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Bad Writing Rules

How often should you use exclamation points?

How long has it been since we’ve done a bad writing rule? I’ve got another one for you today. Maybe you’ve heard of it: Limit your use of exclamation points to 1 per story.

I’m sorry, what?

This seems so arbitrary. I could maybe understand this rule if it’s aimed at exposition in third person omniscient narration, though. The narrator is outside of the story in that case. They don’t have a stake in what’s going on, so why are they getting excited?

However, it seems like omniscient third has fallen out of vogue for the moment. Most of the books I’ve read recently were either in first person or limited (usually deep) third person, and I think the occasional exclamation point could fit that style of narration depending on what’s happening in the story. Keep the narrator’s personality in mind. If an exclamation mark feels true to them, don’t be afraid to use it.

Anything goes in dialogue

Well. Almost anything. I’d think long and hard about giving a character a really thick accent, and I try to limit filler words, but other than that I tend to treat dialogue as a free for all. Characters are going to yell or get excited sometimes, and that’s what exclamation marks are for.

Just don’t follow one up with a dialogue tag that says “(character) exclaimed.” It’s redundant. You don’t need it.

Consider your audience as well

I’d expect to see more exclamation points in a children’s book than a book targeted at adults. Kids seem to thrive on excitement and wonder. Adults aren’t quite as excitable, though. Something that’s OMG super exciting(!!!) to a child might seem cringeworthy to a teen or adult reader, so keep that in mind while you write.

What do you think?

Do you limit your use of exclamation points, or do you write what feels appropriate for your characters and scene? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Thanks!

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Image credit: Steve Harvey

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Bad Writing Rules

Poor Man’s Copyright is a Myth

I am not a lawyer. This isn’t intended to be taken as legal advice. If you have an actual, legal question about copyright, you should address it with a real attorney.

I’m writing about poor man’s copyright today. There isn’t a whole lot to this post, but I think the topic is important. I’d hate to see someone lose their rights to their work because they heard about this on Facebook and thought it was a good idea.

This one doesn’t fit the usual bad writing rules criteria, but you should still avoid doing it.

Some background

Once a week or so, somebody pipes up in a group asking how they can protect their work from thieves. Inevitably, someone else says “Just mail it to yourself!”

This is also called poor man’s copyright. Lots of people recommend it, and I really don’t know where it originated.

Unfortunately, poor man’s copyright is a waste of time and postage. Mailing a story to yourself doesn’t prove you wrote it. It only proves you mailed it. Source.

I’m not a copyright or legal expert

If you want to register a copyright on your work, I would suggest reaching out to your government’s copyright office. Here is the website for the one in the United States.

Please take the time to properly educate yourself. Check out the link above. Contact a lawyer if you feel like you need to. Don’t take legal advice from randos over the internet.

That’s all I have to say about this topic. If you have any questions for me, feel free to leave a comment below. Also, feel welcome to share this or link to it if you think it’s something writers should be aware of.

Please have a safe and happy holiday if you’re celebrating. I’ll be back next week with a post to wrap up the year.

Image credit: Roberto Nickson

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Bad Writing Rules

Bad Showing

I had planned on rewriting my first Show and Tell post for you all today, because some of my older posts need updating, but I think the OG Show and Tell is fine as-is. I couldn’t come up with a reason to give it a complete overhaul, although I should go back at some point and add a few headers to break up the wall of text. Instead, I have a fun related topic: bad showing.

Bad showing!

Showing and telling is one of the harder early writing concepts to learn, I think. If you want to get it right, you have to figure out where to strike a balance. First you have to learn what it means to show and tell, and then you have to learn when to show and when to tell.

I feel like excessive telling is the more common issue for novice writers, and I’ll talk about that another day. Today, I want to look at what happens when people take the “Show, don’t tell,” cliche to a degree where it becomes a bad writing rule. That’s how you end up with gems like the ones below:

Just call it a hamburger. Please.

Kayleigh bit into a soft white bun surrounding a grilled beef patty, crisp lettuce, a ruby red tomato slice with seeds like glistening yellow-green jewels, tart pickle slices, and a generous squirt of neon yellow mustard. Salty fried potato sticks littered one side of the plate. Across the table, Brayden was eating soft flour tortillas stuffed with seasoned ground beef, shredded lettuce, and a blend of diced tomatoes, onions, and peppers. His side was corn chips and a dip of mashed avocado seasoned with garlic, lime juice, and salt, served in a bowl made of rough, volcanic stone.

I know we all have different tastes in literature, but I wouldn’t want to read an entire book of that. It would get old so fast. Additionally, what’s the point of it all? I think dialogue or interaction between the characters would be more interesting, not to mention more likely to keep the story on track. This is…nothing. It does nothing. It means nothing. It’s just filler. Why would you want empty words taking up space in your novel?

The next example is something I see a little more frequently. It might even work in some stories, but I feel like there’s probably a better way to do it.

He smiled. Or grinned, maybe.

His lips pulled back to reveal the shining, white squares of his teeth in a happy expression.

I can see how this could work if you’re writing, like, a stranger in a strange land sort of a piece. Maybe something from an alien’s point of view. It’s probably the kind of showing you should avoid in most stories as a general rule, though. It has an awkward, clunky kind of feel.

A little bit goes a long way

I know this is all very subjective and open to interpretation, but in my experience, showing works best when you use a light touch. It’s okay to tell sometimes. It’s also okay to leave certain details out entirely and let the reader fill in the gaps on their own.

If you’re ever in doubt of which to use in a scene, I would suggest you err on the side of showing, but make a note to ask your beta readers or critique partner if that section feels too heavy.

If you enjoyed today’s post, please feel free to share it with your writer friends. You’re also welcome to leave a comment below. Share some bad showing with us. I’ll see you tomorrow with a post about memoirs. That’s right–I’m working on Thanksgiving, and I’m not even getting overtime. Thank goodness NaNoWriMo is almost over.

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Bad Writing Rules

How to use dialogue tags without looking like an amateur

“Said is dead,” proclaimed an infographic I just scrolled past on Pinterest. It boasted several replacements for the old standard of dialogue tags, including words like “interjected,” “dictated,” and “chortled.”

Hmm, I pontificated. I think this is blog-worthy.

At the very least, it’s another bad writing rule we can discuss. I’ve seen–and ignored–this one in the past, but why not go over it today?

What are dialogue tags?

A dialogue tag is the part of a line of dialogue that tells you who’s speaking. Tags help readers keep up with the conversations going on in your book. And despite what our infographic-designing pinner believes, simple is usually best.

I think a lot of novice writers like to sprinkle in variety because they’re trying to avoid being repetitive. Generally speaking, you do want to avoid repetition when you’re writing. This is one of the exceptions. Dialogue tags should be subtle most of the time, just enough that the reader can follow the conversation, but not so obvious that they stand out on their own. If you make them too obvious, they create a filter between the reader and the story–you’re telling the reader how the characters are talking instead of giving them a chance to imagine it on their own.

Words like “said” and “asked” are so basic that they’re almost invisible. They do the job without getting in the way, and you shouldn’t be afraid to rely on them. If the scene calls for it, you might throw in “whispered,” or “shouted,” or something along those lines. The key is to keep it simple for the most part. You need to save things like “he thundered triumphantly,” for special occasions or they get annoying fast.

Avoid repetition with action beats

You don’t have to rely solely on dialogue tags to let us know who’s talking when. You can also use action beats to add interest and emotion to a scene. But why tell you this when I can show you?

Example 1:

“Penny,” John said.

“What?” I asked.

“For your thoughts,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. “Nothing really. I was just wondering if I’m ever going to catch a break. This town’s changing so fast, sometimes I feel like I’m watching life pass me by.”

Example 2:

“Penny.” I jumped. John had been quiet for so long that I’d forgotten he was standing beside me.

“What?” I glanced up at him, but he stared off across the rooftops. What did he make of the construction cranes? Of the condos and skyscrapers that would soon block our ocean view?

“For your thoughts.” John looked down long enough to give me his signature crooked smile. My heart caught in my throat. I couldn’t breathe until he put his eyes back on the horizon.

“Oh.” I followed his gaze, taking in the headlights that flashed past on the street below before staring out over the dark ocean again. “Nothing really. I was just wondering if I’m ever going to catch a break. This town’s changing so fast, sometimes I feel like I’m watching life pass me by.”

Let’s discuss

Action beats and dialogue tags are things you need to balance. Holding an entire conversation between characters and using only tags will get choppy and repetitive. But if you only use action beats, you might slow your reader down and cause them to lose interest.

A lot of my writing is dialogue-driven, at least when I’m drafting. If I have a stronger idea of what’s being said in a conversation than what the characters are doing while they talk, I’ll just write the whole scene with basic tags. Then, when I go back to revise, I’ll smooth it out and add whatever action beats seem necessary. This process helps me make sure my characters are pushing the story forward through their own choices rather than through outside influences. I think it makes them more dynamic.

Look for other examples if you need them

If you’re still struggling with this concept, get out some of your favorite books and just read a page or two. Look at how the authors denote their dialogue and think about how you might incorporate that into your own writing. This is one of those things that isn’t worth sweating, to me, in a rough draft. I think it’s easy to fix in a revision. Of course, no two people write the same way, so that might be different for you. Research, practice, and see what you come up with.

Tomorrow I’m going over some of the basics of deep POV. I don’t think I’ve talked much about narration at all, so I hope you’ll be back to look at that. As always, if you liked this post or thought it was helpful, please feel free to share it with your writer friends. Thanks!

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Bad Writing Rules

Opening stories with a character waking up

Guess what? It’s time for another bad writing rule–with a twist!

I’m not a suspense writer. Here’s the twist: This is going to sound like a bad writing rule–it has that key word never in it–but you really should take note. There is basically one exception to this rule.

Here’s some background

Never open a story with your main character waking up.

I used to think of this as just a suggestion until I started doing critiques on Scribophile. Holy crap, y’all, out of 20 stories I read, about half of them opened with a character waking up. And you know what? It’s boring. It takes forever to get to anything interesting. Nothing that happens in these openings makes me care about the character, their background, or the way they get up and describe their bedroom, get dressed and describe their clothes, eat breakfast and describe their family members, and then look in the mirror and describe themselves. If I never see another story open like this again, I will still have seen more than my fair share of them for this lifetime.

I’ve also seen agents doing #tenqueries on Twitter instantly reject stories that open this way. So that’s another reason to avoid doing it, assuming you want to traditionally publish.

Another version of this is opening your book with a dream sequence, and then moving on to your character waking up and going along the same routine of getting up and describing their bedroom, eating breakfast and describing their family….You get where I’m going with this. It’s just as boring. Agents hate it just as much. You probably shouldn’t do it.

The Exception

There is one–ONE–exception to this. You can open a book with a character waking up if something unusual is happening that disrupts their routine. Whatever it is, it needs to be relevant to the plot.

The Hunger Games opens with Katniss Everdeen waking up and realizing her sister isn’t there. Arguably, you could even consider this foreshadowing what happens to Prim at the end of Mockingjay. A cloud of dread hangs over the whole district as everyone prepares for the reaping. None of that is a routine, normal day.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy opens with Arthur Dent waking up and going about his morning routine while fixating on the color yellow. The yellow thing in question was a bulldozer that was going to knock his house down. A few minutes after that, aliens bulldoze the entire Earth. That’s definitely not the sort of thing that happens as part of a normal morning routine, is it?

Fever 1793 opens with Mattie Cook’s mother angrily waking her. Even though the book starts with the main character waking up, the real draw is conflict.

If you’re thinking of going down this road, you’ve got to give readers something they don’t expect.

There is one other exception

If you’re one of those writers who needs to give yourself a lot of background information about a character’s life, you may need to open your rough draft like this just to get the story started. But you’ll probably need to rewrite your opening when it’s time to edit. An easy way to do that is to find your inciting incident and try to use it as a new starting point. Check out this post about opening stories if you need some guidance.

I hope this has been enlightening for you. I almost didn’t write about it, because I thought it was just one of those things that everybody knows, but I’ve seen so many of these openings lately that I felt like I needed to say something. It happens way too often and there’s almost always a better place to start your story.

And with all of that said, I’m done for today. If you have any questions, or if you just want to tell me how wrong I am about this, please leave a comment below. You’re also welcome to use those social media buttons and share this with your friends. Thanks!

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Bad Writing Rules

Writing to Market

I was talking about my writing goals to someone in a Facebook group the other day, and they told me that I should never write to market. Of course, that word “never” made me think of bad writing rules and I knew I had to blog about it.

Today’s post is more relevant for those of you who are thinking about traditional publishing. There are fewer barriers to self-publishing, but that’s a post for another day.

What it means

When someone talks about writing to market, what they mean is focusing on subjects or genres that are trending or known to sell well. Some people interpret it as putting profit over story and they believe it’s a creativity killer. But there’s a balance to it that those people are missing.

My interpretation of writing to market

I don’t force myself to write popular genres or subjects. First and foremost, I write stories that are entertaining to me. However, I have a few common sense guidelines that I like to try and follow while I’m writing so I have a better chance of selling my stories in the future. This is still writing to market, but it’s a very loose version of it.

My Guidelines

I try to keep three things in mind while I’m working on a story that I hope to one day publish. That’s all. None of it is major, it’s just little things.

Genre

Having a good awareness of your genre helps you find an agent. Most agents only represent certain genres, so if I know my story is a fantasy then I shouldn’t try to query an agent who only reps chick-lit and mysteries. I don’t choose a genre because I think it’s going to sell, though. I just try to make sure I’m aware of how an agent would classify my novel.

Some genres, like fantasy and romance, are perennial sellers. They’re always in demand. Others, like westerns, tend to rise and fall. Certain sub-genres within those popular genres sometimes fall out of favor, though–like vampires were out for a while, but now people are saying they might be about to make a comeback. We’ll see.

Word Count

Publishers have rules about word count because the longer a book is, the more expensive it is to produce. Taking on a long book from an unknown author is a gamble. Acceptable word count ranges are tied to your genre and target audience, and you can find those with a quick internet search.

This is one aspect of writing to market that some people really hate, but the truth is that forcing yourself to stick to a word count helps you write clearer, more concise stories. It makes you use words that matter and helps you minimize bloated descriptive passages and info dumps. I keep word count in mind because I don’t want to have to go back and cut a lot of material later. If I’m getting close to the top of my allowance, I know it’s time to reevaluate what I’ve done so far and how much I still need to do. Sometimes it’s a matter of trimming scenes and cutting out junk words. Other times I need to find a good stopping point and divide my book in half.

I’m over my word count goal for the novel I’m writing now, and having that goal helped me realize that I need to rework the beginning of the book. The opening scene is fine, but the next several chapters don’t do enough to move the story.

Target Audience

The last thing I like to keep in mind is whether my material is suitable for my target audience. This also touches on finding an agent. Much like genre, some agents only accept material for adults, while others prefer to represent books for children. When it’s time to look for an agent, you need to be sure your material is suitable for your target audience.

It’s not wise to put graphic sex scenes into a book intended for children, for example. You’d think this is common sense, but it is not….I once got boxed into a long and very uncomfortable conversation with a woman who said she was writing a children’s book about incest, of all things. That was a bus ride that couldn’t end fast enough. (I realize that I’m breaking my own “bad writing rules” rule here, but I’m saying it anyway: Do NOT do this. NEVER write this book. If you think writing incest porn for children sounds like a good idea, please get a therapist.)

Things that don’t concern me as much

Sub-genre

I only worry about whether I can tell an agent that this story is, say, fantasy and not horror. Beyond that, I don’t care if it’s steampunk or elemental magic or urban fantasy. Some agents will still weed you out if they don’t like certain subjects, but I’m not going to sweat that. For me, this is the extreme side of writing to market; it’s the creativity killer. My current novel has elemental magic, which is not a big seller at the moment, and I don’t care. If I can’t find anyone to represent it, I’ll either hang on to it until the market comes back around or I’ll self-publish.

Current trends

I also don’t care about popular tropes or what’s in right now. Traditional publishing is slow. By the time my book is in print, what’s popular now will most likely be a distant memory. Some people are good at predicting trends. I’m not, and I’m not going to waste my energy trying to write a story that’s going to fit into a mold that hasn’t been invented yet. It doesn’t make sense to me.

Certain kinds of criticism

The last thing I don’t worry about is how “PC” people think I am. I write books that have diverse characters. This has nothing to do with marketing, and everything to do with the fact that we live in a diverse world. I try to make sure I include characters with different cultures, appearances, values, backgrounds, ages, sexualities, and so on. I also have characters with chronic health conditions like alcoholism, depression, and physical disabilities. Some people say that sort of thing seems forced, and it makes me wonder how they look at the world outside of their immediate social circle. It takes all kinds, y’all.

Writing to market is not for everyone

At the end of the day, whether you decide to write to market or not is something you’re going to have to figure out on your own. Some people out there are probably fortunate enough to be able to hammer out stories that are on-trend and make buckets of money doing it (probably self-publishing because that’s faster, but maybe not). I’m just not one of those people.

Your focus should be to write pieces that are meaningful to you. Just be aware that sometimes you might have to make compromises if you want to publish. You don’t need to force your stories to fit a certain stereotype or business model, but you might have to change your publishing approach if you can’t meet some industry-supported criteria. Some pieces just aren’t likely to find a home at a traditional publisher. Self-publishing gets bigger every year, though. If you can’t find your niche, maybe you can make one.

I hope this has been an enlightening addition to my bad writing rules collection. It’s not a bad thing to keep the market in mind while you’re writing, although you shouldn’t fixate on it to the point that you find yourself feeling stifled. If you have any questions or anything you’d like to add, please leave a comment below. As always, if you liked this post, please be sure to hit those social media buttons, too. Thanks!

Image credit: Taylor Wright, Unsplash

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Bad Writing Rules

How to Spot Bad Writing Rules

Back in June, I wrote a post about a piece of writing advice I came across that was well-intentioned but ultimately not all that helpful. And it got me thinking about all the other bad rules I’ve come across since I started writing. I think I’m going to do several posts about this–because there’s a lot of it out there–but let’s just have an overview today.

Rules vs blanket statements

I think one reason bad “rules” get so much attention is that a lot of people can’t tell the difference between a rule and a blanket statement.

  • Rules are explicit regulations that govern conduct. Some of them can be kind of arbitrary, but if you dig deep enough you’ll usually find a reason for their existence. There’s almost always some kind of substance or evidence to illustrate their purpose.
  • A blanket statement is a vague premise without any evidence to back it up. A lot of the time, they’ll start with “always” or “never,” even though whatever they’re promoting is usually not absolute.

We have rules for a reason. In writing, things like correct spelling and grammar make it possible to communicate clearly. They establish a standard that everyone can follow. Think about meter in poetry, for example. Limericks always have the same pattern. If you want to get even more simple, think about the way you read periods. I. Bet. This. Is. Really. Annoying….But it got my point across. And question marks? You saw that and “heard” the question, didn’t you?

Blanket statements can sound like rules, but they’re not absolute and they don’t create a standard. The reasoning behind them is usually limited to the creator’s opinion and they’re not based in fact. Like the one we discussed last time–“You should always give your characters simple names.” Simple relative to what? Also, why? Another common one is “Never open a story with the weather.” Hemingway did it at least once, though. George Orwell’s classic, 1984, opened with “…a bright cold day in April.” Use your best judgment when you see someone post a statement that starts with one of those key words (always or never)–most of the time, it’s probably a bad writing rule.

Do rules even matter at all?

Ehh…It depends. Basic grammar and spelling are probably the most important rules you need to follow when you’re writing, but even then you can break them if the situation calls for it. That old standard, “show, don’t tell” also gets thrown around a lot, but we’ve discussed it in the past. Remember, it’s not as hard and fast as some people like to say it is.

Writing is subjective. What works in one story may not work in others, even if it’s a generally accepted practice. Sometimes I feel like the point of learning all these rules is so you know when and how to break them. As I add to this series, I’ll try to be sure and explain as much of this as I can. A lot of the time, it’s going to come down to the way readers interpret your work, and feedback is the best teacher of them all.

Submission guidelines are a different story, of course. If you’re trying to publish, you need to stick to those. Even when you’re self-publishing, there will be guidelines to follow. They can be frustrating, but they create a standard that makes life easier for the people who work for the publisher. They don’t fall into the category of bad writing rules.

Identifying bad writing rules

This is pretty simple, I think. The good rules help you learn how to communicate clearly and consistently. These are things like spelling and grammar rules. Most of them indicate that you need to find some kind of balance in your writing–they try to tell you how and when you should use certain tactics, as well as how and when to avoid them.

Bad rules tend to be absolutes. They start with, or try to imply that, you should “always” or “never” do whatever they’re trying to convince you to do. A lot of them look like you should apply them to every situation–like the only simple names rule that we’ve talked about before–but when you really start thinking about them, they’re not universally applicable. Some of them are so ridiculous that they’re easy to spot. Others come from good rules that have been misinterpreted, and those are a little harder to recognize.

If you ever see one that leaves you stumped, just take a minute to think about it. Question it. Does it make sense? Will it make your work clearer and easier to understand? Also, ask other writers what they think of it. Discussion is healthy. Don’t be afraid to start one.

Share your bad rules with me

I hope this helps you spot bad writing rules next time you see them in the wild. If you do come across any, please post them in the comments below. I love deconstructing them, and I might even blog about them.

Okay, enough fun. I’ll see you all on Friday for another exercise. And of course I have another rant planned for Wednesday. Have a great week!

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Image credit: Debby Hudson, Unsplash

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Bad Writing Rules

What’s in a name?

The other day, I was minding my own business, scrolling down my feed, when I came across a comment that made me stop and shake my head a little bit. What was it?

You should only give your characters standard, simple names. If you’re going to name them something weird, you have to provide an explanation for that.

Random Facebook user

Uhhh…No. Nope. This is not right, for the most part. Also, what is a “standard” name, anyway? Something that you hear frequently on Main Street, USA, is not likely to be common at all in, oh, Syria or Japan. This sort of “rule” is really just a blanket statement–a vague generalization that attempts to cover every situation, but doesn’t have solid evidence to back it up. When you’re browsing for writing advice and you come across such a broad expression, it’s probably not as universal or smart as it sounds. Maybe run it by some other writers before you decide to apply it to all of your work.

I might do future posts about other bad writing rules that I’ve come across (in fact, I’m definitely going to), but for now let’s get back to character names.

When I’m reading, there are three things I care about regarding character names.

  • Pronunciation–Can I pronounce it? If not, do they have a nickname that’s easy to pronounce? This is easily the most important thing you need to keep in mind when you’re naming your characters. You can also consider putting a pronunciation guide in the book so readers can refer to that if they need it.
  • Culture–How well does the character’s name suit their culture? This is the one time when you might decide to slip in some kind of background information if you feel like it. You don’t have to. People don’t owe you an explanation for their name in real life, so why would characters in a book?
  • Consistency–Does the author change a character’s name midway through the story? I haven’t seen this in a published book that I can recall, but I have seen it several times while beta reading for different people. Either they can’t remember how their character’s name is spelled, or they change it from, say, Fred to Frank at some point before the story ends. This is something that could have several causes, so the solution is going to vary from one author to another. If you find yourself struggling to keep up with your character names, it’s probably time to sit down and think about what might be causing it and what you can do about it.

That’s all there is to it, y’all.

The moral of today’s post is this: don’t sweat your character names. You don’t have to be basic just because you don’t have room in your 1,000 word short story to explain why your protagonist is named Jeremiah Dankworth instead of John Smith. Write what you want, but be open to reconsider things if your beta readers and critique partners complain–and I can almost promise that 99% of the time, readers won’t care about your character’s name as long as they can pronounce it.

That’s all for this week’s rant. I’ll see you on Friday for an exercise concerning character names. As always, feel free to leave any questions or comments below.

Image credit: Joanna Kosinska, Unsplash.