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Basic Fic Goodness by Viv

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Joined: 15 Sep 2003
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PostPosted: Sat Sep 13, 2003 4:15 am    Post subject: Basic Fic Goodness by Viv Reply with quote

Basic Fic Goodness


By Viv

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You’ve been there: people sitting around, all full of themselves, talking about fiction and grandly announcing that it’s either “good writing” or “sucky writing.” As if they have a clue what they’re talking about. And when they go on pompositizing, you’ve probably done one of two things: either you’ve sat there silently figuring that no one could accuse you of ignorance if you didn’t offer an opinion, or you’ve piped up with the oldie but goody, “It’s all opinion anyway; I think it’s good, so it’s good.”

Well, first of all, there’s no reason for you to be in the dark. It isn’t like good writing is some grand mystery. Heck, with some attention and practice, you can even create good writing all by yourself. No shit.

What is shit, however, is that notion that quality of writing is all subjective. The fact is that there are tell-tale marks of good writing. There are even a few patterns that denote exceptional writing. Those are the things I aim to point out here.

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Point of View and Narrative Voice
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Point of view is the character through whom the reader sees your story. And, at the more advanced levels of writing, it has little to do with what your verbs and pronouns are doing. It has everything to do with whose head you are in.

Usually, you pick a point of view character and follow that character’s emotions and internal conflicts through the scene. Sometimes, you even relate his or her unspoken thoughts.

Novice writers often write from an “omniscient” point of view, which just means that they haven’t picked a pov character. And although the omniscient pov works nicely, for, oh, say Stephen King, it is a tight rope to walk and usually sounds really bad when someone of lesser talent and experience tries it.

Here are some tips for doing POV right:

-- Pick one character, and follow that character’s point of view through the entire scene. If you aren’t relaying enough information through that character’s point of view, pick another character, and rewrite the scene accordingly.

-- If you just have to show that Micky was sad, but you’re telling the scene from Liza’s point of view, Micky can look sad, Micky can frown a lot or rest his chin on his hand or stare off into space or do a whole host of things that make Liza think that he’s sad. If you’re writing from Liza’s point of view, it doesn’t matter what Micky’s thinking: It only matters what Liza thinks Micky is thinking.

-- If you just have to get more than one person’s thoughts into one scene (and I don’t recommend it), at least limit each paragraph to a single point of view.

As far as the grammar nitpicks go... it does help if you get your pronouns and verbs working together. So if you’re writing in third person, stay there. Don’t interrupt with personal “you” notes (second person) to the reader. One of the worst offenses I see in fic (a lot) is those durned AN notes. You know, the ones that show up smack in the middle of a story. Tip: Never put an author’s note in the middle of a story. There is always a better, more elegant way of introducing that information (try asterisks with footnotes or superscripts with numbered footnotes, or even just some general end notes).


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Word Choice and Usage
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Some words just don’t add to a story. Alas, those words are often the most commonly used ones.


Is

Like “is.” Ponder these two sentences:

“The morning was bright and crisp.”
“Dawn arrived, bright and crisp.”

The second sentence brings you right into the action. “Is” also makes for some darned boring characterization:

“He was tall, dark-haired, and had a gentle smile.”
“The dark-haired man towered over us, but he had a gentle smile.”

Although both sentences contain the same information, the second creates a more vivid image. Look through your story; any time you see an “is,” “was,” or “were,” consider rewriting the sentence.


As

Another word that is overused and rubs professional editors the wrong way is “as.”

First of all, “as” does not mean “because.” So, “He stopped talking, as he had nothing else to say” should be rewritten, “He stopped talking because he had nothing else to say.”

Yes, you have probably seen this misused badly in published documents. That doesn’t make it right. It just means there are lazy editors out there.


“Ask” or “Said”

Okay, this may seem very elementary, but here goes: “ask” is the verb you use if your character just asked a question; “said” is for all other dialog. I’m not entirely sure why people get these confused, but I’ve seen it a lot in fanfic. So, be careful: If your character’s dialog bit ends with a question mark, use “ask.”


Adverbs

“…,” she said stubbornly.

Boring. Don’t tell us that she said it stubbornly. Show us through the dialog itself. Give us a bit of body language:

“I won’t go,” Sissy said, crossing her arms over her chest and pursing her lips.

If you’ve done your job providing character details and tight dialog, most adverbs are unnecessary.


Word Repetition

“Marcus smiled softly, cupping Jeanette’s chin with his hand. Her skin felt soft against his fingers…”

Everything in this sentence is soft. Try to avoid using the same word -- even in different forms -- in the same paragraph or even in successive paragraphs. You can always use a thesaurus in a pinch, but make sure you look up the definition of words you don’t know very well... the trick to using a thesaurus is for no one to be able to tell that you’ve been using one.


“Started to” and “Began to”

Just leave these phrases out. More often than not, they just take up space and diffuse the meaning, making the reader search for your verb. “Arnold trembled like a little girl” is much tighter writing than “Arnold began to tremble like a little girl.”

There is one exception (isn’t there always?): If someone is being interrupted, it works to use the “she started to say” phrase, then have the second character break in. It’s a little heavy-handed, but at least folks can pick up what you’re trying to do.


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Characterization
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You craft good characterization mostly through dialogue and action. Sometimes good writers slip in movement habits for the characters, things that make the characters unique (e.g., Andy habitually pushes his glasses up on his nose, even when they aren't sliding off; Hilda chews on her hair when she's nervous). The best writers also create bits of dialog that, were there no other descriptions in the scene, would obviously be words of a particular character.

However, there’s more to characterization than good dialogue and a habit for biting one’s fingernails. A character must also always act in character. Theoretically, this is simple common sense. But where it gets wonky is when we don’t know our characters very well. Someone recommend once that I interview each of my characters before I start writing them. So I, on paper, sit down like I’m Barbara Walters and ask them about their relationships with their parents, their personal ambitions, their fears, their aches, their psychoses. I have a list of 50 questions. They answer in their own voice. Sometimes they refuse to answer (though they always have reasons, and I always badger them). Sometimes they break down in tears and confess all sorts of things I didn’t know about before. It’s fun, and it gives me a better insight into who I'm writing.

Other writers have suggested some very basic, and not especially stylistic, tips regarding character creation. One is to avoid having two character names that start with the same first letter. Or that rhyme. They also suggest never having more than one nickname for any character. Okay, I know that Tolkien delighted in mangling both of these guidelines, but he had more than a million copies in print, and you do not. (If you do, what the hell are you doing reading this paper? Go sip a mai tai or win a Nobel prize or something. Go on.)


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Punctuation and Grammar
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I honestly believe that a lot of bad grammar would be fixed if folks just read their stories out loud. However, since I can’t force anybody to do that (and, besides, it looks really strange when someone on the bus is doing it), here are some general things to be aware of.

Run-on sentences are the bane of a novice writer. Here’s a tip: Never use semicolons unless you aced grammar in university and are rather anal about it even today. Also, brush up on comma usage. Keep in mind that sentences exist of a subject and a predicate:

Glenda squealed happily. (subject = “Glenda”; predicate = “squealed happily”)

If you have two subjects and two predicates and no commas in between, you may have a run-on sentence. Example:

Glenda was really happy, she’d been looking for the white donkey for weeks.

Here, you have two subjects (“Glenda” and “she”) and two verbs (“was” and “had been looking”). Yup, you guessed it: This is a run-on sentence. You’d rewrite it as two sentences:

“Glenda was really happy. She’d been looking for the white donkey for weeks.”

Or, if you are a semicolon god and never screw up using semicolons, you could say, “Glenda was really happy; she’d been looking for the white donkey for weeks.” I’d recommend the former.


Punctuation

Three things to keep in mind about punctuation: (1) all dialog begins a new paragraph and needs open and close quotation marks; (2) there are specific uses for all those funny-looking special characters in your word processor (so don’t use them unless you really do intend to talk about percentages, less-than and greater-than, or Spanish tildes), and (3) you only ever need one exclamation point or one at a time (and never both at the same time).


Dangles

“Dangling participle” sounds vaguely obscene. And it can be. Certainly it obscures the intended meaning, often with amusing results:

Not intending to hurt him, Sepherina’s shoe smacked him squarely in the face.

Um, you can spot the problem here, right? Keep in mind that any time you have a participial phrase (look for –ing verbs), the noun directly after the comma is the thing that’s doing the –ing. In this case, Sepherina’s shoe has some motivational issues.

A good way for just-starting-out writers to avoid this problem is to stick to basic sentences: subject, verb, direct object. Boom, boom, boom. Don’t try to be fancy until you have a good grasp on the grammar.


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Parting Shots
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Now, having said all that, I’ll tell you this: every single writing rule can and should be broken. But only by very experienced writers who have a real good reason for doing so. Until you’ve gotten a three-book contract and a movie deal, don’t try anything overly fancy. Most times it just comes off sounding, well, bad.

Also, always read your story out loud. If you stumble over a sentence or phrase, the reader probably will, too. If you don’t think anyone can hear you, try reading the dialogue in the voices of your characters. That helps you get a better sense of their speech patterns and cadence and can help you spot when they’re acting or talking out of character.

Finally, I can’t stress enough how important it is to find a good beta and give her lots of chocolates and recreational elves. There isn’t a story in ficdom that couldn’t benefit from a beta (even those that have already been through a ringer or two). So asking for a beta is in no way an admission of incompetence. It’s an admission that you give a shit.

And, as a wise woman once said, writers what give a shit inevitably get readers what give a shit.


This essay is part of the "Do's and Don'ts of writing Fan Fiction Challenge' and can be found archived in the Reality Bytes section of the the Open Scrolls Archive. Reviews can be made there.
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