Tag Archives: bad writing

The Good, The Bad, and The Ungrammatical

Giving grammar short shrift is a surefire way to get shot down.

Recently, I was invited to enter an online writing contest, one in which the competitors posted partial or completed stories on a website. Contestants and the public alike could then read and rate each piece of fiction.

I confess I didn’t make it past the synopses of most entries. Awkward sentence structures, misplaced punctuation and more clichés than I could shake a red pen at — such obstacles prevented me from taking a chance on stories that clearly scrimped on the fundamentals of strong writing.

For instance, if you are not 100 percent sure you know how to use a semicolon, please don’t use one!

I couldn’t bring myself to submit to the contest. It just screamed “amateur hour.”

Maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, grammar is the one aspect of writing that has always come easy for me. Just about every job I’ve had since college included proofing among its duties. This scientific, rules-based side of the craft appeals to my left-brain proclivities.

There are many, many ways to screw up a story, and I admit I have my share of weaknesses. But since every writer has the same set of guidelines when it comes to parts of speech, punctuation, and so forth, I can’t wrap my mind around why so many of us slack off when it comes to grammar. This should be low-hanging fruit!

Or maybe every writer doesn’t need to be a whiz when it comes to grammar. I’m certain some of the best authors depend heavily on editors to take a great story and make it even better by removing errors of all kinds. But because we live in a DIY era of publishing, I sometimes worry that self-published writers don’t realize the poor impression they make when their dialogue is marred by missing commas or when misplaced modifiers confound the semantics of sentences.

Maybe the average reader is more forgiving than I give them credit for — or, at least, more forgiving than I am — but I have to believe grammar and usage matter. If nothing else, it adds polish to any given plot.

For me, fixing sentences is like a game, but since proofing isn’t every writer’s idea of fun, I’ve been kicking around the concept for a grammar-based video game as far back as March 7, 2012. I envision the app would help writers of all kinds could become more comfortable with punctuation in particular.

The odds that I’ll ever find the time (and the developer talent) to create this game are admittedly slim, but I thought I’d share these early notes. Reading on probably won’t make you a better proofreader, but it might make you smile.


Cowboy on a horse

Lawlessness didn’t necessarily work out so well in the Wild West. Y’all better tame your syntax. | John C. H. Grabill [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Who is the target audience?

I’m reluctant to make it too childish because I think a lot of adults could benefit from a brush up on their punctuation. But I also believe that an adult (whether a writer or some other kind of professional) will be more likely to try out a grammar tutorial if it’s clever and fun. So, off the top of my head, I’d say this game is aimed at middle schoolers on up.

What is the genre?

I want to keep this simple, in no small part because I’ve never designed a video game. Also, if this is going to be an app, it has to be small enough to download to a smart phone. That means a crazy, comprehensive game that blends/bends several genres isn’t going to work. Also, I don’t want there to have to be much, if any, typing because it’s a pain in the butt to type for any significant amount of time on a tablet or smart phone.

The first thing that comes to mind is a story-based shooter (e.g., blasting away improper punctuation and then selecting the character, if any, that belongs in the slot). But I’m not sold on that.

What is the tone/theme?

Due to the small scope of the project, I want to dive into a pre-established trope, thus avoiding needless explanation/development. Plus, being a fan of puns, it opens the door for some real groaners. My first thought was a sword-and-sorcery setup because the pen is mightier than the sword, and I could have a full-fledged grammar wizard teaching his young apprentice. Too “Harry Potter,” methinks. Besides, a grammar wizard sounds too much like a computer wizard program that checks for grammar.

After writing the descriptions for a couple of the “enemies” (below), I am envisioning the bad guys’ bios in the form of a wanted poster, which opens the door for a Western. And like the settings of most Western stories, I expect the humor will be very, very dry.

Who are the heroes?

Perhaps the player chooses among three characters. If there’s no difference between their skills/attacks, then it doesn’t make sense to offer three choices because it’ll just take up needless space. However, if each hero has his own approach (time trials vs. strategy vs. something else), then I would advocate for the following three crime-fighting characters:

  • Johnny Redpen — a hot-tempered quick draw, Johnny Redpen’s speed with a sixshooter is matched only by his hatred for good punctuation gone bad.
  • Edith Goodword — kindly schoolmarm by day, vigilante typo-hunter by night, Miss Goodword isn’t afraid to spread the gospel of good grammar in even the seediest of sentences.
  • Dominic “Doc” Proofer — the retired sheriff of Syntax Springs, Doc isn’t ready to hang up his shotgun, not when unruly marks are running amok and he can help make the West a little less wild.

Who are the villains?

  • Slim Semicolon
  • Dash Dastardly
  • Miss E. Lipses
  • Colon McClock
  • The Savage Slash and his half-wit of a half-brother Backslash
  • James Trouble (with a capital T)
  • The Quote-Crazy Kid
  • Old Man Apostrophe, the grocer

Who is the final boss?

  • Mr. ? (pronounced “Mister Huh?”) — The mysterious mastermind, he believes rules are meant to be broken and covets the mythical “Poetic License,” which will allow all manner of ne’er-do-wells to swarm previously perfect grammatical constructions.

What’s the concept?

The storyline unfolds through the poorly punctuated sentences our heroes are correcting.


Whether or not you think The Good, The Bad, and The Ungrammatical would make a worthy video game, I encourage any writer who lacks the basic understanding of grammar (and/or lacks a professional proofreader) to find some way to brush up on the subject.

If you don’t fix bad grammar and poor punctuation, you’re just shootin’ yourself in the foot.




Filed under Writing

Something scary for Halloween: my poetry

I’m not a poet…and don’t I know it.

If that didn’t elicit a groan, then maybe a line or two from “Rain,” a poem I wrote in college, will:

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry also is scary — albeit in a good way. | Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The city’s underbelly is growling

All around, the rumbling of the buses echoes the thunder in the sky

I hear the mobile beasts around me

As I wait to be eaten and excreted someplace new

Is your brain bleeding yet?

Despite having written between one and two million words to date, only a handful of them were spent in pursuit of poetry.  And whenever I did venture from the comfort zone of fiction, it was typically because a teacher assigned it.

That’s how “Triumvirate”—a three-part poem exploring body, mind, and soul as self-governing entities—came to be. “Triumvirate” is one of my better ones, I think, despite its rhyming, sing-songy nature. Here’s an excerpt from the Mind section (stanza?):

Liaison and foe of Body and Soul,

As real as face-numbing wind;

Tainted by reason, encouraged by spirit

Baffled by blessing and sin.

Not stellar, sure, but it didn’t have you contemplating suicide, I hope.

The aforementioned “Rain,” on the other hand, was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to capture something very mundane in a melodramatic manner. I don’t think it was a serious attempt at poetry.  At least I hope not.

Confession: I don’t understand poetry.  I never have.  As a child, I didn’t gravitate toward Shel Silverstein’s collections at the library.  I just never understood what the fuss was about.  And that attitude didn’t change as I got older and studied them as part of junior high, high school, and college curricula.

Oh sure, some poems could be clever or funny or haunting, but they always struck me as somehow…unsubstantial.  A treat for the tongue, perhaps, but not the hardy nourishment one gets from digging into, say, a novel.

I suppose I’ve always craved story…

Oh, I know poems can tell a story.  But so many of them don’t seem to.  Or maybe I’m simply too obtuse to grasp the hidden narrative lurking elusively between the lines.  More likely, I’ve been approaching them all wrong, coming to poetry with the same expectations as I do prose.

Maybe poems aren’t meant to be mysteries that can be unraveled by reason.  Maybe ambiguity of meaning can be an asset, not a flaw.  Maybe getting the reader to simply feel something is a worthy goal in of itself.

Of course, poetry is a very broad term, and I’d be lying if I said that the genre doesn’t appeal to me unilaterally.  Epic poems, for instance, combine the creative use of language usually associated with poetry with a plain-faced plot.  In fact, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a Middle English poem that explores the climax of the Arthurian legend, motivated me to write an alliterative poem called “Solitude”—the name of which was inspired by another old poem, “The Wanderer.”

In my humble opinion, the best poetry contains something of a story, and the best fiction borrows from the eloquence and expressiveness of poetry.  It doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. Artistic turns of phrase, the rhythm and flow of sentences, attention to sensory details—the finer trappings of poetry certainly can (and perhaps should) be transposed to prose.

At some point I might pick up that book of E.E. Cummings’ poems off our family bookshelf, but I doubt I’ll spend any serious time composing poetry of my own.

So rather than subject you to any more tortured verses authored by my own hand, I’ll end this post by sharing this delightful (if disturbing) poem penned many years ago by someone in my family who’s had more practice with the genre: Kate Williams, my mother. It’s one of my favorites:

Be Kind to Your Brainless Friends,
They Might Have Ants in Their Heads

One night when I was sleeping, but not in my bed,
millions of little black ants got into my head.
They crept in through my ears, my nose, and my eyes
while I lie sleeping under the summer sky.

They chomped, they chewed, they nibbled, they crunched,
they ate my brain like it was their lunch.
Now my brain is gone and I have instead,
little black ants living inside my head.


Filed under Writing

The two sides to every story

Ask a hundred different people for their definition of “good writing,” and you’ll get a thousand different answers.

On a very basic level, the creation of a story can be divided into two parts: concept and composition.  Without a command of both sides, a writer—more specifically, his or her story—is bound to fall short of greatness.

Coins of the Philippines

Like a coin, there are two sides to every story. Just don’t leave its success to chance. Photo by Kadayawan (own work) via Wikimedia Commons


How many times have you heard someone say, “I’ve always wanted to write a book about…”?  Or “I have this great idea for a story…”?

When it comes to fiction, most of us dive into the ideas behind a story before we ever ply the pen or keyboard and transpose thoughts from mind to page.  The aptitude for artfully stringing sentences together typically comes later.

Now inspiration comes in many forms, and creativity often strikes without warning.  But a handful of traits do not make a character.  A theme cannot serve as substitute for plot.  And a thin storyline can be stretched only so far.

In short, not every inkling is worthy of a novel.

Understanding how to combine concepts—knowing what to keep, what to lose, what to tweak—forms the roots of good writing.  Of course, all of the wonderful ideas in the world won’t amount to much on their own.  They must grow into something that can be experienced by the outside world.


At some point in our education, we all learn to write.  Common curricula tackle the basics (e.g., parts of speech, sentence construction, and proper punctuation) as well as the assembly of these verbal apparatuses into a purpose-driven piece.

Stories have a beginning, middle, and an end, and they typically contain a climax and a resolution.  Essays and research papers pose a hypothesis from the outset and are filled with arguments built upon evidence.  Etc., etc.

Writing is an art, yes, but those who neglect the science of it tend to turn readers off by breaking both documented and unspoken rules.  If you litter your prose with homophones, run-on sentences, repetitious words or phrases, and incomplete thoughts, your readers won’t take you seriously.

If you have any readers at all.

Then there are those who go beyond merely competent writing—those who work such wonders with words that there’s no doubt they were put on the planet to pursue this art form.  These writers conjure up mind-blowing metaphors and paint the most evocative imagery in the reader’s imagination.

The Craft

Both the sides of the craft—concept and composition—require creativity.  Neither half is inherently more important than the other.  They depend on each other.

Granted, there are some writers who could crank out a vignette about an everyman or everywoman simply plodding through life.  No extraordinary back story, no mind-blowing plot twist; just a series of otherwise unremarkable events.  If that author’s exquisite use of language pulls readers in and keeps them engaged, the style alone might transcend the mundane ideas behind the writing.

Likewise, a writer could come up with a brilliant concept—an unexplored aspect of the human condition or an intriguing new situation—and be found wanting when it comes to execution.  Maybe said writer could be forgiven for his or her shortcomings in the composition department if the ideas are compelling enough.  Maybe.

Most of the time, a writer must strive for mastery of both sides of the story before he or she is successful.

Depending too much on concept or composition will only reveal the weakness of the other.  Many readers won’t waste their time with a well-written but boring (or otherwise conceptually flawed) book.  And a writer who has an amazing concept but lacks the chops when it comes to composition can’t hope to do his or her idea justice.

The solution, unsurprisingly, is practice.  Challenge yourself to take your ideas to the next level.  Keep at those finger exercises, read and learn from better wordsmiths than yourself, and then watch your prose improve.

You’ll never get a straight answer when it comes to what makes “good writing” good.  But if you fail to deliver in either the concept or composition department (or both!), you’re bound to get an earful about what makes writing bad.


Filed under Writing

When it comes to dialogue, don’t trust the word on the street

One of my earliest college writing assignments involved a little espionage.

Having spent plenty of time playacting the part of spy in my youth and, in later years, transplanting such imaginative adventures to written page, I eagerly embraced the challenge my professor put forth.

A mysterious-looking man in a trench coat and fedora...the Dialogue SpyMy mission: to choose a random conversation between two people, eavesdrop and write down every word.

Later that day, I lingered in a classroom building’s lounge where fellow students were wont to while away time between classes, catching up on reading assignments, cramming before quizzes, or just chatting with classmates.

Today, I couldn’t tell you much about my marks other than the fact that they were young women.  I recall even less about subject of their conversation.  Their gossip meant very little to me because I knew nothing about them or the people they discussed.  Nevertheless, I surreptitiously jotted down every word.

Every false start.  Every verbal crutch.  Every grammatical violation.

When reviewing my transcripts later, I came to a few conclusions. For one thing, most people are far from eloquent.  When engaged in casual conversation, we interrupt one another.  We even interrupt ourselves.  Occasionally, we use the wrong words.  And if counted how many “ums,” “ahs,” and “actuallys” sprinkled throughout our speech, we’d be amazed.

In other words, if a writer were to accurately capture human communication and translate it to the written word, he/she would end up with a string of fragments and incomplete thoughts through which a reader would inevitably struggle.  Most of the time, the result would be an incoherent mess.

Which, of course, was the point of my top-secret assignment.

This lesson was reinforced in later years when I worked as a reporter.  Oh sure, some people are capable of providing the perfect quote, a sequence of phrases that succinctly sums up their perspective on a given topic.  But most of us use far more words than we need to.  We ramble.  We utter copious pronouns because, in the context of an interview, the reporter understands what is meant by “he,” “she,” and “it.”

Yet when the reporter goes back to his/her desk to rearrange the interviewee’s answers and evaluate which quote belongs where in the article, it becomes obvious that there is often a chasm between what people mean to say and what they actually say.  It’s truly a treasure when a reporter gets that perfect, impactful quote.  More often than not, however, the phrases and clauses between quotation marks remain rough-edged, unrefined.

When I made the switch from journalism to public relations, writing press releases allowed me to do something I never dared to do as a reporter: I reworked spokespeople’s quotes.  Quite often, I was encouraged to create such quotes from scratch and later run them past my “sources,” who might add a thought here or make a word swap there.  But the finished result was almost always a clear, coherent (if, at times, clearly artificial) collection of clauses that efficiently and effectively communicated the point.

Unlike how people actually speak…

In fiction, nothing takes a reader out of story quicker than stilted, sterile, and/or sloppy dialogue.  The good news is that you have full control over the words that come out of your characters’ mouths.  Here are some tips for how to handle the infuriating idiosyncrasies of human speech and deliver effective dialogue:

1. Shorten, streamline, then slash some more

Even though people in real life prattle on and on, a writer must be mindful of his or her “word economy.”  That doesn’t mean every sentence has to be reduced to a simple, subject-predicate construction, but short and snappy does wonders for pacing.  A reader’s attention has to be earned, and once you lost it, you might not reclaim it.

Consider each situation.  If two characters are passing each other in the hall at work, they wouldn’t likely engage in a twenty-minute conversation.  But if they’re unwinding at the local waterhole after hours—while imbibed a few alcoholic beverages—then a few run-on sentences might be just what the doctor ordered.

A common error I’ve encountered in rough drafts are conversations that simply go on too long.  Not only do the characters say in three sentences what they could have said in one, but also the subject itself circles back on itself again and again.  The chances of this happening increase dramatically if these artificial people are having an argument.  Real-life bickering is repetitive, but no reader wants to endure page after page of repetitive back-and-forth.

When in doubt, err on the side of fewer words.

2. Intersperse action

Dialogue can be like swarm of locusts, hungrily devouring a scene or even an entire chapter.  That might not be the worst thing in the world, just as long as it doesn’t leave the rest of the narrative desolate and devoid of life.

When a writer really gets into a verbal exchange between two (or more) captivating characters, it’s easy to lose track of everything else.  However, if the result is several consecutive pages of pure quotations, you end up with what I like to call Voices in a Vacuum.

Readers want to experience the story through as many senses as possible.  If a long conversation is needed, remember to plant some action in between speech tags so that the reader has something to” look at.”  And don’t forget the setting.  Where are these people?  Have they really been sitting perfectly still on a couch this whole time?  Is the rest of reality on pause while they bear their souls to one another?  Not likely.

Unadulterated dialogue appeals to just one of the five senses: hearing.  And when we speak in real life, our mannerisms convey meaning as well.  Indeed, body language often says more than our mouths!

Sometimes it can be difficult to silence loquacious characters, but unless their words are moving the story forward in a significant way, get ready to press the backspace key.

3. Replace action

Bad dialogue bogs down the pace; good dialogue encourages momentum.

In an effort to smooth out transitions between straightforward action and dialogue (because dialogue actually is a kind of action), it can be helpful to replace an ordinary description of motion with a voiced reference to an action.

Take this (admittedly ridiculous) excerpt for example:

Professor Improbable laughed wildly.  “With a few minor adjustments, the Chrono Cruiser will finally be ready for its maiden voyage!”

He turned to his slump-shouldered assistant, Rogi, and asked, “Bring me the thermal calibrator at once.”

Rogi reached for one of the many tools scattered on the table and handed a gadget to the scientist, who curtly informed him that he asked for a thermal calibrator, not an infrared coupler.

Rogi tried again and, luckily, got it right.

“Thank you, Rogi.  I don’t know what I’d have done without you these past five years…”

Here’s an alternate approach:

 “Mwahahaha!  With a few minor adjustments, the Chrono Cruiser will finally be ready for its maiden voyage!”  Professor Improbable turned to his slump-shouldered assistant.  “Rogi, bring me the thermal calibrator at once.  No, no, no!  That’s the infrared coupler.  Ah, yes, that’s the one.  Thank you.  I don’t know what I’d have done without you these past five years…”

The action is implied in the dialogue, and Professor Improbable—whom we suspect always monopolizes the conversation—can recap his master plan without needless interruptions.  Just make sure you don’t waste the reader’s time by having the dialogue and the narration convey redundant information.

4. Develop voice

Dialogue is perhaps the most intuitive element through which one can execute characterization.  A person’s vocabulary and delivery say an awful lot about him or her.  Casual chats, heart-to-hearts, quarrels, exchanges with random strangers—all of these present opportunities to add dimension to a character.

The goal is to give each character an individual voice, a strong voice that will inform the reader who is speaking even before they get to speech tag (e.g., “said Professor Improbable”).  Consider your character’s culture, education level, disposition, etc. when determining which words ought to come out of his or her mouth.

Just don’t get carried away.  Even if Rogi ends up having a speech impediment, a reader isn’t going to w-w-w-w-want to h-h-h-h-h-have t-t-t-t-t-t-to n-n-n-n-n-n-n-navigate a-a-a-around too m-m-m-m-m-many v-v-v-v-v-v-v-visual h-h-h-h-h-hurdles.  The same goes for representing accents.  Put in an affectation here and a native word there.  Please don’t pump each paragraph full of apostrophes to imply clipped sounds or otherwise butcher perfectly good words.  Subtlety is key.

Dialogue should round out your characters, but rarely can talk-heavy scenes exist solely for character development.  Every word needs to move the story forward, including quotes.

5. Read it out loud

The best way to gauge whether your dialogue rings true is to read it out loud.  Better yet, have someone else read it to you.  Listen for tongue-twisting syntax and garbled semantics.  Listen for flow.  Are the transitions logical?

Listen for sentences that are just too tidy.  Unless your protagonist is a grammar teacher, he or she is going to end a sentence with a preposition now and then.  For that matter, the rules of proper grammar don’t apply within quotation marks.  Awkward, unconventional sentence structure in dialogue won’t reflect poorly on you as a writer (if the rest of your sentences are grammatically sound), though it will send a message about the character in question.

Every good spy knows the best lies contain at least an ounce of truth.  The trick with dialogue, as with any aspect of fiction, is making something artificial come off as natural.  To become adept at writing dialogue, listen to how the people around you really talk and then make it better.

But not too perfect.


Filed under Writing

I should be thankful, but…

These are exciting times for writers, I’ve been told.  Often.

Never mind that fewer hardcover and paperback books are being printed and distributed throughout the country.  Even though brick-and-mortar bookstores are going the way of the typewriter, I’ve been assured there’s a bright dawn on the horizon for those who have stories to share with the world.

Thanks to the Internet, e-books and a cornucopia of other online resources, it’s easier than ever for fiction to flow from writer to reader.

The traditional publishing model, if not dying, is being forced to evolve.  And while The Way Things Are shift closer to The Way Things Were, many people are celebrating the fact that electronic formats make self-publishing an option for anyone with a tale to tell.

Consider this excerpt from Social Media Today’s “How Social Media is Changing the Publishing Industry”:

“The days of having a book in your head and never seeing (sic) in print are long gone.  Any writer or author can now bring their (sic) book to life with self-publishing and a viral social media campaign.”

Am I the only one who doesn’t necessarily see this as a good thing?

Let’s start with some of the pros for self-publishing:

1. A self-published author can earn more money per book sold.

2. Social media channels give writers the ability to plug their product 24/7.

3. There’s no editor to say, “No, your work isn’t good enough.”  ANYONE CAN PUBLISH A BOOK!!!

Why wouldn’t previously unpublished novelists be throwing their hats in the air?  No more rejection letters from big, bad publishing companies!  You always suspected the public would rave over your book, and now there’s no hoity-toity, fascist editor to block your progress.

At last, the Internet has made the publishing industry a democracy, where the people can choose what they want to read out of the widest array of possibilities imaginable!

But here’s the thing: Even though the old system was imperfect (as evidenced by the apparent decline of traditional publishers and an ever-decreasing number of new authors sharing shelves with the few big names), I actually liked the idea of having professionals decide which manuscripts get the thumbs up or thumbs down—even if it meant getting rejected.  The bar was set high, and I was happy to have something to work toward.

And because I’m a reader as well as a writer, I like going into a bookstore and knowing that the hard-copy occupants of those many shelves were pre-screened by someone who understood what was likely to be popular and, therefore, enjoyed by one or more target audiences.  I liked the fact that there were bookstores…

Sadly, I see the landscape of e-publishing not as a democracy, but as anarchy.  In an online arena where any word-slinger can make his or her mark on any number of websites, the average reader has to spend as much time dodging egregious affronts to the English language as finding exactly what he or she was looking for.  There used to be a “right way” to get published; now anything goes.

It’s like the Wild West, which was also free-spirited—but ultimately dangerous—place.

So when I hear the occasional success stories of those who have self-published or signed on with one of the many small online presses and made a ton of dough, my inner cynic can’t help but chime in:

1. A self-published author can earn more money per book sold, but there’s no guarantee anyone is going to find or download your book, and the more wannabes who put a 99-cent price tag on their novels—or worse, give it away for free simply because they want readers—the actual value of books go down in the public’s mind.

2. Social media channels give writers the ability to plug their product 24/7, which means that anyone who ever wanted to write the Great American Novel (or yet another Twilight rip-off) is doing the exact same thing, so good luck getting noticed.

3. There’s no editor to say, “No, your work isn’t good enough.”  ANYONE CAN PUBLISH A BOOK!!!  Which means for everyone decent book out there, readers will have to sift through hundreds of horrible manuscripts that shouldn’t have seen the light of day.

Or the glow of an e-reader, for that matter.

The fact that the article excerpt above contained two grammatical errors in the first two sentences only underscores my concern of quantity trumping quality.  Just because anyone can write and publish his or her work in a digital format, it doesn’t mean he or she should.

This Wild West of the written word—while an exciting environment for dabblers; experimenters; and writers who don’t mind making time to be their own editors, publishers, and publicists—presents a more pessimistic scenario for readers, who will have to sift through a lot of worthless rocks to find those sparkling gold nuggets.

And writers those who have the raw talent and the fortitude to hone their craft (and make it darn near perfect before publishing it one way or another) will have to depend a lot on the luck of the draw.

Eventually, however, the Wild West will be tamed, and a status quo will come to the formerly anarchic arena of online publishing.  A just system will emerge to distinguish the true talents from the dreamers.  Hopefully, more authors will find financial success because there will be more opportunities than before the “Gold Rush” and less competition from all the cowboys who thought having Microsoft Word and an idea or two were enough to qualify them as good writers.

So even though I should be thankful to living in a time when, theoretically, I can get my fiction in front of as many readers as possible, I’m far more thankful for the opportunities that remain for selling my manuscript to a traditional publisher and that there’s still a chance I might see one of my novels, as a hardcover or paperback, in an actual bookstore.


Filed under Writing

Battling genre bias with the magic of an open mind

Reading books with dragons on the cover says something about a guy.

In high school, the fact that I elected to read novels in my spare time sent a message of its own, never mind the cover art.  Other than a debate with another student over which books were better sellers, those that comprised the DragonLance series or the works of John Saul, I didn’t get much guff from my peers for reading fantasy fiction.

Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

This book, which I read as a sophomore in high school, opened the door to a life of reading and writing fantasy fiction.

No, it wasn’t until college that I got my first real taste of genre bias. As an English major, I earned college credits for writing a sword-and-sorcery short story and the opening chapters of my first fantasy novel.  However, in my sophomore year, I took a writing workshop where one rule not so much rained on my parade as washed it away in a deluge of biblical proportions: no genre fiction.

For my first assignment, I churned out a quasi-autobiographic “campus life” short that was an interesting exercise inasmuch as I found myself—for the first time in a very long time—writing scenes that took place in modern-day Earth.  At the same time, it was a dull plot that satisfied the letter of the law, if not the spirit of it.  My classmates gave it passable reviews.

Weeks later, I critiqued a classmate’s short story that followed an arguably familiar path: a college student dealing with relationship problems.  Blah blah blah.  When the professor questioned my criticism on the basis that my own story suffered from similar problems, my retort went something like this:

“My story was boring because I wasn’t able to write what I wanted to due to the ‘no genre fiction’ rule.”

To my delight, the professor repealed that unjust decree, and I was able to submit more chapters from The Renegade Chronicles, which got better feedback than my obligatory stab at writing a more realistic (and more mundane) story.  And I would argue that the rest of the class’s offerings were richer and more enjoyable—to me, at least—once the restriction was lifted.

Nevertheless, I never rid myself of the feeling that academic types—including most professors and a good many of the students—looked down on my interest in (gasp!) genre fiction.  Whether science fiction, romance, mystery or Western, true artistes don’t dabble in anything as juvenile as genre fiction.  Real literature is about realistic people in realistic situations doing perfectly normal things.


I was wont to tell the anti-genre contingent that modern (non-genre) literature didn’t generally interest me because I get enough real-life troubles in real life without willingly submitting myself to stories about people whose problems come woefully close to the mark.  In many cases, I find these books lacking in creativity because of that fact.

Now don’t get me wrong.  There’s a reason why various genres get a bad name—namely, clichés.  Some writers use genre tropes as a paint-by-number template for storytelling.  Those who don’t “get” fantasy fiction, for example, dismiss it because it can be very formulaic: Chosen One + motley companions + two-dimensional evil guy = every fantasy novel you’ve never read. Multiply by the square root of “magical sword,” and you might get a movie deal out of it.

Clearly, “speculative fiction” isn’t inherently more creative than its non-genre cousins.

So here’s the thing: there are well-written Westerns and poorly written ones, brilliant non-genre novels and agonizingly uninspired ones. Genre—or lack thereof—doesn’t determine the merit of fiction.

While most genres provide no shortage of shortcuts for writers to take and a plethora of stereotypes for them to try to pass off as interesting and fresh, it’s no more fair to say all genre fiction favors whimsy over substance than it is to declare all non-genre fiction is dull.

A skilled author can breathe fresh life into any genre or take an ordinary storyline and present it in an extraordinary way.

It still rankles me when someone—and fellow writers, no less—dismisses fantasy and science fiction as a waste of time because it couldn’t possibly be relatable to readers.  The existence of magic or advanced technology in a tale does not preempt the inclusion of the themes we humans have grappled with since time immemorial.

The good news is that discerning readers don’t need to choose between high-quality genre fiction and fantastic non-genre fiction because examples from both categories contain no shortage of pathos and creativity.  With so many talented genre and non-genre writers out there, we can have the best of both worlds.

And sometimes those worlds just happen to have dragons.


Filed under Writing

Writing presents an endless series of gambles

Brace yourself because I’m about to lay a brilliant analogy on you.

(Or am I?)

I’m not a master poker player by any means, but while reading through the first draft of my latest novel, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Friday night card games from my high school days.  Let me explain.

When a writer first tries his hand at fiction, he’s like the eager newcomer to the poker table.  He has his pile of chips, a dopey smile, and the unwavering belief that he is going to score big time.  He’s playing mostly for fun, but he knows the rules (or, at least, the basics) and thinks that given enough time, he’ll become the master of the table, impressing his opponents and the audience as well.  (Did I mention this was the World Series of Poker?)

But, really, he is quite clueless.  Just like a dabbler in the literary arts.  When a beginner writer takes his first stab at setting a scene, developing characters, or composing convincing dialogue, he has that same misplaced self-confidence that every sentence is the equivalent to a full house; every paragraph, a royal flush.

However, the amateur author has no finesse.  He has—or believes he has—a winning hand, and oh, he wants to flaunt it.  He doesn’t hold anything back.  Everyone knows what’s in his hand, not only because of body language, but because he’s so darn eager to show off those pocket aces.

There’s a reason why beginners are repeatedly told to show, not tell.

Over time, a writer learns a some lessons, usually the hard way.  Exposition has its place, but many details can be conveyed through characterization, conversation and choice verbs.  Subtlety, effective surprises, and deeper strategies become part of the game.

At the end of the day, it comes down to managing the flow of information, manipulating readers into knowing what you want them to know when you want them to think they know they know it.  Poker and writing—the two biggest mind games in town.

But what happens when the easy mark becomes the card sharp?

While reading through my novel, I realize that I’ve become the proverbial poker master.  I keep my cards so close to the vest that nobody knows what I’m gonna lay down next.  I play to win, bluffing when you least expect it and triumphantly revealing the winning hand in the final moments.  No one ever sees it coming.

Which is a problem.

Because unlike poker, writing isn’t about proving yourself superior to everybody else.  Think of it this way: If you played cards with your buddies every week and took the pot every single hand, how long before you wouldn’t be invited back?  The reader wants to be teased, not tricked; astounded, not dumbfounded.

Sadly, I’ve been in this position before.  The first draft of my last novel was something of a train wreck, with too many revelations hoarded for the last chapters.  Rather than be too obvious (or even straightforward) at any point, I err on the side of enigmatic every time.  I suppose that any round of editing requires an honest appraisal of what information belongs where.  For some reason, I insist on making my manuscript challenging for the reader, which in turn makes it very challenging for me to edit.

In poker, there’s generally only one winner.  In fiction, every reader wants to win.  And if the reader appreciates all of the agonizing decisions the writer must make to produce a compelling, suspenseful, and ultimately rewarding piece of fiction, then the writer also wins.

As to whether all the hard work will be worth the effort in the end, well, that’s the greatest gamble of all.


Filed under Writing