Variety is the spice of writing, too

Writing in 1830

I write to praise the unloved tenses, the neglected voices, the loathed and long winded. In short*, this is a blog post about voices that are banned, styles that are shunned, and in general parts of the English language that no one wants to talk about any more.

Common writing advice:

Good enough advice to follow some of the time. Really bad advice to follow all of the time.

Consider, if you will, the following two sentences:

He was reading a book.
He read a book.

Both are grammatically correct. No, really. You’ll hear advice to the contrary because it is considered stronger to use the simple past tense, “He read a book.” The two tenses are both valid. It depends what you’re trying to say.

Similarly, you will be advised to always avoid passive voice. Rachel Neumeier wrote a good post about why it can be useful.

Sometimes, writing instructors can make it sound like passive voice is the work of the devil. It’s just another tool in your writer’s toolbox. There are times when you want to put the emphasis of the sentence on the object — what was done can be more important than who did it. The sentence, “The book was published in 1989.” does not tell the reader who published the book. That information is not relevant to the point the writer is trying to make.

DisapproveBut many people will tell you that writing is stronger if the author avoids passive voice at all times I am not kidding I mean it no not even if the room is on fire and your only escape is to use a magical password that is expressed in the passive voice.

This is a good idea taken to an undesirable extreme. You want your writing to be strong, the words to leap off the page and grab the reader’s eye before they wander off to update their Twitter account. But you don’t want your writing to be strong All The Time. You do not want your writing to be anything All The Time.

It’s like playing a piano using only chords in the major keys, avoiding any minor key that would add flavor and variety and add layers and shadows and make the experience rounded into a whole experience.

In other words, you’re limiting yourself.

Sudden Mania to Become Pianists created upon hearing Steinway's Piano at the Paris ExpositionThink of it like a piece of music. If you’re playing music, you do not play it all Fortissimo. Some passages are played softer, some louder. Some notes are played quickly, some slowly. The variety adds to the rhythm, carrying the reader along with it. Playing every note in the same manner is monotonous. Dull.

Writing every sentence in the same way is equally dull. There are times when you want to shout and times when you want to whisper. The variety enhances the rhythm and carries the reader along.

Sometimes length can be very effective. For example, this paragraph — this is just one paragraph — from Some Buried Ceasar, by Rex Stout.

It was another fine day and the crowd was kicking up quite a dust. Banners, balloons, booby booths and bingo games were all doing a rushing business, not to mention hot dogs, orange drinks, popcorn, snake charmers, lucky wheels, shooting galleries, take a slam and win a ham, two-bit fountain pens and a Madam Shasta who reads the future and will let you in on it for one thin dime. I passed a platform whereon stood a girl wearing a grin and a pure gold brassiere and a Fuller brush skirt eleven inches long, and besides her a hoarse guy in a black derby yelling that the mystic secret Dingaroola Dance would start inside the tent in eight minutes. Fifty people stood gazing up at her and listening to him, the men looking as if they might be willing to take one more crack at the mystic, and the women looking cool and contemptuous. I moseyed along. The crowd got thicker, that being the main avenue leading to the grandstand entrance. I got tripped up by a kid diving between my legs in an effort to resume contact with mama, was glared at by a hefty milkmaid, not bad-looking, who got her toe caught under my shoe, wriggled away from the tip of a toy parasol which a sweet little girl kept digging into my ribs with, and finally left the worse of the happy throng behind and made it to the Methodist grub-tent, having passed by the Baptists with the snooty feeling of a man-about-town who is in the know.

That was one paragraph. 266 words. Stout plays with word length here, as well as paragraph length. There are three sentences averaging about 50 words per sentence, which are followed by one sentence that is 3 words long. The last sentence is 94 damn words long.

The way he structured the paragraph conveys the meaning as much as the actual words. By the time you get through it to the end, you feel exactly as if you’ve struggled through a crowd to get to your destination, which is what he was describing. Granted, if every paragraph in the story was that long, only masochists would read it. But length can be used to good effect.

Or this passage, from Patricia A. McKillip’s Fool’s Run.

He wondered at her odd silence, the sudden distance she put between them. He made a move toward her, subsided against the bar, then knew the unexpected hollow of loss at words left unspoken, action only contemplated…. The old familiar impulse to guard his actions, to hide his life, kept him a moment longer at the bar, sipping his beer, acknowledging nothing.

Then he thought, Ah, to hell with it.

In this example, McKillip employs two sentences that are 25 words long, with multiple clauses, and follows them a simple sentence 8 words long. The long sentences are contemplative, reflective; they lull you into drifting along on the sea of words. Then the terse sentence wakes you up and sends you along with the character in a new direction.

Writing. It’s not only what you say, it’s how you say it. You can alternate sentence lengths to make the writing stronger. You can use passive voice to shift the focus. You can play. You can use variety.

Really, it’s okay.


*Well, not all that short, really.

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Guilt-Free Nanowrimo

Alfred Stevens - The Letter

Yes, I did it. I signed up for Nanowrimo this year. I knew it was going to be difficult, but I made a public pledge that I would write 50,000 words of a novel in a month.

Secretly, I made another pledge. I knew this month was going to be crazy, since I was going to be on the road so much. I find it hard to write creatively — or any other way — when I’ve worked a fifteen hour day and I have to get up at 3 a.m. to start another long day. But I promised myself that I would write something every day. My goal has been to write every day for 30 days.

Writing while on the road is good and bad. While writing in a hotel room after a long day is difficult, I find it much easier to write when I’m stuck on a plane and my cell phone battery is almost dead and there is no Wi-Fi and I forgot to bring one of those old-fashioned things called print books. One week, I spent a total of 20 hours up in the air. On flying days, I was able to get a lot of work done.

The glory of Nanowrimo is that you give yourself permission to write anything. Don’t listen to the inner editor at all. The downside is that not everyone can do that. That’s just not the way their minds work.

I know some people hate the whole concept of Nanowrimo. One writing friend compared it to asking someone with an eating disorder to join Weight Watchers. The pressure to write a certain amount by a certain deadline fuels their sense of panic, inadequacy, guilt. Every writer has those feelings, but in some cases providing an arbitrary deadline magnifies them. If that’s what it does to you, then absolutely you should avoid it.

I think doing Nano can help you turn writing into a habitual act. You might want to try it. If it awakens old demons, then toss it aside. You’re doing this for you. The public isn’t facing the blank page (white screen), you are. If I don’t actually make it across the finish line, I really don’t care. I am confident that I will be able to make m goal of writing 30 days in a row. And I’ve already gotten out of this month what I was hoping for. The WIP that in October was a mishmash of separate scenes has coalesced into a coherent narrative.

Well, I think it’s coherent. Once I finish the story, I am going to set it aside to rest while I start Edward and Charlotte’s story. Then I will go back and see how it looks. I’m not going to worry about that yet. For now, it is enough to feel the story come alive.

Have you tried Nanowrimo? Did it work for you?

Updated to add: Yes, I have officially “won” Nano. I put 50,000 words in a story. Most of them in chronological order even. But I am going to write again tomorrow because my personal Nano goal was to write every day for 30 days in a row. That’s what is important to me about Nano.

Chuck Wedig has a blog post with a lot of people’s reactions to their own Nano experience.

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How to Give Constructive Criticism

Editor cat ponders manuscript

Editor cat ponders manuscript

Giving constructive criticism is an awesome responsibility as well as a great way to learn how to write better yourself. I have now judged several contest and I have learned from each entry that I read. Even when I read something that was not to my taste, I knew that each of these authors had written something that was important to them, and that they’d given it their best. Looking back, I hope I made it clear that I was impressed with the originality of the stories that I read.

On the other hand, I got feedback on a contest that still irritates me. The best way to clear my mind of an irritant is to write it down. Therefore, I have put together a little list of what is and is not constructive criticism.

Not Helpful Criticism Constructive Criticism
This is boring. The character’s goal seems trivial, or The character’s motivation isn’t clear to me, or The conflict feels weak.
You can do better than this. Compared to your previous scene, this dialogue sounds awkward, or The narrative here doesn’t flow as easily as your previous scene.
Put something interesting here. I am not sufficiently engaged by the character to want to keep reading, or The pacing here slows down.

Constructive criticism helps the writer improve the manuscript. It is not vague. It doesn’t leave the writer trying to figure out what the problem might be. The versions in the right-hand column are only a guess at what problem might have provoked those criticisms.

I’ve noticed that agents and editors can give brutally honest feedback, but when they slice a manuscript apart with surgical precision, it is to lay their scalpel against the quivering flaw at the root of the story. Either that or they go for the bland, inoffensive “this doesn’t work for me” routine. They do not just say “this sucks” and “do better.”

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RWA National Conference: One Survivor’s Account (Part 2)

Note to self: It’s not enough to write the blog post. You need to stop fussing with it and hit Publish.

Step 5: Immersion

Arriving at the NY Marriott Marquis was in itself an adventure.

New York City, in all its glory and traffic.

New York City, in all its glory and traffic.

I can see why New Yorkers do not like Time Square — trying to walk anywhere fast was impossible. Everyone is a tourist and moves very, very slowly.

The Marriott itself was likewise packed. This YouTube video gives an idea of the noise level. Day or night, the noise did not stop. Every time I stepped out of my room, I felt as if I were stepping out into a fast-moving stream. I used to sneak up to my room and take little 10-minute breaks just to maintain my sense of balance.

The famous Marriott elevators.

The famous Marriott elevators.

I think the staff was a bit overwhelmed, which seems odd. I mean, they have conventions here on a regular basis, surely? The staff was perfectly pleasant, just rushed off their feet. It was strange to be in a crowd of people where everyone seemed to know someone else. I felt like the lone person who didn’t know anyone else, but that was an illusion. Waiting in line, I started chatting with women around me. There were many people who didn’t know anyone else, and that helped overcome the shyness.

Most writers are introverts who start writing because it’s the best way to communicate with other people. Throw a few thousand introverts into a confined space and it will feel a bit awkward at first. What helped most was the fact that almost everyone I met understood exactly what it was like.

Note: If you go to an RWA convention, prepare for the fact that you are going to spend the next few days with everyone you meet staring at your chest. You will find yourself doing the same thing. The badge, with its ribbons and pins and such-like help you connect with people.

Random thoughts:

  • The first couple days, I attended every workshop I possibly could. By the third day, my brain was a sponge that couldn’t hold any more information. I started picking workshops based on whether or not they were going to be recorded. (A surprising number of them weren’t.)
  • If you ever plan to attend a workshop by Michael Hague, get there at least 30 minutes in advance. I arrived a mere 20 minutes ahead of time, and was lucky to grab the very last patch of floor in the room. (It was worth it.)
  • When you arrive at a workshop, choose a seat based on the pillars. In the NY Marriott, at least, a lot of the rooms have thick, very non-transparent pillars scattered throughout. Sherry Thomas gave an insightful talk on subtext. From the laughter of the people who could see her, not just hear her, I gather it included an amusing presentation. Since I was behind a non-transparent pillar, I relied on my imagination. (Also worth it. Very good talk.)
  • It’s true what they say: most of the networking, and a lot of the fun, went on in the bar. I got to meet people from my local RWA chapter there; they very kindly included me in their group though we hadn’t met before.
  • The Literary Book signing event was aural chaos. You couldn’t chat with authors. If you wanted to converse, you had to raise your voice. (I shouted at Joanna Bourne. She was very polite about it.)
  • The book signings for the publishing houses? Authors sit at tables. You walk up to them and they graciously give you books. Free. With a smile and an autograph. Amazing.
  • If you plan to ship books home, do not wait until the last day. Trust me on this.

The books. Oh, the books.

Day 1:

For showing up at the hotel, I get a tote bag with books in it. Not too many books. I can deal with it.

Day 1

Day 1

Day 2:

The literary book signing. Okay, a few more, but it’s okay. I can handle it.

Day 2

Day 2

Day 3:

The publishing house book signings. Well, it’s a bit much, but it’s manageable.

Day 3

Day 3

Day 4:

Day 4

Day 4


By the last day, I was frankly burnt out. I felt sad to leave, but I was also tired. It’s an intense few days and you need to recuperate afterward.

One last thing:

One thing that struck me as a bit odd was that it felt as if this convention were being given to two different groups at the same time. On the one hand, RWA is an organization for professional writers. Whether they are published or not, they are writers and they treat writing as a business. On the other hand, occasionally it felt like a fan convention, and that confused me. Meeting someone in your profession who is successful is a great experience (and all of the published authors that I met were gracious and professional). But some of the workshops felt as if they were directed toward fans, not serious writers. Certainly the book signings were. I do not mind being given books, don’t get me wrong, but it feels like a fan-based activity. (Though  I love Lauren Willig because she looked at the Daphne finalist ribbon on my badge and made a remark about how we both were Daphne finalists.)

When I first read complaints on the loops from writers who felt that RWA was geared toward amateurs, I felt a bit insulted. Just because I wasn’t a published author did not mean that I was not a serious author. This is work. I enjoy it, but it’s not a hobby. After attending the convention, I understand why RWA needed to set up the Pro and PAN levels of membership. People attend this convention, and belong to this organization, for different reasons. RWA is trying to find space for everyone, and that’s a good thing.

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RWA National Conference: One Survivor’s Account (part 1)

Making my way to the madness known as the Romance Writers of America’s national conference was an experience. Whoever said “getting there is half the fun” never tried to navigate the Newark airport.

Step 1: The packing
Since it takes most of the day to get there from here, I had to pack six days’ worth of clothing, some of it dressy, and still leave room for books to take home. I had to pare it down to just the essentials.

What, we’re not considered “essential”? How is this possible?

Step 2: Getting there.

This involved a multi-stage journey. I had to change flights, with a long layover in O’Hare. Once I finally arrived in Newark, I attempted to find the express bus to Manhattan.

Brief interlude wherein I provide advice.

In case you ever need to find your way to a particular destination in the Newark Liberty Airport, this is the procedure to follow:

  1. Find someone wearing something that identifies them as an employee of the Newark airport.
  2. Ask this person where to find what you’re looking for. In my case, it was the express bus to the NY Port Authority.
  3. Attempt to understand the person’s response. Fail in this, and just go in the direction they’re pointing.
    I was prepared for the fact that people in New Jersey would have a different accent from the one I spoke. I don’t watch much television, but I have heard of the Sopranos. I was expecting people who referred to their state as “Joisey.” But none of the people that I spoke with were actually from New Jersey. They came from various countries that had only one thing in common: English wasn’t the first language. They were all kind, sympathetic, and would-be helpful. And polite. I mean, the embarrassing fact that I couldn’t understand their accent didn’t stop them. They still tried to help me. Unfortunately, I think none of them knew one crucial English phrase, i.e. “I don’t know.”
  4. I asked for directions three times and three times got kindly and cheerfully pointed in three different directions.
  5. If you repeat this process enough times, you will eventually end up where you need to be. Probably.

I thought taking the express bus from Newark would be better than the train because I’d see more scenery. I hadn’t reckoned on the fact that it also meant I’d experience NYC traffic firsthand. Oi vey.

Step 3: The hotel.

This is the only hotel I’ve ever stayed at where you were advised to watch a video on how to operate the elevators. They go up to the 49th floor and they have walls of glass. Because they like torturing people who don’t like heights, apparently. But the rooms have nice views.

Times Square. You can almost see the pole where the little ball drops down on New Year's Eve.

Times Square. You can almost see the pole where the little ball drops down on New Year’s Eve.

Step 4: The badge

You’re supposed to attach ribbons and pins and sundry “bling.” Helps people start up conversations, icebreakers, etc.

The ribbon for the Daphne contest was lovely. Couldn't figure out which way to wear it.

The ribbon for the Daphne contest was lovely, but I couldn’t figure out which way to wear it.

Step 5: Immersion

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A brief escape from revising

I can either continue revising scenes for Sophie and Sebastian’s story, or I can write a blog post. Yeah, didn’t have to put much thought into that choice.

The revising is going slowly because I am looking at each scene to make sure that the point-of-view character’s goals are clear in each scene. What is he trying to do? Who is thwarting him and why?

I don’t remember where I read this advice (I would love to give credit where it’s due) but someone once said that if you’re having problems with a character’s GMC, go back and revise the previous scene. The problem isn’t with the current scene, it’s with the setup that led to it. I am finding that helpful as I go through this manuscript One Last Time before sending it out.

All the last-minute preparations for the RWA conference aren’t helping my concentration either. But I want to finish revising these scenes before I go. My beta reader is going to think I’ve forgotten her if I don’t send it soon.

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My first experience with a critique group

Angry_mob_of_four It could get ugly.
Then again, it could be the best experience I’ve ever had while not in a horizontal position.

While at the RWA conference, I’m going to participate in the Carina Press Critique Group. Basically, I sit down with four other writers and an editor, Kerri Buckley.  All the writers are given each other’s manuscripts beforehand to read and comment on. During our meeting, each author has fifteen minutes of fame, as it were. The other writers all comment on the story, what they liked, what absolutely stunk beyond the possibility of redemption could be improved on.

Four other writers and an editor all talking about something I wrote? In person? To my face? I figure I have two choices. I can either:

a) Go down in flames

ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY AUG. 22--FILE--This photo, taken during the initial explosion of the Hindenburg, shows the 804-foot German zeppelin just before subsequent explosions sent the ship crashing to the ground at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, N.J., May 6, 1937. The roaring flames silhouette two men, at right atop the mooring mast, dangerously close to the blasts. The scene stimulated NBC radio broadcaster Herbert Morrison to give a memorable and highly emotion account of the disaster. (AP Photo/Philadelphia Public Ledger, HO)

b) Perceive this as an absolutely wonderful opportunity to grow as a writer.


I mean, whether they like what I wrote or hate it, this is a step forward. Every writer, even the most  dedicated hermit, needs to hear what the outside world thinks of their writing. No one is born a perfect writer. No one.

It will be interesting to see how it feels to have someone tell me these things to my face.

Angry mob: By Robert Couse-Baker (Flickr: angry mob) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Hindenberg: By Gus Pasquarella (US NAVY) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Butterfly: By Zeynel Cebeci (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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