Tip #7 Be sloppy with your grammar (or be sloppy, with you’re grammar)

Menu Grammar Check

Menu Grammar Check (Photo credit: tdstone)

Tip #7 in the 52 Ways Not to Get Published Series

Even the best of prose turns to junk once peppered with grammatical mistakes.

I’m not talking about those controversial grammar rules that are the topics of passionate debate among linguists, like whether it is acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition or the pros and cons of the Oxford comma.  I’m talking about clear blatant mistakes that make any good English teacher want to chew off her left arm.

Truly sloppy grammar takes practice.  The amateur simply uses incorrect subject-verb agreement, comma splicing, incomplete sentences, misused apostrophes, and misspelled words.  With time and intensive study, you may work up to misplaced modifiers, incorrect verb tenses, or interchanged homonyms.

What does grammar matter?  Most of the English-speaking world doesn’t remember the simple rules of grammar anymore.  We slap commas wherever we think we would pause when speaking. (Whoever came up with that malarkey?  Really?)  We write like a text message.   New editions of learn-to-read books have been reworked to reflect this new writing: “C Spot run Dick & Jane BFF LOL.”  Is anyone going to know if you used “which” instead of “that?”

Besides, the art of your craft is more than mere words strung together with punctuation.  A dance is more than a bunch of moves.  Music is more than notes strung together.  Your writing is your expression of something incredible.  The rules of the English language should never get in the way of your creativity.

In truth, I must admit I have a hard time being snarky and sarcastic about misusing language.  We’re writers.  Language is our tool, our instrument.  We should play our instrument, but we also have to take care of it.

A dancer trains her body for years in order to build a full movement vocabulary.  The composer relies on the fundamentals of music theory.  Writers train on the English language (unless they are writing in other languages, in which case they train in Spanish/French/Russian/Mandarin/Swahili/Hindi/Latin etc.  Of course, if you are writing in Latin, you can safely ignore the rest of these tips.  Your chances of getting published are already nil.)  We weave words like musical notes, building chords and phrases that sing to our readers.  Grammatical mistakes are discordant notes.

As the jazz musician knows when to harness discord, good writers know when to bend the rules of grammar.   Just remember, you must know the rules in order to bend them.  If your reader has to wade through confusion of grammatical errors to connect with your amazing characters, you’ve lost a reader.  The question is whether you’ve lost a book contract.

We all know that in the current publishing environment, editors are overpaid and underworked.  We are the artists; we can leave those details of grammar to someone else.  Let the editors earn their outrageous wages by fixing our mistakes.  It gives them something to do.

So, go ahead.  Abuse the English language.  Fail to proofread.  Give that editor an easy excuse to reject you.

If you haven’t read Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynn Truss, I highly recommend it.  I laughed. I cried. I called my 5th grade English teacher.

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Tip #6 Use Clichés (or clichés—the elephant in the room.)

Elephant

An elephant for your room

Tip #6 in the 52 Ways Not to Get Published series

Using too many (too many being any) clichés in your writing is a foolproof way to end directly in File 13.  The use of a cliché marks you as amateur, uncreative, and unpublishable.

According to Merriam-Webster online, there are three common uses of the word cliché.  First is “a trite phrase or expression,” such as letting the cat out of the bag.  But this usage has a devious corollary: “also the idea expressed by it.”   So, once a concept has been transformed into a catchy phrase, the entire idea that inspired it becomes uninspired.  It’s a tragic phenomenon, but there you have it.

The second definition of cliché is a hackneyed theme, characterization or situation.  The Grimm brothers were infamously guilty of this kind of cliché with their repetitive demonization of stepmothers.  Yet we still love those Grimm fairy tales, as Disney’s successful reinterpretations (or misinterpretations, as some will argue) will confirm.  Then again, perhaps it was the Grimm brothers who started the cliché, which means that it is those of us who follow their lead who are guilty.

Lastly, Merriam-Webster defines cliché as “something… that has become overly familiar or commonplace.”  My past editor at the Durango Herald forbade the use of the word ‘paradigm’ in any article because he was so sick of seeing it.  In a similar vein, I am starting a campaign to deem recorded political phone calls cliché, if anyone would like to join this effort.

Yet there is an irony to clichés.  The first person to use a cliché is a genius.  The 5,032th person to use a cliché is a failed writer.  The 42nd person to use a cliché is a Douglas Adams fan.

The reason clichés are so attractive is the same reason they are so overused—they work!  If the imagery in the cliché weren’t evocative of a shared human experience, they would never be repeated and hence would never become a cliché.

Take the example of the elephant in the room.  Imagine a group of people in a small room filled with, of all things, an elephant.  Then that group of people finds a way to talk about anything but the elephant (elephant=big=difficult not to notice.) Since my imagined room is not in Africa or Asia, it also isn’t something you’d expect to find in the room.  The only reason that image has entered into the English vocabulary is because we can all identify with the experience of having a subject that is overwhelming and obvious, but no one is willing to touch it (with a ten foot pole, of course.)

The truth has to be that the publishing industry is actually invested in creating more clichés.  The only way to ensure more clichés enter our culture is to make sure no one is using the old ones.  No doubt it is a devilish conspiracy between the publishing industry and whoever is making money off of clichés (okay, I don’t know who that would be, but the point of conspiracy theories isn’t to be logical.)  As writers, we should stand against such tyranny and stand up for the maligned cliché.

Are you with me?

A challenge to my readers (all three of you): True confession, what is that one cliché you just can’t resist using, no matter how hard you try?

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Tip # 5 Skimp on Research (Or if it’s fiction, why can’t I just make it up?)

Tip #5 in the 52 Ways Not to Get Published series

Freya. The goddess Freyja, in the woods.

Freya. The goddess Freyja, in the woods. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a common saying that you should write what you know.  It always makes me a little nervous when I check out the rows and rows of mysteries at the library.  There must be a lot of criminals running around with laptops and literary agents.

Most of us live boring lives (if we’re lucky.)  We don’t have jobs that take us across the world on adventures.  We don’t have plot twists or evil villains or people dying violent deaths in the apartment next door, encouraging us to become amateur sleuths.  We’ve never been on a spaceship, battled a troll, romanced a baron, or traveled in time.  Evidence would suggest that writers are not writing what they know, at least in the sense of story lines.

What we really need to know are those little details that put flesh on the story.  They are those intriguing places, three-dimensional people, and realistic situations that flavor our plots.  They can bring a story to life or, used incorrectly, can kill our credibility.

Not long ago, I watched a whole documentary series on gods and goddesses from the History Channel (yes, it’s TV, not a book, but humor me here.)  About halfway into the series, the narrator made the claim that the Norse goddess Freya was the sister of Thor.  Wrong.

Granted, not everyone is a huge fan of Norse mythology, and there might have been a few watchers who didn’t notice this glaring error.  Not only is Freya not Thor’s sister (she is the sister of Freyr,) Freya and Thor belonged to two different warring groups of gods that exchanged leaders as part of a truce.  So, not only are they not siblings, they aren’t even shirttail cousins.

Tutorial on Norse pantheon aside, my point is that after this huge factual error, I had no faith in anything else the show had to say.  I lost interest when the credibility was shot.

Whether it be through personal experience or intensive technical research that would impress Michael Crichton, you have to have your facts straight.  Not everyone will catch your historical inaccuracy or that you placed the window of a known restaurant facing the wrong view of Main Street.  But those who do will no longer be captivated by your story, even if only for that moment of confusion when they discover your error.  At best, you’ll lose some credibility.  At worst, you’ll lose your readers.

The risk is large.  If you are writing a novel set in Boston, you are probably going to attract Bostonian readers.  If your plot involves an accident at a huge bio-chemical lab, you may catch the eye of bio-chemists.  The saying really should be, “read what you know.”

Yet for those of you who are on my 52-step path to not getting published, these errors can be a huge tool.  For best results, set your novel someplace you’ve never been.  Explore this setting early on in the manuscript, preferably in the first chapter to establish from the outset that you don’t know what you’re talking about.  If you are writing fantasy or science fiction, the task is more difficult, but it can still be done.  Internal inconsistencies in the world you create will have the same affect.

In the end, you’ll save yourself a lot of time of unnecessary research and the huge hassle of dealing with publication.  It will open your schedule to wander the aisles of the library and scoff at those other authors who have never been to another planet either.

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Tip #4 Succumb to Writer’s Block (Or If you can’t say anything brilliant don’t say anything at all.)

Tip #4 in the 52 Ways not to Get Published series

02.19.10

02.19.10 (Photo credit: colemama)

I hesitated to blog last week (okay, and I ran out of time.)  I have the same problem on Facebook: if I can’t say something remarkably witty, I don’t want to say anything at all.  But then I had to face the truth.  Nothing I have to say is earth shattering.  None of my blog entries are going to change the world (if that’s what you were expecting, you can stop reading now.)  I’ll pretty much guarantee that nothing else I write will either.

For the first thirty years of my writing life, I had no experience of writer’s block.  Whatever wanted to come onto the page, I just allowed it to come.  It wasn’t brilliant.  It didn’t bring any new and amazing ideas into being.  And it didn’t stop.

Eventually, though, I started listening to the rules of good writing.  I worried about my characters’ story arcs; I paid attention to three act structure; I assured there was tension in the plot that resolved to a feverish pitch at the climax.  I tried to do all those important things that we are told we must do as writers.

And I started getting writer’s block.

My internal editor became noisier than my internal muse.  Doing what was correct became more important than following the story where it wanted to go.  My left brain waged a war and vanquished my right brain.  The only thing that suffered was my writing.

If you are serious about your quest not to get published, give in to the writer’s block.  Strive for perfection in every word, and you probably won’t get many words on the page.  If you don’t have words on the page, you won’t have anything to submit.  Problem solved.

Yet, at time I wonder, what’s worse, writing a bunch of crap, or not writing at all? Both will help you not get published.  One’s a lot more fun.  After all, a terrible writer is still a writer.

(Apparently writer’s block is a hot topic!  Here is a sampling of some other blog posts you might enjoy.)

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Tip # 3 Listen to the Naysayers (Or are those sour grapes wine or vinegar?)

Tip #3 in the 52 Ways Not to Get Published series

Anger Controlls Him

Anger Controlls Him (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More than any venture outside of running for public office, writing attracts naysayers.  Unfortunately, naysayers come in a myriad of disguises.  You must learn to recognize these allies in your efforts not to get published.

The first brand of naysayer is the Statistician.  This is the person who will spout statistics all day long, mostly to show the slim likelihood that you will ever get published.  For instance, I’ve heard rates revealing that anywhere from 5% to 1 in 5,000 (that’s .02%) of submitted manuscripts ever get published.  There are statistics on the high commissions taken by agents, the low royalties seen by writers, the rate of fiction publication to nonfiction.  The reason for having all these statistics is presumably to give a dose of reality regarding the industry.  Regardless of the intent, the result will discourage you from ever attempting to reach such improbable success.  Who can argue with such odds?

Another naysayer is the Teacher.  The Teacher is a sly creature.  You will believe the Teacher is there to help you hone your writing skills and get published.  It may be a while before you notice that the Teacher is merely patting you on the head with condescension, meting out just enough encouragement to keep you coming back for more tutelage.  Beware the Teacher, however.  The Teacher may not actually have your best interest at heart and may actually get you on the path to publication.  You want to find the Teacher that keeps you spending all your time, energy and money on workshops and classes.  After all, that’s the way the Teacher makes a living and you remain unpublished.

Then there’s the Bureaucrat.  The Bureaucrat loves rules.  Most of the Bureaucrat’s rules involve absolutes—what you either must do or can’t do to be published.  It is fortunate to have these rules about openings and endings and point of view and prologues (don’t!) and clichés and formatting.  Otherwise, writers might actually be creative and explore new territory and try new things.  But thank heavens for the Bureaucrat, as he gives you all the rules you need to break in order to assure you won’t get published.

The final character in your circle of allies is the Writer.  Often the Writer has neither published anything nor even finished a writing project to submit.  As such, the Writer can be a reincarnation of Eeyore, the depressed donkey from the Winnie-the-Pooh books.  Even after you’ve taken a mere sip from your glass, Eeyore will see your cup as half empty.  The Writer has a similar view on writing.  Whatever you write it will never be good enough, and the Writer wants to make sure you know it.

If you want to make sure you never get published, learn to recognize these naysayers.  Surround yourself with them.  They will suck the will from your soul and leave you without the courage or ambition to ever even submit for publication (see Tip #1 Never submit.)

 

Check here for a great article from Carolyn Kellogg on the naysayers against NaNoWriMo.

I also enjoyed this article on why publishers reject manuscripts.  Be aware that author Richard White’s approach is to actually get you published.

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Tip #2 Refuse to be a grammar bigot. (Or what did that adverb ever do to you anyway?)

Tip #2 in the 52 Ways Not to Get Published Series

Adverb

Adverb (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am amazed at the number of times I’ve heard that one should never have more than two “ly” words on one page.  Writer’s workshops, books, tutorials and web pages have all expounded this simplistic piece of advice to the novice writer.

Most of my amazement centers on the fact that it’s always worded just like that—‘avoid “ly” words.’  Um, those are adverbs (usually.)  Perhaps if you don’t know the basic parts of speech, you shouldn’t be giving out advice on writing.  Just a thought.

This “rule” is also blatant discrimination against an entire group of perfectly legitimate words.  Adverbs fill an important function in our language, yet they (along with their close cousins, the adjectives) are anathema to writing instructors and editors throughout the English-speaking world.

I get the point—by avoiding the over use of adverbs, writers are forced to choose stronger and more evocative verbs.  But why should verbs have all the fun?  Sometimes, verbs just can’t do the job alone.  “I tip-toed across the ice” evokes images of me subsequently on my backside.  “I stepped gingerly across the ice” may actually get me to safety without major mishap.  Thank Webster for that adverb!

When you read classic literature, you find many of the great authors of history wove their prose like a tapestry with threads of many colors.  They crafted vast sentences that seemed designed to be hung on the wall and admired.  In today’s world of instant gratification and text messages, we are expected to make our point in the most clear, concise method we can manage.  Modifiers must pay the price.

Granted, “Jesus wept” is commonly considered not only the shortest sentence in the Bible, but also the most powerful.  But were it surrounded by sentences of similar construction (Mary birthed, Eve ate, David romped, God scolded…) one of our most widely read texts of the western world would read like a Dick and Jane textbook.  While a host of Sunday school children would delight in their easier scripture lessons, I doubt many others would find religious inspiration.

Those of us who are following the path toward non-publication have the freedom to cast off the restrictions that published authors are bound to follow.  We have the entire playground of written language in which to seek our recreation.

For a writer’s greatest tools are words, and there is often little difference between a tool and a toy.  Words are our toys.  We should be allowed to play with them.  All of them.

(Unless I have miscounted, 7 “ly” words were used in the construction of this blog post.)

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Tip #1 Never submit anything for publication. (or you cannot fail what you do not try.)

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tip #1 in the 52 Ways Not to Get Published series

When expounding the trials and tribulations of breaking into the publishing industry, people like to use JK Rowling as an example of tenacity.  Apparently, her agent sent Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to 12 publishing houses. It was rejected by each prior to being picked up by Bloomsbury.

I’m sure people like to share this statistic in the hopes that it will be encouraging to the new writer.  But let’s face it, I’m no JK Rowling.  I have no delusions that anything I write will become the cultural icon that Harry Potter became.  If even Ms. Rowling struggled (although I’m betting that most published writers would not see a dozen rejections as much of a struggle,) what hope is there for me?

I think there is this fallacious theory floating around out there that if you have your writing rejected enough times, you eventually become immune to the rejection.  Really?  Rejection hurts.  I don’t care how many times you experience it.  You might learn to take it less personally, but that doesn’t lessen the sting.

The only foolproof way to avoid that sting is to avoid the chance of being rejected.  As long as I have not submitted my work for publication (or to solicit an agent, or for critique, or to writing competitions…) I can be secure in my fantasy that if I were ever to allow the world to see my creation, it would be an overnight hit.  If nothing has shattered my fantasy, I have in my hands a best seller, a story that will be quoted and alluded to for centuries to come.  I can be the unrecognized author of a modern day Beowulf.

Yet as soon as I put myself out there and face the risks of rejection, reality will strike.  I will be just like hundreds of thousands of aspiring writers–slightly better than some, but far worse than many.  The chance that I, amongst all those novelists, will catch the eye of an overwhelmed editor, is somewhere in the vicinity of nil.  Why chance it?

So, dear reader, I implore you, follow this foolproof method.  If you never read another of my postings, you will be safe with this one.  Never will you have to endure the pain of failure if you keep that manuscript tucked away in a dark closet or password protected on your home computer.  In fact, the safest thing would be never to take that brilliant story idea and write it down.  But then, what’s the fun in that?

(For more detail on the story of JK Rowling’s experience in the publishing industry, read The JK Rowling Story from the June 16, 2003 edition of The Scotsman.)

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