Thursday, June 27, 2013

Lesson 6: English as a First Language

You’re building a house! How exciting! You’ve interviewed several builders and you've selected one who has your same vision. The house he describes is your dream house! Then the first day of construction arrives. You watch as your builder swings a hammer at a nail and he misses EVERY SINGLE TIME. You see that he doesn’t even have his hands firmly grasped around the hammer: he’s holding it like it is covered with thorns. You panic as you realize you have hired a builder who doesn’t know how to use his tools. 

Your dream house is going to be a nightmare.

What does this analogy have to do with writing? It has EVERYTHING to do with writing. 

If you want to become a published author, you have to learn how to use the tools of the trade. WORDS are your tools, and if you don’t dot your i’s and cross your t’s, you have no business writing. (Especially since computers do the dotting and crossing for you. Duh.)

The most important thing any writer can learn is this: publishing is a BUSINESS. Writing a book is a heartfelt journey, and while an author is emotionally attached to their creative endeavors, a publisher does not look at your book with the same sentiment. The main question publishers ask while reviewing a book on submission is “will people buy this book?”

I’m not going to go into details on what makes a book sellable, but every writer should know this: the competition is FIERCE.

Even if you are self-publishing—wait: make that ESPECIALLY if you are self-publishing—you need to make certain your book will stand out above the millions of other books out there. So in addition to a complex plot and likable characters, your prose needs to be polished.

The painful truth about my first novel is that not only did I commit many writing sins (like telling, not showing and head hopping), my grammar wasn’t very stellar either. I’ve spent countless hours over the years reading books and websites about grammar, style and punctuation. And since I’m Dory’s first cousin (at least I thought I was, but now I can’t remember) I have to frequently refer to these same guides to double-check usage and rules. Lay vs Lie might trip me up for the rest of my life. But, the point is: my writing got gooder. I mean better. Much better.

I am blessed with a creative mind, so forming a complex plot comes naturally to me. But mastering spelling, grammar and punctuation is something I have to work for. The lesson to be learned from my own journey is that no matter what your writing weakness is, if you work hard enough, you CAN overcome it!

I’ve heard people say the most important aspect of writing is an interesting story and bad writing can be fixed by an editor. This is not true! If your words are your tools, no one is ever going to look at your work if you show that you don’t know how to properly form words into sentences and then form sentences into paragraphs and then form paragraphs into pages and then … Sorry, my fingers got away from me. They do that sometimes.

Want to see some awful examples from The Seasons of Mae?

She was standing behind “the ladies in waiting,” as Mae and Sara had begun to call the three wealthy young ladies, Margaret, Beth and Lizzy, who had their backs to her.  She could hear that they were conversing about someone in love. Mae’s curiosity got the best of her and she leaned in a little closer to see if she knew whom they were talking about. 

This sloppy section has a few obvious mistakes. “Was standing” is passive. The pronoun “her” (and also “she”) refers back to Lizzy, while the subject should still be Mae. The overabundance of commas in the first sentence is also confusing. A better version would be:

Mae stood behind Margaret, Beth and Lizzy: three wealthy young ladies Mae and Sara had aptly named the “ladies in waiting.” The young women were gossiping about a new romance. Mae hated to eavesdrop, but curiosity got the best of her and she leaned in closer.

Now look at this one:

“You first,” he said.  Mae breathed a heavy sigh, and spilled the beans on her pretend fetish for Robert in attempts to rid herself of his control.  “It was a huge mistake, I should have never done it, but it was all I could think of.”

There’s dialogue from two different speakers in one paragraph—which can be done occasionally, but this is not the occasion. It is confusing to the reader. And again, there are too many commas. There’s a boring cliche in there. And saying “breathed a heavy sigh” is too wordy for a simple, involuntary act.  There’s also a sentence ending with a preposition. This would be better:

“You first,” he said.

Mae sighed heavily and then divulged her pseudo fetish with Robert for what it really was: a desperate attempt to rid herself of his control. “It was a huge mistake,” she said. “I know it was wrong, but it was my only chance.”

There are also many simple mistakes, like these ones:

“Who’s farm is this?” she asked. (Whose farm …)

He tried to sell, but no one was ever interested, so its been sitting here empty.”  (It has been)

I could go on for pages with basic mistakes like improper word usage, spelling and contraction mistakes, but I won’t. You guys all know how to fix those. But here’s one more example of BAD writing:

Mae looked at him puzzled, but he said nothing else and unlocked the door. 

First off, if this is Mae’s POV, she doesn’t really know what her face looks like—although she can guess. When I glare at someone, I can assume I look mean, but I’m not going to say “I looked at him mean.” Which brings up the second thing: saying she looked at him puzzled isn’t proper English. Plus, this is one case where the reader deserves more. Rather than just saying a “puzzling expression,” the author can elaborate. When describing actions in a particular character’s POV, rather than saying what they look like, describe how the action feels to the character.

Mae felt her eyebrows furrow--even though she knew contorting her eyebrows in such a manner made her look like a Neanderthal with a unibrow. He had to know she was beyond curious, but he said nothing more as he unlocked the door.

Maybe you’ve been told by agents or critique partners that your “writing isn’t quite there yet,” or maybe you can sense with your inner-author intuition that your writing isn’t the best it can be, but don’t despair! You CAN improve your writing. And do you know what? Every writer can improve their writing—even authors who are successfully published. Life is about continually learning, and writing is no exception. You won’t reach a point where you think: "There, I’ve mastered the art of writing.” Your writing will continue to evolve year after year. How?


Practicing. Write, write, write: especially if your are discouraged by rejections and harsh critiques.

Read. Yes! This includes grammar manuals!

Have your work critiqued by honest people who are not related to you.

Critique the work of other budding authors. In fact, I think doing online critiques of beginner’s novels helped me develop my craft more than any other tool. Once you can recognize BAD writing, you know what pitfalls to avoid.

You will get to the point where you can’t read a book without having your internal editor turned on. (This can be annoying sometimes!) When you reach that point, you will know that everything you have learned about grammar is deeply imbedded in your brain and you will be able to write fluidly without being tripped up by all the little (sometimes nonsensical) rules. This is when you know that your writing is “there” and you have made the transition from “writer” to “author.” Congratulations! Let's celebrate with some cake ...


  1. The part I liked most about this post is that you say I can improve my creativity. I have not had any confidence in trying this, but now maybe I will consider giving it a shot (writing an original fictional plot). I'm more wired for the grammar police jobs, but I'm glad to know I can improve my weaker areas if I want to. Thanks for the confidence boost :).

    Just wondering about one correction you made in your own writing... You said that "She was standing" is passive. I believe that it's actually active. "She was taken" or "She was pushed" would be passive, but that's different from what you wrote. "She was standing" is just as active as "I am thinking" or "Mom was eating." Perhaps it would be stronger to take the "to be" verb out and say "She stood," but all that's actually doing is changing the verb tense of "to stand." "Was standing" is imperfect past, and "stood" is preterite (another past form). That's how I understand it. Does that sound right to you?

  2. Jenna: You get an A+! I fell into the old trap that was + ing is always passive, but that's not always the case! However, it is a crutch writers use that results in weak writing. This article is one I have bookmarked, and I think it contributes to the confusion of was + ing being passive. I'm passing the blame, because I'm mature like that. :)

    BUT! 90% of the time, you should eliminate was +ing in your writing. The past tense makes for stronger writing than the past progressive tense. Instead of was sitting or was walking, it livens up the action in your writing to say she sat or she walked.
    So while I was right to correct that phrase in the manuscript, I was wrong to call it "passive. Thank you!


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