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On Writing

So you want to know how to write? Well, my first suggestion would be to step back from the keyboard, give your head a couple of shakes and say argghhhh! very loudly. Did you do that? Great, you're well on your way.

Writers are born, not made, no matter which well meaning teacher has told you otherwise. When I say that I mean fiction writers and poets and lyricists and playwrights; you get the idea. And the fact that you're even reading this tells me you probably are. Technical writer? Sorry, can't help you. There's a formula for that, same with thesises and stuff like that, and well, my creative side is the reason no sane person would let me be a chemist. But I digress.

The first rule is, there are no rules. You are being creative and you need to remember that. As soon as you try to follow some dictated formula you've lost it. The greatest writers are the ones who broke the rules; think Oscar Wilde, Edgar Alan Poe, e.e. cummings, Robbie Burns and James Joyce. They stretched the boundaries of what was expected and delivered something people ridiculed or scratched their heads at, but they are indisputably great writers who have stood the test of time.

Now that I've said that, I'm going to break my own rule and say there are some rules. Well, not rules exactly, but rules of thumb, things you should keep in mind.

First, grammar rules can be broken, especially when you're dealing with dialogue. People don't speak like they're out of a 10th grade grammar text book, and characters shouldn't either.

However! (See, I just broke a rule!) Some grammar rules shouldn't be broken. One thing that drives me crazy is improper use of apostrophes. When I see that more than a couple of times I stop reading. Seriously.

It's annoying because that's one of the more basic rules and it doesn't matter whether it's dialogue or not, it's something that tells you something. So, a quick refresher:

An apostrophe is used when it's replacing something. The one I just used is replacing the i in is. As in, it is. That's a contraction. When you are talking about a possessive, as in, "its hair was green" there's nothing being replaced - "its" has no apostrophe. Some people put apostrophes in anything that's plural. Nope. A plural like "nuns" has no apostrophe, doesn't need one. Now, if that same gang of nuns owned something, that something would be the "nuns' " something, ditto with the name of someone that ends in s. But if it was owned by one nun, that would be the "nun's" something. Got that? Okay.

Comma splices. Hateful things. I do it all the time. Within reason. Why? Well, I have my quirks, but it isn't something you want to go overboard with. You see, a comma is really meant to separate something that has different thoughts, or where it's a really long sentence because a comma is a brief pause. Not as serious as a period. That's final. Not as long as a semi colon, just a quick breath. A semi colon is something where you want the reader to put down their cup of coffee; a colon means "Stop! Something list-like is coming!" and a period is where you want the reader to pick up that cup of coffee and take a sip. A new paragraph, well, you want them to take a sip, pet the cat, light a cigarette, whatever, something new is coming and it's a long pause. Now, when, you, get, sentences, that read, like this, umm, no. Sounds a bit like Captain Kirk and that's neat, but it doesn't make sense, does it?

Then again there are sentences that just seem to go on forever and ever and ever and you could go water the lawn and fill up the dog's bowl and flip the laundry and read the paper and call a couple of people and know that that sentence will still be there talking to you going on forever and ever like your dear Aunt Flo....enough already! You've created a run on sentence and shame on you! Nobody likes that. Even if they are funny.

Now a word about dialogue. That's probably one of the hardest things to do because you're literally putting words in someone's mouth. If you're a really creative person you may feel like throwing in a few accents and stuff, and that's wild and wonderful, but how do you do that? You don't. Not unless you really, really know how someone with an accent speaks. As in, you hear it every day, and you use expressions that are very obvious mistakes that are commonly made (maundit, look what you've done, have to brush my hairs now....), but not enough to be a cliché.

Why? Because it's insulting. A truly great writer will use accents, but guaranteed they do it because they live with it every day, and most likely are it. I grew up in Ottawa and lived in a very French area called Vanier for a few years so I do like to throw in French expressions and phrases now and then, but it's something I use very sparingly out of respect for French speaking people. Ditto Irish accents, even though my family is Irish by descent.  I also have an Ottawa Valley accent I've never quite lost (Gidday, eh?, cat still up on the ruff? No? Seen that new filum?) but it's unlikely you'll see that show up in a story I write.

So. How do you make it real? Throw in a few words, a phrase or two, but don't make everything they say some Robbie Burns clip; he could do that because he was that. Got that? C'est bon ça.

Okay, phew, take a deep breath. If you're still with me, I'll continue.

Do you notice something about the way I'm writing this? I'm writing this in the first person, as though I'm speaking to you. It's a neat trick, but one you need to be just a little careful about. Why? 'Cause it isn't easy.

I had a teacher once, bless her heart, who took me aside on the last day of school and said to me, "I want you to keep writing. No matter what anyone says, keep writing. There's only one other person I've said this to, and she just sent me her first book. Will you promise to send me your first book?" Well, I've written a book and it's crap. So she's still waiting and is probably a very old lady by now, but there's something else she gave to me. She said it's darn near impossible to write in the first person, like you're speaking to someone and guess what? Here it is. But it is hard. Here's why:

Writing in the first person is basically writing dialogue. I'm speaking to you. And as I said before, dialogue is one of the hardest things to write. There is a trick though, and I'll tell you.

Read my short story "Candles", and while you're at it, "Awestruck". They're talking to you. Why? Because these are really plays masquerading as short stories. That's okay, because like I said before, rules are made to broken, and I really don't how to write a play so don't ask me!  Me, I'm just having fun with words.

I have a trick and it's a good one. Whenever you write something, even if it's some government bumpf or a corporate e-mail, whatever, read it out loud. People when they're writing tend to put on some face that has nothing to do with whatever they are. People with bad grammar and spelling can sound illiterate, even if they have a PHD in physics. People who have really great grammar and like to sound official can sound British, which is neat, but it's a little off-putting to read a long missive from someone who either can't spell or knows their grammar too well. The reason for both is, one sounds uneducated, and the other very stilted. And both are no-nos. When you read what you write out loud, you are speaking the voice that the reader hears in their head, and bingo! You've got it.

Second. Here's tough stuff, the artsy-fartsy, head in the clouds, who the hell are you? comments. I had a well meaning friend who told me that they didn't understand the way I wrote, and the reason was because they were taught that any good writer will formulate an idea, then they write an outline, then they will write a few sentences based on that outline and labouriously go through it word by word, comma by comma, and if they're lucky, in one day, they will have written a page or two. Good for them!

I've tried that. My ideas, like everything else in my life, come to me out of nowhere. I file them away in my very disorganized mental filing cabinet and that's where they sit. When I try to write something based on a formula, it sounds like garbage because it is garbage. At least for me it is.

My stories come to me usually by the first sentence. I may have an idea of what it is I want to write, but I've learned over time not to force it. The first sentence pops into my head and I write it down. If I'm really lucky I have a big napkin or something and I continue on because once something flows I don't like to stop it. So I don't. I can sit down and write an entire story in an hour or so, and maybe that's not the way Charles Dickens wrote, but you have to remember, he was paid by the word so he thought out very carefully which words he chose. Me, I do it because I like to, and that's why anyone should write fiction.

But I don't stop at that. Once I've written it, I read it over, and I edit. And I edit and edit, and then I stop, and very often put it away for a while. Why? It's a mental thing. Try this. Say the word "and" over and over and over again. Eventually it loses all meaning. Same reason. If you labour over something too much, you, and it, loses it. Go do something else. Then come back to it.

At that point you can read it (I hope) with an objective eye. Be a little heartless, pretend you're Reader's Digest. Get rid of everything that isn't necessary. Then read it out loud. If it sounds strange or stilted, it is. Edit, and keep doing that until it sounds just right. And if you're a lousy speller, use your spell checker!

Beyond that, when the feeling hits, and you get that really great sentence in your head, write it down. That's the famous muse they speak about. A muse can shout, and make you write a twenty page story in an evening, or it can whisper and just give you a paragraph, that's okay. Get it down.

Another thing about writing is that all writers are really actors at heart. Why do I say that? Well, when you're writing a story and you let it write itself, you become the characters. They're not you, they're something else, and the more you write, the better you become at letting these characters take over and be themselves. They tell you the words. Really. And when they do that, you're not writing, you're acting; you've become someone else and that's a lot of fun. It's also very therapeutic if the characters are able to act out an emotion or a situation that's bothering you. They're not you, but by putting down on paper something in you, you're getting it out.

Lastly, something really important. People are visual, or they are auditory, or a combination of both. You can't write a good short story entirely on dialogue, and you can't write one entirely on visual. There has to be a balance. Description is wonderful, but use it in moderation, ditto with the fancy words that sound nice. We all like a well turned phrase, but not two pages of it, that's boring.

A tip I learned from a writing course I took: if you're writing about a stevedore, and he farts, you say he farts, not "break wind" - your great aunt Minnie does that. If a stevedore breaks wind, it's just silly, and if your great aunt Minnie farts, well, she's quite a broad, isn't she?

Which leads to one more thing. If you're a writer, you have to have a thick skin, don't take criticism personally. It's not you they dislike, it's what you wrote. You also have to be fearless. Say what's inside you and don't worry about who you're going to offend. If you start erasing the nasty bits because you're afraid your mom is going to turn green when she reads it, well, don't show it to her, or be prepared to take the heat. You can't be a good writer if you're scared of what people will say. When you write you put your soul on the line, and that's it. Don't believe me? Read some of my poetry or my essays and you'll see what I mean. If I hid what I truly wanted to say, I wouldn't write. Simple as that.

So, when the moment is right and the muse has breathed his sweet breath in your ear, and your newly borne characters are pulling on your cotton blend shirt every so gently, like the touch of a baby on your fingers, the kettle whistling in the back ground, pour yourself a cup of something warm, curl your hand around the cup and bask in the steam borne aroma, and....

For heaven sakes, write, but don't write that!

Most of all, have fun, 'cause writing is that.

©2001 Catherine M. Harris

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This page was last updated: November 9, 2008