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The Art of Writing

As a new writer, at least a new writer of fiction, the hardest thing I find about being an author is not the actually putting words to paper (or computer screen), but the process of editing. Editing programs are generally helpful (I use Pro Writing Aid and Papyrus), but they essentially give you suggestions concerning grammar, sentence length, overused words, readability scores, and nudge you to dispense with passive voice in favor of active voice. These programs also eschew the use of adverbs and adjectives, telling me to opt instead for "stronger verbs."


Grammar and syntax DO make a difference. I don't think every noun needs an adjective or every verb needs an adverb. Those were designed to be used sparingly, but they were not designed to put in your author's closet never to be seen again. Same for gerunds and utilizing them at the beginning of a sentence, which is also grammatically correct. Shorter sentences and varying sentence length make for better writing as well, but an occasional 40 plus word sentence is not the end of the world, at least for authors. Editors...well, that's a different story altogether (please pardon the pun)!


I've watch dozens of seminars about creative writing and there are three constants: (1) Always use active voice. "John rode his bicycle to the store," not "John went to the store riding his bicycle." (2) Never use adverbs when a stronger verb will be more forceful. (3) Show, don't tell. Never let the narrator tell you about the characters' feelings. "John slammed the book down on the table in a rage," not "John felt betrayed and was angry."


I'll just address one of these here today.


Active voice is essentially to the point. It can also get really dull. So can simpler words. For example:


The road went through the woods. As Emily walked, she noticed the trees were beginning to turn from green into their fall colors.


Then there is a more descriptive sentence:


As Emily walked, the road wound its way languidly through the forest, its verdant trees just beginning to show the kaleidoscope of colors that would soon herald the arrival of autumn.


Which one appeals to you more?


The yin and yang here is where you draw the line at short, simple words versus richer, descriptive words that approximately 70 percent of your reading population may not understand. Today, if you browse through any bookstore or look for books online (obtaining samples or excerpts), you're going to find that most fictional books that appeal to men are fairly formulaic spy/militaristic novels where the hero has rugged good looks, is built, incredibly intelligent, wealthy and has amazing weaponry for the era and a supernatural ability to use it. In the end the protagonist always overcomes evil - usually terrorists or someone like the infamous Dr. No of James Bond fame. That's a story as old as humankind. Romance novels generally find female audiences and they're either sweet Hallmark romances that end with a chaste kiss and a marriage or the promise of happily after at the end, or erotica where the ruggedly handsome, wealthy English Lord (or modern day men who own IT empires), can't manage to get a date until he spies the perfect stunningly beautiful milkmaid or butler's daughter who is more than willing to have sex before she gets him to commit to marriage. Everything else pretty much falls into science fiction, fantasy, superhero tomes or horror.


Many of these books, even though they are published by big name publishers and sell tens of thousands of copies, are often short on story and long on marketing, which is what the job of an editor really is today. Their main goal is to rework your story to fit a particular market so it will be easy to read, have an eye catching cover to draw the reader in, which is designed to get them to purchase the book. Sales are what it's all about for them and the authors. After all, none of us want to write stories for others to read on a blog or website. We are trying to make a living selling our art. The problem is that when the marketing executives and editors take over, there's not a lot of your original story left. Ask any author who has had his or her book turned into a screenplay by someone else for a movie. Most of them are unhappy with how their story is portrayed, but in the end they sold their intellectual property without a provision for prior approval of scripts (which is most often the case).


I always wondered if Nicolas Evans approved of Robert Redford's version of his novel The Horse Whisperer. I loved that novel. It was a fabulous story about a woman who is part of a good but predictable marriage where she and her husband both got caught up in demanding careers. With a young teenage daughter and horse who are injured in a terrible accident, she drives from New York to Montana to work with a reluctant cowboy who has a way with horses. These two people from vastly dissimilar worlds end up having a torrid affair while he works with her daughter's horse and they spend a magical summer together, keeping their sexual liaisons secret from both her daughter and the cowboy's family. He has an obsession with capturing a wild stallion that runs the plains with his harem, a subplot that runs through the novel. Eventually, she must make the decision of whether to go or stay. Reluctantly, she goes (after she has sent her daughter back to New York), but only after they spend another emotionally wrenching week together, alone with glorious Montana mountain sunsets. When she returns home, she discovers her lover has been killed by the stallion he finally got close enough to capture and she's pregnant - but it could be his child or her husband's. In the end, the reader is left to guess.


Redford made the movie about the relationship between the cowboy and the girl and the affair in the novel was turned into a strong attraction with one kiss and sensual dance (with the dad in the background). I've loved most of his movies based on novels, but he just killed that one for me. He made the story too simple, by turning the complex relationship between the lovers and between the protagonist and her long suffering husband into a Hallmark movie.


A seminar I took a few weeks ago given by an editor gave statistics for the average reader in the United States today. Most Americans read at the ninth-grade level and would prefer to read at the seventh-grade level. Whether that's a reflection of our educational system or the deleterious effects of the internet, social media headlines, or reality television is murky. Editors and marketers want you to write in simple terms, use "small" words and easily digestible story arcs to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I don't write like that. I'm not sure I know how. So do tell my story the way I think it needs to be told, or do I write for my reader who wants a 70,000 word, seventh-grade reading level, quick and dirty romance novel so they can move on to the next one?


I had an editor tell me once to never "dumb down" my writing because "people won't read books that have complicated words and plots." I might sell more books, but my craft would suffer in the long run. I believe he was right about that. After all, there's nothing simple about books like Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier or the J.K. Rowling series, Harry Potter which was originally written for 12-year-old tweens.


If you're a writer or an editor (or just a person who loves to read), please leave a comment about your opinions concerning this issue. I'd really love to know what you think.


Lectio vita.


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