“I am a writer. My weapons; a dictionary and thesaurus. My tools, pen and paper. With mere pen strokes I can create and destroy universes. I am...a...writer.”
However, nobody can go very far without understanding the basics of writing. That is the goal of this article; to help writers that are fresh onto the scene by covering the basics in a plain and simple no nonsense approach. To make things easier, the items covered are sectioned off and exampled by a plain character named Pete whom has absolutely no connection to anybody in real life.
Section one: Questions and misconceptions.
Q. Why does somebody write?
A. For many reasons. As a means of personal expression, or for informative purposes, or even nothing more than a means to pass the time with.
Q. Do I have to write one thing, or can I write what I want?
A. You can write whatever it is you want to. That's the beauty of writing.
Misconception: One is born a writer.
Truth: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Writing may come naturally to some while others may have to work and study to get it.
Misconception: When my work is publicly visible, everyone's going to tell me how good I am as a writer.
Truth: ONLY IN VERY RARE INSTANCES IS THIS TRUE. That only happens when a writer becomes good enough to have his/her name associated with high quality material. The brutal truth, is that most criticism is aimed at helping a fresh writer in improving...and yes, sometimes the critique does come across on the harsh side but the intent is to help one improve.
Q. What is the difference between constructive criticism and an attack on the author?
A. Constructive criticism has examples of what the problem is, and a solution of how to correct it; often coupled with encouragement to keep working at it. A flame - or an attack on the author - serves no purpose other than to belittle the author as a person and make them seem worthless.
Section two: Punctuation – otherwise known as those funny looking markings.
In this section, I'll explain what the common – and not so common punctuation marks mean and how they behave in practice.
[ . ] Period. Used to mark the end of a sentence. Otherwise known as a hard stop.
[ , ] Comma. Used as a pause for longer sentences, such as this one.
[ ; ] Semicolon. Used to link two incomplete thoughts/sentences together. From personal experience, I say use this special mark sparingly.
Pete grabbed a soda; his throat parched.
[ ! ] Exclamation point. Used to provide emphasis or emotion into text.
“Get off my yard!” Pete shouted. - OR - “Leave me alone!” Pete growled at his neighbor.
[ ? ] Question mark. Used to indicate questions.
“Why did I grab a Coke and not the Pepsi?” Pete uttered to himself.
[ !?! ] A personal favorite of mine. This one is used to indicate both exclamation and question in one tone.
“What the!?!” Pete snapped when he realized there was no more Pepsi to drink.
[ … ] Ellipses. Used to indicate omitted words or to show the trailing off or pause of thought and or speech.
“When I get my hands on them...” Pete paused to think about it. “...they'll go right into the safe.”
[ Italics ] Used to denote thought or dreams.
[ ' ] Apostrophe. Used to join two matchable words together. Sometimes used as a joiner in dialogue to show dialect/way of speaking.
“Hey, you're a young'n. I wouldn't expect you to know everything about it...” [I will cover more of this in later sections.]
[ “ “ ] Quote marks. These very useful creatures indicate when one is speaking.
“Man, it's so hot out here! Who decided it would be a good idea to build the metal shed in this scorching heat!?!”
Section three: Tips and tricks.
All too often I have come across various examples of what NOT to do when writing, too many to example in fact. But I have whittled down the list to the top offenders.
Numbers as letters. Simple to remember, type out the word to replace the number. Example; 3 would be three. 27 would be twenty-seven, etc. And please do try to avoid net/cheat speak...not really a wise idea plain and simple.
The use of parenthesis ( ) in a story. While it may seem like a good idea to use the parenthesis in a story, more often than not, it is an idea that is best left out. The reason why I'm pointing this out, is because it jolts the flow and rhythm of a story while distracting the readers from what's happening in the story world with what the writer wants to say.
Characters versus plot. Ideally a well rounded story has a major character, a couple of secondary characters and a solid plot. That is to say, that too many named characters is going to bog down the story with unneeded information. However, larger stories means having more characters, this is fine as long as each character has a role in the story.
Capitalization. Here, we'll find out which letters to make uppercase and which ones to leave lower case. To be correct, the starting letter of each sentence should be capitalized. This also applies to sentences in dialogue too. The exception to this rule, is when ellipses are used where sentences pickup from previously paused/trailed off.
“This is interesting...” Pete mumbled looking over his grammar book. “...there isn't much in the rulebooks about that one.”
Names of locations should also be capitalized, even if it is a fictional location such as Larry's Lemonade Hut.
Spacing. This is arguably the single largest offender. The 'enter' or 'return' key comes on all keyboards for a reason, and there's usually at least one. Using this very nifty key keeps a body of work from becoming the dreaded Wall-O-Text. Where and when to press our friend the 'enter' key? Between paragraphs, and between two or more characters speaking such as...
“Hey.” Pete grinned seeing Amy approaching.
“Hey yourself!” She growled back not making eye contact with him.
Guess who woke up on the wrong side of the bed... Pete thought to himself.
There are instances when a space between dialogue isn't needed; it is when the same character speaks and the ellipsis are used. Simply because it's the same character speaking, not two different characters speaking.
There are circumstances though where the writer has indeed used the enter key, but the body of text was skewed during the upload process. If this happens, don't worry. Simply preview the post before clicking submit, and if it looks off, correct it. Trust me, the extra few moments here can make a large difference down the road.
Section four: Commonly confused words.
There – location; the book is there.
Their – possession; it is their burger.
They're – junction of two or more people; they're [they are] going to the movies.
Where – location; where is the restaurant?
We're – junction of 'we' and 'are'; “We're going to the store, are you coming?”
Wear – action; I wear black jeans.
Your – possession; this is your task.
You're – junction; you're [you are] going to the zoo, right?
Affect – V: “to influence” The clean win affected his standing in the race.
Effect – N: “result of an action” Coughing and sneezing is an effect of the flu.
Sense – a sense of being, or one of six possible senses.
Since – expanse of time from an event. As in; “I haven't been back to my old stomping grounds since I've moved into a better part of town.”
Waste – rubbish or garbage basically.
Waist – a persons midsection.
Hear – listening to a sound.
Here – location; we are here OR here is the taco.
To help out in this area, a dictionary and thesaurus are literally the most valuable weapons in your arsenal.
Section five: The story itself.
In this section, I will try to be as clear as possible while using examples of my own work for ease of reference. Please do note, that some examples are from works done under another known alias.
Description. If I asked you to paint me a mental image of a room, how would you describe it? With four walls, a ceiling and a floor? While this may be the very basis of a room, it does leave a lot to be desired. Are the walls painted white or another color? Are the floors carpeted, tiled or wood planked? Is there any furniture in the room, and if so, what kind is it? Is there a plant on the corner table taking in the sunlight? How about the scent of fresh oranges in a bowl on the table?
Just as a fair amount of detail can paint an image of what a room looks like, the same can be said for characters.The living room was huge. A soft tan covered the walls contrasting the salt and pepper carpeting. A couch sat along the wall to the right, a television to the left and a coffee table in between.
The kitchen along the back of the house was large enough to accommodate a good sized table. Bright white tiles covered the floor and counter tops; the cabinets were a rich mahogany with glass fronts to display what was inside of them. The walls were painted a pastel yellow that was bright yet subdued at the same time.
My home office off to the left side was more than big enough for what I needed. The stairs leading to the second floor were wide enough to allow at least three people side by side at any given time. There were two more doors on the first floor, which I lead him to. Once there, I opened the door and revealed a half bath. Light white continued in the space like it had in the kitchen, it was small but also strangely big enough to keep from being confining. 1.
And for vehicles if necessary.With this, she stepped aside to reveal an eleven year old boy standing behind her. The boy had stringy black hair and frost blue eyes that were as cold as death itself. When I first met him, I refused to believe he actually was eleven because he was unusually small and scraggly for his age. Perhaps I would even go as far as saying that he was scrawny much like a wounded puppy that was drenched from a heavy rain. He looked just like any of the seven or eight-year-old's there instead of his actual age of eleven. He stopped fiddling with the bottom hem of his shirt and looked up to see me eye to eye. It was the very same look he had when I first met him two weeks ago. During those two weeks of interaction, we came to know each other a little better. It seemed that with every visit I made, he came that much more out of his shell, but now he stands as he did the first time we met - small, timid, shy, very...very skittish. 1.
The opening paragraph/chapter. This is very important to the success or...to be polite...lack of interest readers take in your story. Basically, you have to hook the reader into the story so they'll read more. Although it can be tricky at times, there are ways to accomplish this. Arguably the best way is the snapshot method, where you take a moment in time from a later part of the story and use that to open with, then start at the beginning of the story and move your way forwards through the story....as we moved to my bright orange Pathmaker 4X4 with tinted windows parked at the curb.
He looked at it and smiled; his focus went over the entire vehicle and his smile grew bigger. Mounted on the front bumper was a large bumper guard plated in chrome with several high intensity lights and a small yet powerful winch affixed to it. On the top of the beast were even more spotlights mounted on rails for easy adjustment. On the back and sides were dozens of smaller lights. Red ones were used for indicating braking along with normal parking lights and yellow was used for turn signals. The tires were larger in diameter and wider with protruding treads that easily handle mud, snow and god knows what else. Steel bar sidesteps hung low enough to help with getting in and out but were high enough up to avoid the typical obstacles they depict on commercials. 1.
As you can see from the above example, there is a lot going on in the first chapter. Plenty of questions to be answered. Why was the house on fire? Why was Chance watching it? Did he start the fire? What is going on with Devin and the cross necklace? And why was Chance begging for forgiveness and why did Devin comfort him like that? Also notice the use of descriptive imagery to paint a vivid portrait of the scene in the story. To be successful with this approach, you need to use the exact same snapshot at some point in the story; the above example was used as part of the final chapter of the story and more was added to it to further explain the situation.Chance Sunter's gray listless eyes stared at a two story home engulfed in flames. Thick black smoke billowed over the orange glow before fading into the darkness of the night sky and countless stars dotting it. He drew in a deep, sharp breath and turned away slightly. Almost every single muscle in his face tensed as he listened to the crackling roar of the fire. A gust of wind blew across the landscape and through his jaw length black hair. He remained motionless as the same air current directed the thick smoke north east – towards the direction of town. He knew it would only be a matter of time before he could hear approaching sirens, still, he stood and watched the home burning brightly as a wildfire in the night.
Seconds; hours. Time had no meaning. For what seemed an eternity, the teen remembered that everything started with gasoline spilled throughout the home and a book of matches. His mind returned to how quickly the house had become engulfed with fire. How the windows sounded as the ones that were intact had shattered. The way the sickening smell of stale air in the house, dried blood and gasoline combined into a gagging stench. He knew for sure that he would remember this night for the rest of his life.
A gentle hand on Chance's shoulder forced him back to reality. Even without looking over, he knew the hand belonged to Devin Raus. Both remained in silence as Devin brought up his free hand and an ornament dangling from his fingers. Chance's eyes grew big as he noticed a polished silver cross tinted with yellow orange reflections of the fire. His focus jumped between the religious necklace and Devin's teal eyes full of strength and reassurance. Without conscious thought of it, Chance took the necklace with one hand and lowered his head into his free hand. Several rapid breaths into and out of his chest was all Devin needed. Silently, Devin reached out wrapping his arms around Chance to draw him as close as possible.
"I-I..." Chance tried to speak through the tears and squeaky voice. Devin shushed Chance in a soft and quiet tone
"Let it out. Just let it all out." By now, tears were forming in his own eyes as he held the one person that taught him the cruelties of life.
"Forgive me mother, father. Please don't hate me, brother." Chance shrieked through his sobs – his entire body shook in Devin's holding grip. Devin stood confident in the notion that this night would be the changing point in Chance's life. And for him to be there was the best thing for both of them. 2.
Characters. The life force of a story. Just like the people you meet every day, story characters come in all shapes, sizes and personalities. There are limitless amounts of combinations that are possible, from the perky cheerleader type to the quiet goth guy that is both smart and friendly once you get to know him. Just like in real life, characters need both strengths and weaknesses, motives, and even as something as untouched as favorite pizza toppings.
There is one thing, however, that I strongly advise against, and that is the Mary Sue / Gary Stu character. Otherwise known as the impossibly perfect character. Perfect hair, skin complexion, perfectly sized...anatomy, absolutely strong and amazingly intelligent. Sue/Stu are always graceful in their movement and refined in their linguistic skills; they always know what to do when to do it and how to do it. In other words...Sue/Stu are the least ideal characters to create because there's no room for their evolving throughout the story line.
Believability. Nobody says you can't write the far far out there kinds of stories. No. That would be oppressing creative freedoms. But how do the good ones stand out from the crowd? Simple; believability. That doesn't mean write only what makes sense in the real world, because after a while it all becomes the same. Even if your story is about space pirates that overtakes and captures royalty, if it's done in a believable manner it'll work.
While writing may be a form of art, write what makes you – the author – happy. That alone is the best piece of advice I can give. It doesn't matter if it's a short one hundred word snippet, or a one hundred thousand plus word novel, take your time with it, give it a thorough once over, and take pride at what you have accomplished.
1 Excerpt from “Baby Nick” Copyright Phantom Rottweiler 06/08/2010 and Tripped 08/17/2010
2 Excerpt from “When the Lone Wolf Cries” Copyright Phantom Rottweiler 03/08/2010