broken if for a good reason. You'll see those or similar words repeated often. You should always have a thoughtful reason for departing from good practice or anything else presented here. "Because I like it that way" won't cut it with a publisher, unless your name is Stephen King or Tom Clancy.
Finally, when my opinions conflict with the opinions of others, the choice of which to use or discard is yours to make.
Any serious writer should own a style manual. They're expensive when new and hard to find used, but you really can't go wrong no matter which title you choose. A style manual answers questions on how best to apply our English language as used in America, and on what is considered good practice in these times. What are the accepted rules? How do you phrase this or that? What about idioms? Traditions? Punctuation? What is capitalized and what is not? Do you automatically know that it's an army platoon, as opposed to Marine platoon? Or that it's the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, not the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs? Examples are plentiful in these books. The only thing they won't do is show you what to write, or how to do it in the first place. I use the Chicago Manual of Style. I can't recommend others, because I haven't examined them. Ask your fellow authors for recommendations, or do a little research on your own. Remember that our language changes with the times. Any style manual five years old or older may be available as a more recent edition. Check your library before you buy a replacement. There may be few to no differences from the old to the new.
If you already belong to a writers' group, do not imagine that anyone there is an expert, or that so-called "expert opinion" is anything more than one person's style presented as the ultimate. Sadly, not all groups are composed of seasoned writers or even those whose inputs may be beneficial to you. Some are mutual support groups whose members imitate each other, eager to share their mistakes with anyone who asks.
On the other hand, many groups may be goldmines of professional information and help when it comes to promoting yourself and your novel. Your group may be one of these. If so, you are fortunate. Remember, however, that it is the craft of writing that you pursue when asking for advice from others. Without a complete, well-crafted manuscript, there is little reason to hone your marketing skills or begin contacting agents and publishers. Find several members of your group who can give you valuable pointers on the art of writing itself, the techniques, tips, timesavers and computer tricks (assuming you use a computer).
Determine for yourself whether any advice you may receive is straightforward and helpful or confusing and one-sided. Consider the qualifications of your advice givers, but don't let their titles or professions sway you. You may be working hard on your paranormal romance novel, but the person most vocal in your writer's group, the one handing you loads of advice, has proudly self-published a book of her poems. Or perhaps she writes columns for gardening magazines. Neither may have any experience in the genre of paranormal romance.
Or you may be writing a science fiction story and your eager advisor has had a story accepted by a men's magazine, or perhaps has written several articles on fly fishing for Field and Stream. Not very encouraging if SF is your genre.
Ask for advice, listen to that advice, make notes and consider everything you have heard. Then select what is best for your style, your ideas, your vocabulary and your target readership.
"How to" books abound on the craft of writing. I urge you to find and read at least two, even though I never did. I paid dearly for that mistake over the course of many years. Read at least two, because the creators of these books often imply that theirs is the only way. How can that be, when the next book on the same subject says something different? This is similar to gathering advice within a writers' group. The difference here is that the book form lends more credibility to expressed opinions.
Gather a few books and distill the best from each to suit your envisioned style, even if you've never written before. Use the library in your town. Expect differences of opinions, for there will surely be some. You must be selective. If you become confused, ask for help. Remember that that the strictest application of English rules guarantees only that your eventual manuscript conforms to the strictest application of English rules. Why, then, might it turn out to be a complete flop? Quite possibly because strict application of English rules is the wrong criterion for your approach. Correct your English where correction is needed, of course, once you are done.
Many aspects of good writing are never mentioned in these books written by experts in the craft, or else are touched upon so briefly the information is useless. Magic, for example, the theme of this book. No, it's not sleight of hand, or tricks, or Harry Potter themes. It's something most people in the world have come to expect from movies and great stage plays, but novels benefit as well.
Let's talk a bit, then, about magic in the context of a novel or short story. Your challenge is to make your reader's experience enjoyable by transporting him to another realm and keeping him there, without any effort at all on his part. Pretend for a moment that you are John or Jane Q. Reader browsing a bookrack. What do you look for? What do you expect from any book you choose? Pay attention to your answers, remembering that you are now someone else. Compare those imagined answers to your own expectations when you browse for a book or, better yet, select a movie. Fulfillment of reader expectations is what magic is all about.
Back to movies. When watching a movie, is it not true that you are (or wish to be) somewhere other than your real world? Pictures, actors, dialogue, action-nothing is real, and yet you imagine it to be so. You encourage it to take you on a ride. Silly, imaginative, gory, thrilling or out-of-this-world as that somewhere may be, your wishes are granted through the magic of surround sound and lighting, vibrant characters and hundreds to thousands of scene changes. The finished product provides a continuous journey from start to finish, through editing and splicing of film. The term "cutting room floor" refers to parts discarded. These may be scenes that simply don't work, cause the adventure to drag or contain obvious bloopers. In short, they are detrimental to that all-important magic carpet ride viewers expect for their buck.
The result, minus all these cutting room discards, gives your imagination free rein. You forget your real world for a time. You also shrug off the slights and imperfections, small errors and sometimes hopeless impossibilities that may remain because you are enjoying yourself. That car chase through the tunnel or the wrong way down city streets depends on dozens of vehicles all being in precise locations, driven by expert stunt drivers or controlled remotely so that the cars chasing each other can weave in and out. Do you care that the car being pursued isn't moving at all? That it's all an illusion? You're enjoying the chase, you're involved. Your adrenaline is pumping away and that popcorn is going down by the fistful. And how many times has one of the characters in the film jumped into a conveniently parked car (no ignition key), only to snatch the ignition wires handily located beneath the dash, yank them into view, pick the exact two wires needed to "hot wire" the ignition, start the engine and race away just in the nick of time? Do you care that, with modern cars of nearly every brand, the whole thing is impossible? Nah! On with the adventure.
Magic takes over your adult mind while you are enjoying yourself. Remove the magic and the movie is a dud. Let a cell phone go off somewhere in the theatre, and magic is destroyed. We'll use this example later, talking about Road Bumps.
Magic is not as easy with the printed word, but is well worth the extra effort. Any reader hopes the book he buys will deliver a rewarding, movie-like experience, so he's worse than disappointed when it doesn't. He can't get engrossed in the story no matter how he tries. His problem may be those fifty-cent words, or two-dimensional cardboard characters, or unintentional grammatical errors in the prose. Sentences may seem to run on endlessly at times, in the style of Poe, however grammatically correct they may be. There may be stilted sentences, trite dialogue or dialogue ruined by "asides" from the author, ho-hum scenes, descriptions out of place, overly detailed descriptions, dragging pace and obvious padding. The characters seem too perfect. Points of view change without warning. The reader must keep guessing as to who just said what, or perhaps recoil at the other extreme, the constant repetition of "he said" or "she said" after every line of dialogue.
The disenchanted reader will chalk up his disappointment as a bad choice at the bookstand. Was it the cover, title or blurb that had him expecting so much more, or was it just a bad author? Unfortunately, the author usually loses. Down the tubes with that book, as well as others by the same writer. The cover may be stunning and the title catchy, but the book was terrible. Yeccch!
That picky reader is the one you have to please, not your doting spouse or all those friends and relatives who'll tell you your novel is really good. The demanding reader will react negatively to any little thing that spoils his entertainment. Your friends will overlook the same little things in their wish to encourage you.
For example, when you load your novel with foreign phrases, most readers won't react favorably even if it's their native language you are using. Think about that. Reverse the roles. Imagine your native language is English and you're reading a novel written in some other language, let's say German. Why, if you are already able to read in German, should the author assume you need any of it in English or any other language? We are not referring to names such as Coca Cola or McDonald's, but to ordinary prose.
Use foreign phrases sparingly.
The same goes for difficult jargon such as heavy drawls, "hillbilly speak" or street slang. All these should be doled out in tiny slices here and there, never throughout the story. Avoid those "dictionary lookup" words. Don't show off your command of English by choosing the most unusual definition of a common word or the most unusual word for a common thing (unless it fits the story or one of your characters). The typical fiction reader is not thrilled by such challenges. He wants an experience, not a thinking assignment. He wants your book to do for him what a good movie does. He doesn't need a dictionary in the movie theatre, so why should he need one for your story?
How about the reader who reads a page or two at a time during a lunch break? Or one who may thrive on mental challenges, details ad nauseam or lengthy descriptions? Perhaps not so typical, but if you are hoping to reach that kind of reader, then you must be doubly careful about anything that can produce a negative reaction in his case.
These faults and others can make or break a novel, non-fiction work or short story, even if the writing is classroom-correct. English teachers don't automatically become good authors without appropriate hard work. Perfect grammar is not the key to providing entertainment. Characters who speak flawlessly, never choosing the wrong word, never reaching the wrong conclusion, are flat-out boring unless these traits are germane to their "character". Predictable or trite dialogue can turn a great story into a yawner. The best road to good writing is to become your own demanding reader. Get mean and picky and brutal with yourself. When you learn to do that, you're almost at the finish line. You are ready to add some magic to your story.
We'll begin with the most important element of any story, the reader. Repeating what was said above, your challenge as an author is to make his experience enjoyable by transporting him to another realm and keeping him there, without any effort at all on his part. Start your magic by removing yourself from the picture as often as possible.