Mastering the Craft
So you’ve caught the scribbler bug? Don’t worry, everyone here is equally infected. We’re armed and ready to help you with all the finer points of writing, be it grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, or even exercises to improve your style. Once you've mastered your craft, we’ve outlined every step of your publishing journal, from building a publishing platform to writing a query letter, in our Writers’ Resource Center. So good luck, scribblers! Let your literary adventure begin!
Creating a Writing Toolbox:
Here at TBL, we are very attached to Steven King’s On Writing. This is not because we are all in unanimous agreement that King is the best writer of our generation or that his writer’s manual is the most accurate on the market. What really turns us on about On Writing is the passion that King pours into it. One can easily tell, only pages in, that King loves his craft, that writing is so much more than just a profession for him. Not to mention, the memoir is a pretty fun read.
For these reasons, this article will have a good dose of King’s advice about writing. The first, and certainly one of our favorites, is the metaphor of the writer’s toolbox:
“I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work” (King 114).
While each writer has a different number of shelves, filled with different tools, King suggests the following requisites: vocabulary, grammar, and style.
Words are the tools of the trade for a writer. More tools means more options with more ways to approach a story. But most importantly, it means more ideas. Learning a new word may provide new ideas or concepts to use in your writing, whether or not you ever actually use the word itself.
How do you build a great vocabulary? That’s simple: read…a lot! If there are two things that writers should do most, it’s read and write. TV time? Hell no! It’s curl-up-with-a-good-book time. On your couch, on the train, in the doctor’s office, in the morning, on your lunch break, or before you go to bed. Read like you’re starving and only the crisp pages of literary prose can nourish your famished mind.
When you’re reading, we recommend you get a wee notebook and write down all the words you don’t know (even if you think you might know what they mean but you can’t quite match definitions to them). Then look up and write down all the definitions. Read over this little book every couple days.
However, let the words you use in your writing come from your voice, not just the toolbox you’ve been filling your toolbox with phenomenal words from the thesaurus. Often, new writers will randomly throw in huge words to sound more intelligent. NEVER, EVER DO THIS! As King says, using inappropriately loquacious words “is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed” (117). We’re not saying not to use some of the lovely verbose language you’ve acquired, but only use those words if it’s authentic to your voice or if you have a character or narrator that intentionally speaks or writes like this.
And of course, we at TBL will always be here to help you build your vocabulary with our Word-of-the-Week postings. These are words that the staff of TBL find in our own literary perusals. If you find a few neologistic gems, email them to us. We are always overjoyed to learn new words!
The second shelf is filled with what we know some of you cringe at: grammar. Unfortunately, no matter how much you might despise it, grammar is an essential part of being a great writer. There will be no sympathy on this one: suck it up and learn the rules…especially if you are one of those writers who want to bend or even break them. The more you know, the further you can push the conventions of language into untapped territory.
All the editors at TBL carry The Grammar Bible by Michael Strumpf around with them like a detachable appendage. While there are several grammar books that are very well done, this particular book is incredibly user-friendly and has nice, big margins to take notes in (always a must). Regardless of what book you get, study it religiously. Even if you are working with a writing coach or editor, you, as a writer, have a responsibility to learn the rules of the game.
To make it a bit easier for those of you just starting out, we’ve polled editors on our staff on what they believe the top five grammatical errors are for new writers:
Sporadic tense changes:
We all know how easy it is to get so wrapped up in our writing that tense becomes a secondary focus. Even professionals sometimes have to go back with their red pens and correct their random jumps from past into present. Be cautious of this in your own work. Decide firmly which tense you want (the most common in novels is past tense) and stick with it.
Punctuation in Speech:
In American grammar, commas, periods, and the other various forms of punctuation have only one home when used with quotation marks: on the inside.
“Hey Carley,” Dani asked, “did you know that truculent means fierce and cruel or eager to fight?”
“Of course, I know that, Dani,” Carley replied, rolling her eyes. “It’s right here in my vocabulary notebook!”
In English (UK) grammar, they use single quotation marks for normal speech and double quotation marks for quotes inside of quotes.
Dani slumped down into her chair, moaning, ‘I don’t know how I’ll ever get my chapter done before my deadline.'
‘Come on, Dani! Remember what Sylvia Plath said: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt,"' Carley reminded, passing Dani a steaming cup of tea and a reassuring smile.
Semi-colons, the “hermaphrodite of punctuation” (Kurt Vonnegut):
Those strange hybrids between the colon and the comma are an often confusing yet terribly useful addition to the grammatical family. Semi-colons are most commonly used to imply a strong connection between two complete sentences, but can be used in other useful situations as well:
1. Use when separating out the main clauses of a sentence instead of using a coordinate conjunction (such as “and,” “but,” and “or”). Main clauses should be closely related in subject matter to sound appropriate:
Original: The zombies are coming and I have to start running!
With Semicolon: The zombies are coming; I have to start running!
2. Use to separate main clauses when a conjunctive adverb is introducing the second clause:
Tatiana never called Tofu back for a second date; instead, she stayed home and munched on bon-bons.
3. Use when expressing items or a list of people in a series when one or more of the items expressed contains internal punctuation (because commas used as separation would be confusing and distressing to the sentence).
Dani, the zealous founder; Carley, the inspired co-founder; and Robin, the mysterious legal advisor, formed TBL to save the literary world.
Possessing the Apostrophe!
The apostrophe is a versatile bit of punctuation, but it’s not always clear when to use one or where it goes. So let’s talk about the most common mistakes and learn how to proceed correctly when they show up in your writing.
1. Apostrophes are meant to indicate the missing of letters or digits in a word.
They’re = They are [NOT “THEIR!”]; You’re = You are [NOT “YOUR!”]; He’s = He is [NOT “HIS!”]
2. Apostrophes are also meant to form the possessive form of words. In these cases, follow these rules:
Singular: When forming the possessive case of nouns add an apostrophe + “s” to the end of the word, even if it ends in “s.” This also applies to irregular plural nouns that do not end in “s” (like geese, people, and children).
Boy = boy’s; girl = girl’s; Sam = Sam’s
Regular Plurals: When forming the possessive cases of nouns that are PLURAL and end in s, just insert an apostrophe after the “s.”
Monsters = monsters’; dogs = dogs’; plantations = plantations’
3. Apostrophes can help you convey the specific voice of a character or narrator. If you choose to use a fragmented or colloquial form of writing that leaves out letters, be sure to follow your adjectives or nouns with an apostrophe in place of the letter that you are leaving out.
Pa was worried that the ol’ truck wouldn’t make it past ’41.
Here we have also employed an apostrophe in the use of eliminating numbers
Conquer the Comma!
Listen, we all love to use commas and they’re completely necessary in our day-to-day lives; however, the misuse of the comma has gone on far too long! From street signs to our favorite novels, there are some commas that almost everyone misses. No more! The comma is a mark of separation, a marker of stylistic pauses, and a divider in a series. Most importantly, it distinguishes a subordinate clause from a main clause. So, use it thus:
1. Place a comma after a “yes” or “no” that begins a sentence or to set off nouns with direct address.
Yes, I suppose I will have that crumpet with my tea, Mr. Davies.
2. Use commas to separate items in a series of three or more (words, phrases, or clauses). Also, in these cases, you can use the Oxford comma–which we TBLers absolutely adore—after the second to last word, phrase, or clause that is followed by the conjunction (underlined):
Dani loves to read, write, and prepare for the oncoming Zombie Apocalypse.
3. Place commas after an interjection at the beginning of a sentence:
“Oh, well, I’ve never been anyone’s mother before, but I suppose, yes, I shall be.”—J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
4. Place commas before and/or after redundant appositives that occur in the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence:
Wendy, formally known as Red-Handed Jane, was found out to be a pirate by Peter and the Lost Boys in their most sinister game yet!
5. Place a comma between two adjectives that are describing the same preceding noun (only when no coordinating conjunction is present and the last adjective does not change the meaning of the noun):
The girls’ knowledge burgeoned in the ancient, August environment that Oxford afforded them.
6. Use a comma to set off a phrase of contrast at the end of sentence:
Her personality was brash, yet intriguing.
Take the train to Scotland, not the airplane.
7. Use a comma to separate a declarative clause from a following interrogative clause:
She really is the most brilliant writer to date, don’t you think?
8. When using quotations, such as when you’re writing dialogue between characters, use a comma to separate the quoted material (what your character is actually saying) from the main body (what you, the author, are saying).
Situation One: Main body precedes the quotation: the comma appears at the end of the main body outside of the quotations:
Theodore sat down before Zooey, muttering, “Do you think I’d benefit from a shower right now?”
Situation Two: Main body follows the quotation: the comma appears between the end of the quote and the beginning of the main body. The comma stays WITHIN the quotation in this case:
“I think, personally, that everyone benefits from a long, relaxing bath,” replied Zooey with a smile.
Situation Three: If you have a complete sentence in quotations that is broken in half by a narrative pause, use commas at the end of the first part of the character’s speech INSIDE the quotation mark and OUTSIDE at the end of the narrative pause.
“But now that I get to thinking about it,” Zooey added with her eyebrows knitting together, “I haven’t seen my bathtub in years.”
If you have any more questions about the use of any of the more rebellious members of the grammatical family or need a more detailed explanation of each rule listed above, consult your Grammar Bible or shoot us an email! We’d be happy to clarify!
Here comes the most difficult shelf to fill: your voice! Nothing is more difficult in the wonderful game of writing than deciding which part you’d like to play. After you decide if you want to write from first- , third- , or even second-person, you still need to develop a rhythm, word choice, sentence structure, and all the fun stylistic techniques that makes writing great (and so terribly difficult)!
Luckily, what we recommend for this is something you should already be doing: reading and writing a great deal. If you are new to creating a voice (or if you are a writing patron stumbling upon new problems) try the following exercise:
Find a writer who has a voice that you really love and study one of their short stories or chapters. Now, write an in-depth manual of how to write like them. Include everything from how many sentences he/she averages in a paragraph to what kind of adjectives and adverbs he/she uses (not to mention how many). What kind of sentence structure is used? How much description? When are characters or things described? How long is the story or chapter? After how many paragraphs is the major plot element introduced? Everything you can think of. Any good writer should be able to take your manual and write in the style of the author you chose without even knowing said author’s name. Once you’ve perfected your manual, follow it. Take a stab at walking in that writer’s shoes.
We’re not saying that you should mimic another’s style professionally, but if you are looking to develop your own voice, start by studying the masters. Do a couple of these exercises with different voices and then start combining them. Every shelf in the bookstore contains hundreds of creative writing teachers, just waiting for you to open them up. Like any artist, draw inspiration from your forefathers and contemporaries. There is absolutely no shame in learning from the greats.
Once you have a style that you like, it’s time to breathe life into it. How do you do this? You write. And rewrite. And rewrite again. This is the time for sculpting. You’ve got the clay; it’s time to start making art.
As you begin this journey, consider the following tips:
1. Read your work out loud. Many of the transition problems or awkward sections will become blatantly apparent.
2. Edit on paper with a pen in hand. It’s strangely difficult to find your own errors on the screen.
3. Let your coterie of quills (your group of writing friends) take a look…and believe them when they tell you that something is awkward or that they don’t understand. (This is one of the reasons that it is imperative that you trust and admire your writing friends.)
4. After you’ve completed a draft that you really love, go back and cut 10% out. This is another great Steven King suggestion and is perfect for those writers who tend to work on the flowery side of life (of which many here at TBL are certainly guilty!). Go through and highlight everything that you feel the story could live without. If you are hesitant to keep it, then it needs to go. If it rubs you the wrong way, it needs to be rewritten. Great writers don’t have filler sections; every line is art.
5. Always remember: If you’re getting bored reading it, imagine how your reader feels?
We know (oh, how painfully we all know) how arduous this part is. These are the times when we wonder to ourselves, Why did I think being a writer was a good idea? Is it really worth it? Can I even do this?
These will be questions each writer has to ask—and answer—very seriously. We will not lie to you: not everyone who enjoys reading and writing will get published. Many of those lucky enough to find their names on the spines of books cannot support themselves with their literature. This is a rough industry and with the printed word thrown into new peril with the emergence of the e-book revolution, we all find our hearts racing a little bit faster when we think of our professional writing futures. BUT, our advice to you is this: if you love it, if you can’t imagine yourself enjoying anything more, if you are willing to sacrifice some of your time and resources on the altar of creativity, then stick with it. Passion and purpose are rare these days. If you have them, hold onto them for dear life…and remember, you’re not alone. We’re here with you. We believe that those with talent, those with drive, and those with fervor can watch their words come to life and spring forth from typing fingertips.
“Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Imagine, if you like, Frankenstein’s monster on its slab. Here comes lightening, not from the sky but from a humble paragraph of English words. Maybe it’s the first really good paragraph you ever wrote, something so fragile and yet full of possibility that you are frightened. You feel as Victor Frankenstein must have when the dead conglomeration of sewn-together spare parts suddenly opened its watery yellow eyes. Oh my God, it’s breathing, you realize. Maybe it’s even thinking. What in hell’s name do I know?” (King 135-6).