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Writing Tips

I think I’ve saved every hand out, every email, every note I’ve ever made in a creative writing class and every essay about writing that I’ve ever read. I’m no grammar expert, but I also collect and enjoy books about grammar, thumbing through them the way some women read fashion or decorating magazines. I’ve amassed a thick stack of ‘advice’ over the years. You can find excerpts below, peppered with some personal observations.

  • A Tip from Jack Gantos

    On world-building…

    On November 24, 2007 I travelled to Belgium to attend an SCBWI workshop with Jack Gantos. For those of you who don’t know Jack Gantos, he wrote the Rotten Ralph picture books and the wonderfully funny and so-true-to-the-mark Joey Pigza novels about a young boy with ADHD.

    Gantos has been an inveterate journaler since he was a child. A packrat too it seems because he claims to still have all his journals. He brought a few old volumes with him to share with us at that workshop. The insides were a combination of words and pictures. In the journal he shared, Gantos had drawn maps of the neighbourhood he was writing about. The drawing was simple but very useful. Houses were labeled with the names of the people who lived there and were surrounded by little diagrams to remind him of the interesting events that had happened in each one. He suggested that when we write, we do the same.

    That struck me as a fine piece of advice. So, with multi-screens in front of me displaying detailed maps of the areas east of Toronto, I began to piece together the town of Scotch-Gully. Once I had that I could draw a map for the isolated corner of Scotch-Gully where Alex, Norman and Randy live.

    Here is a link to the map I created showing Storey Lane, Old Man Wilkins’ section of land and Fourteen Mile Creek.

  • The Adverb Taboo – A Nasty Habit

    As in art, writing styles go in and out of fashion but one piece of writing advice has remained constant for a long time; the adverb taboo. Elmore Leonard wrote about the wicked adverb in his essay, 10 Rules of Writing. And just last spring I had my wrists slapped by an agent when she discovered two adverbs in my submission.

    I’ll let Mr. Leonard explain the problem in his own words.

    Leonard’s Rule 4

    Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

    Leonard’s advice is sound. This mortal sin should be a simple thing to avoid, yes?

    So why does this one thing so frequently plague the manuscripts of beginning writers? I have a theory.

    I recently spent a year working in Fourth Grade with a team of exceptional teachers. These were the teachers that you hope and dream your children will experience. I was in heaven.

    For Language Arts the teaching team (indeed the entire elementary section) subscribed to an American-made program of teaching creative writing to children. The school brought experts to run in-house workshops and sent staff members attend and become certified in that particular teaching method. All good. All wonderful, in fact. This school took the teaching of writing seriously and they did a fine job. Except for one teeny tiny thing. Adverbs. This is a story of one rotten seed being planted and taking root.

    There were two natural writers in that Fourth Grade group. The first was a seriously pretty 10-year-old girl with an old soul, the gentlest of hearts and severe dyslexia. Whenever it was time to write anything she struggled to get her words onto the page but oh my, what she imagined and the stories she was able to create – with the help of a scribe – were gems. And then there was Harvard; my nickname for a 10 year old whiz kid who excelled – without effort – in everything. Science. Math. Art. Music. Creative writing.

    At the start of the year Harvard’s stories hinted at potential prodigy. The stories were intricate, observant, original and with a sophistication well beyond his years. I wondered if I was witnessing the next Christopher Paoilini. As the school year progressed, however, things took a distressing turn.

    While the teachers (remember these were truly exceptional teachers doing wonderful things educating children) were teaching the bones of writing – nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs – they were also turning themselves inside out to find ways to stimulate more creativity in their students’ writing. Part of their teaching process was to encourage the kids to use adverbs. And… the easiest focus point for adverb use was dialogue.

    Once Harvard heard this adverb advice every line of dialogue he wrote contained an adverb. Each one was carefully, often painstakingly selected. He had been taught, he’d internalized, and now he believed completely, that those adverbs would help him communicate his characters’ situation or trait in the best possible way. With the conviction of a near-zealot, he believed adverbs were necessary in every dialogue attribution. I was unable to convince him otherwise.

    Now it’s a race. The use of adverbs to modify the verb “said” will not come into fashion in Harvard’s lifetime. What will happen next is what worries me. Will he find other influential teachers who will recognize and nurture his remarkable talent while gently convincing him to abandon those adverbs? Or, will come face to face with a soapbox editor, a zealot with a fat red pen who preaches about writing’s mortal sins and who crushes Harvard’s creative spirit.

    My theory? We begin a child’s education teaching them to modify “said” with colorful adverbs. This becomes their norm. It’s internalized. Later, when some of them decide to be writers, it’s a nasty habit that needs to be broken. Like biting fingernails.

    The esteem in which Raphael had been for centuries held was a matter of derision to wise young men.

    W. Somerset Maugham: Of Human Bondage

  • The Danger of Adjectives

    From my fat file of Creative Writing Class Handouts, here is some advice on the use of adjectives.

    Use adjectives sparingly. Chose them for flavour and newness. Avoid ordinary stale adjectives: “A pale moon” (what exactly is pale? Do you mean butter-coloured, or ivory, or a pumpkin moon, or amber?)

    Adjectives may seem to bolster nouns when in fact they often weaken them. The more adjectives you use to precede a noun, the more often that noun loses power. For instance, “The night.” “The cold night.” “The wet, cold night.” “The dark wet cold night.” As you pile on the adjectives, the power of the word “night” is diminished.

    Here are some examples of adjectives that are used well:

    • “When Sula first visited the Wright house, Helene’s curdled scorn turned to butter.” (from Toni Morrison’s Sula)
    • “With a bladdery whack the boat slapped apart and sprang away.” (from Sharon Sheehe Stark’s A Wrestling Season)
    • “Hank was not accepted at Harvard Law School; but good-hearted Yale took him.” (John Updike, The Other)
  • Verbs Verbs Verbs

    The verb is the key to writing. It is the action and energy of the sentence. Think of sentences without them. “Vivian a tire onto the rack.” “Fido a lamb chop.” But “Vivian hoisted a tire onto the rack.” Fido devoured a lamb chop.” Verbs are the joint that move the sentence, like the elbow that connects the upper and lower arm.

    Cut the fat away from your verbs as much as possible; let them be immediate and exposed. Stay in the present tense as much as possible, even if it’s simple past present time. It makes the writing alive. Try to avoid “had been gone” or “having had been gone” and “would be gone”; instead say, simply, “she went”. “She was sick” carries the movement forward better than “she had been sick”.

    Rita Mae Brown on verbs: “Verbs blast you down the highway. If you want to get your black belt in boredom, load your sentences with variations of the verb to be. Granted, sometimes you can’t help using them, especially with nonfiction, but at every opportunity knock out is, are, was, etc., and insert something hot! I’m not saying that weak verbs lack punch – it depends on the sentence – but I am saying that the “to be” family falls flat on its face with overuse.”

    Peter Davison (for 30-years Poetry Editor of The Atlantic): “The verb “to die” has a lot more life packed into it than “to be” ever will. You don’t really know what you’re trying to say unless you know what the verbs are.”

  • George Orwell and 1946

    George Orwell wrote the famous dystopian novel, 1984. In 1946, three years prior to the publication of 1984, Orwell published a vitriolic article titled “Politics and the English Language” (Horizon, volume 13, issue 76, pages 252-265).  Its opening line is, I believe, still true today.

    He writes, “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.”

    There’s so much writing advice out there. The Internet is littered with it. Advice on participles, passive verbs, plot outlines and points of view. How to write characters, how to write dialogue and how to write setting. I expect a lot of it is useful. Perhaps even brilliant but… it’s well to remember that writing is subject to fashion.

    Poetry is the obvious example. Try writing sonnets, quatrains or cinquains today and get them taken seriously by editors in literary journals.  The same is true with fiction. We still read and laud Jane Austen and Somerset Maugham but try to construct a novel in the same way today with similar narrators, voice and participle uses. Even if the time setting of your novel is the same as Maugham’s or Austen’s, it’s unlikely to find a sympathetic editor. Then there is the fashion which exists within different literary genres which creates its own subset of writing advice.

    There are however, some intrinsic writing basics which transcend everything. Below are three paragraphs lifted verbatim from Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language”. Each paragraph contains the writing equivalent to owning a little black dress, or not wearing white after Labour Day – these three writing reminders were true in 1946 and are still true today.

    If you have time I would suggest you read the whole piece as well as his essay, “The Prevention of Literature” (Polemic No 2 in January 1946).  Orwell fans will recognize the seeds of 1984 in these papers. However, even if you’ve never read Orwell or have little interest in the corruption of language, everyone at some point has to put pen to paper and these three classic writing tips by George Orwell can fashionably hang in your closet for a lifetime and perhaps even be passed on to your children and grandchildren.

    And please… keep reading all the references and writing advice that you need but promise me you won’t just accept it all – analyze. Just following rules can bury an original voice.  There are already too many writing clones out there and too many god-writers who want to make new writers-in-their-own-image.


    Orwell on Dying Metaphors

    Dying metaphors. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.


    Orwell on Operators or verbal false limbs

    Operators or verbal false limbs. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved by anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.


    Orwell on Pretentious diction.

    Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.* The jargon peculiar to the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.


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