We’ve all heard some version of that. Whether it is the doors closing or the doors opening, we see it as new opportunity or opportunity lost. From an observer’s perspective, though, the door is just a door and it is either open or closed. To the character it is a portal. The character can watch the door open or watch the door close. That can make a story pretty boring.
Or, the character can take control of their own destiny (especially in a story) and open or close the door. That’s what can bring a reader into the story. The reader can identify with the character and follow him or her into the portal to discover what is on the other side.
Waiting for a door to open or a door to close tends to make a story boring. Give the character the motivation and desire to open the door and pass through the portal.
You might want to make sure the character closes the door behind them. Or, maybe not. It depends on the kind of story you are writing.
The character opens a door and enters. He or she continues through and leaves the door open. What could possibly go wrong in that scenario?
The words we use color our lives and our relationships. Some bring people closer together and others tear people apart.
I’ll be honest, I haven’t always used the best words or language. I was a sailor and I’ll use that as my excuse. But, there is no excuse for what some of those words and some of that language led to. All I can do now is ask forgiveness.
As a father, and now a grandfather, I see the children and grandchildren trying to navigate this world. In my writing, I try to give lessons and examples they can use. If I used words like I did when in the service or later, I find I’d be mortally embarrassed to have my granddaughters read my work.
The problem with them–and we all know what words we’re talking about here–is they often represent a violence. Some just physical violence, some sexual violence. Some are just plain degrading and disrespectful. The last thing I wanted my granddaughters to see was their grandfather using those words in any form.
Today is my 30th wedding anniversary. My wife had a huge influence on me. It took a lot of years of work for me to remove those words from my daily speech and writing. Now I wince when I hear or read any of those words. An author I’ve read for a while suddenly includes more of those words in his work. It’s a shock when I run across them in my reading, but they are becoming more frequent.
Granted, those are good old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon words, single- or two-syllable. Direct and emphatic. Is there a place for them in today’s literature and film? They are, as I mentioned above, violent. They describe emotional, physical, or sexual violence; carry a negative connotation; are derogatory and insulting.
You won’t find them in the stuff I do. They don’t fit the story, the message, or the tone. I try to set a positive tone, create solid relationships, and respectful communication.
I think the strongest expletive I’ve used in my writing to date is, “Oh, crap.” The hero has to have something to say when he or she exhausted all options, finds him or her self cornered, and there seems no way out.
I’ll break it down for you. Active voice keeps your reader engaged with action verbs. Passive voice puts the reader to sleep.
Back in the day, my mentor in the Navy, Senior Chief Journalist Raymond P. Lucasey*, put it this way when he found a passive voice sentence in my work.
“Why do you keep backing up into your sentences?”
He was right. Passive voice not only puts a sleeper hold on a reader, but puts the predicate first in the sentence and uses a lame verb that doesn’t direct action at all. It gets it all backward. Active voice gets your subject up front and uses a more powerful verb to direct the action.
We weren’t writing fiction, then. We were writing news releases and other material for media folks, as well as material for historical records of our command. Chief Lucasey demanded quality from me in everything we did that went out for media consumption. “What they do with it after they get it is on them,” or words to that effect were his sentiments.
A side effect of passive voice is it adds a lot unnecessary words to your writing. Cleaning up and replacing passive voice with active voice makes your writing tighter and more on point. Crisper. More intense.
But, I’m lazy and I need help. I’ve used grammar checkers since their inception back in the ’80s and I wrote reviews of them in an academic journal (Text Technology). But, that was when they were a separate, add-on application you might use with Word Perfect or Word. Then, software companies integrated the spelling and grammar checkers into the word-processing applications. Now, you have spelling and grammar checking as a menu option in the Edit drop down menu of your editor of choice. The problem with this is all you get are these colored underlines in your text where the spelling or grammar needs work.
For example, the above paragraph originally had two instances of passive voice. When I tested the text in Pages and Scrivener, they indicated nothing wrong with the paragraph. They both marked the “your” words in the previous paragraph, indicating I might substitute “you’re” (wrong). Both Pages and Scrivener have limited grammar checking capability. You can turn it on or off, but you can’t drill down into settings and configure the grammar checker for your needs. I’d love to find a reasonable grammar checker I can add to my Mac to help. Until then, I found a solution I can use until something better comes along.
I copy the text from a scene in Scrivener, paste it to a new post in my WordPress editor, which uses After the Deadline. Then I click the spelling/grammar checker. Where there are passive voice instances, or other errors, I make the corrections in Scrivener (because copy and pasting back to Scrivener makes a mess of the text).
Granted, a good grammar checker isn’t going to solve all your active/passive voice issues. You still need to know the difference between your and you’re; there, they’re, and their; to (toward) and too (also or excessive); and its (possessive) and it’s (it is contraction). It helps you take a more critical look at your writing. Is it okay to use passive voice sometimes? Well, yes. I allow characters to say things using passive voice in dialog sometimes. Not a lot, though. My rule is it cannot get in the way of the story or the action.
Writing short fiction helps you develop your craft. You learn the structure of a story, how to develop a character, and how to keep a story focused. A short story is usually between 3,000 and 7,500 words. Of course, this depends on your market. Some print and online magazines have their own ideas on short story length and the lengths can vary widely.
On this blog, I’ve posted a short-short story and a short story (See Amy’s Lesson and The Gift). These are not sellable, stand-alone stories that would be picked up by a print or online magazine. I wrote them to help bridge the gap between Nasty Leftovers and the third installment of the Spirit Missions series (in progress) and provide some seasonal stories.
Sometimes, you have to write something short to help develop something longer. Those two short pieces helped me set the stage for the third novel, and helped mature the characters a little. From Sudden Mission to this third novel, the main characters Paul and Amy go from age 14 to almost 18. What happens in the third book needs older characters to make the action and events more believable.
I have other, unrelated short fiction, including one published (New Kid in Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine). Another story I think is promising, but it’s out to a market that doesn’t seem viable any more. I may withdraw and move on.
That’s another strength of short fiction. There is a huge market for it, but it is competitive. Write your short fiction, get some beta-readers for it if that helps, and submit to appropriate markets. And, keep submitting. When you get a rejection, don’t take it personally. Look the story over, make any edits or corrections that seem right, and send it back out. One rejection is not a judgement on your story or the quality of your writing. It just means that whoever screened the submissions didn’t think your story fit their needs. Move on.
You get two things from this: 1) thick skin from dealing with rejection and criticism; 2) practice. Keep writing those short pieces. Keep submitting them. The more you write, the better you get. One day, you’ll get a response that has constructive criticism. That’s a good thing. Eventually, you’ll get an offer to publish one of those short pieces. New Kid cleared the bar, and at an award-winning small magazine. But it had been around the market for about a year and collected several rejections before acceptance.
Short fiction is hard work, though. Harder than longer work, like novels. Keep your language precise. Keep your descriptions spare. And, you have to hit the reader with a strong story line. Granted, that helps a novel, too. But, you hone the craft in the short pieces.
I know I spend more time on the three-to-five thousand words of a short story as opposed to the 60+ thousand words of a novel. I play with point of view and voice. First person seems to fit short fiction better. I rewrite the drafts more, edit between submissions, spend more time re-reading it and analyzing it. It’s all part of the process.
Go on, write that short story. Write several. It’s good practice.
Lots and lots of snow. And cold. Yeah, we got some cold here. Both the weather cold and the virus cold. Not fun together. But, we’re getting past the virus cold.
I’ve cleared the drive and sidewalk on an almost daily basis. The back yard is about knee-deep in the white stuff. There are days I sit in the sun room and look out over the snow and see the beauty. Especially when there is a sun break and it glistens. As I’m writing this (Monday, Jan. 9, 2017), it is snowing again–okay, it was. it stopped again. But, I’ve already cleared the drive and walk twice. We got about four to five inches overnight, and a couple more during the day. The forecast calls for a bit more snow this afternoon and into tomorrow.
The picture on the right shows that our Santa and Baby Jesus decoration is about buried. I shot this photo a few days ago. This morning, the snow completely buried Baby Jesus and you can just see Santa’s hands.
If you followed this blog through the fall, you know I completed a first draft of the third novel in the Spirit Missions series during November. Sudden Mission and Nasty Leftovers are doing well. I’ll dive into this first draft now and do some rewriting. I know I left some things out in the mad rush of NaNoWriMo to hit the 50,000 word mark, and I know I need to work more on the main character’s internal dialog. So, I have my work cut out for me for the next month or so.
Then there is the ending. That’s the part I need to clean up between where I left off at the end of November, and the Epilogue I wrote to kind of wrap up the series. If you read Amy’s Lesson or The Gift, the related short stories I posted here, you’ll get some hints about some of the things that happen in this third installment.
So, here’s hoping for a productive 2017. Let’s all stay healthy, happy, and warm.
(PS: Yeah, it snowed last night. Two more inches. I gotta have faith that it will stop sometime soon. 😉