Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, Volume 1

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Re: More on first chapters

Edited because the joke was too stupid even for me


Re: More on first chapters

Careful Mike, some of us here actually can do what we say.

James D Macdonald

Yet More Rules

From Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses by Samuel Clemens:

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the "Deerslayer" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.

2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the "Deerslayer" tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "Deerslayer" tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the "Deerslayer" tale, as Natty Bumppo's case will amply prove.

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the "Deerslayer" tale.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the "Deerslayer" tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the "Deerslayer" tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the "Deerslayer" tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

The entire essay is worth reading.

To balance it, remember that Fenimore Cooper is still in print, and recently had (yet another) major motion picture made from one of his works.

BTW, and apropos of nothing, Sam "Mark Twain" Clemens is frequently cited by the vanity presses and PoD publishers as a well-known author who self-published. It's true, he did. What they fail to mention is that he went bankrupt doing it, and had to go on the lecture circuit to pay off his debts.
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Re: Yet More Rules

And they've obviously never seen Ken Burns' film either where that is well illustrated.



surplusage? Is that really a word?
Can you like maybe somehow try to give us some kind of a layman's definition or perhaps even an example so that we might understand what in the world this strange word might possible mean?

James D Macdonald

Re: surplusage?

A part of standard English since the 15th century, "surplusage" is excessive or nonessential matter; or material introduced into a legal pleading which is not necessary or relevant to the case.

What Twain is trying to get across with this rule, "eschew surplusage," is illustrated by your reaction. More plainly speaking, eschew surplusage means speak plainly.


Writing Novels

I'm really enjoying this James and everyone else. Thank you for a great refresher course.
I was interested to note there was a controversy over font. I always teach my writing students that Courier is the only font to use for the American markets because that's what American editors taught me when I first started selling short stories and articles to the States. I had 'severe' comments from some editors because I was using Times New Roman!

James D Macdonald

Re: Writing Novels

You're quite right, PDR. You will never be wrong if you use Courier.


Re: Writing Novels

dammit. i hate courier

but, i shall use it nonetheless....didn't know my book was going to be so long....lol


Re: Writing Novels

snip, snip here, and a snip snip there...in the merry ole land o oz

James D Macdonald

Re: Writing Novels

Paper is cheap.

Recall the reasons for the double-spaced lines, the one-inch margins, and the large mono-spaced font. A human being with a sharp blue pencil will go through and make all kinds of hand notes on the pages. Another human being with a sharp red pencil will go through and make other marks. The process of editing is messy handwork, and requires room.

James D Macdonald


So, how's everyone coming? Did you do your two hours yesterday? Ready for today?

One thing about being a professional writer: it means you have homework every day for the rest of your life.

You'll also need to read, in addition to writing. You'll read things in two ways: First, for information. Second, for technique.

You will stop reading like ordinary folks do, when you start reading like a writer. You'll be looking at what worked, what didn't, and how the effects were carried out.


Shall we talk about Plot and Story?

I'll just give some aphorisms here. First, from a friend of mine who's one of the most perceptive and talented editors I know:

"Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature."

Plot is the sequential arrangement of consequential actions. This happened, then that happened because of this.

These arrangements are not random. They are a result of the artist's choices. "But it really happened that way!" is no excuse in fiction. As an artist you are not only required to make things happen, you are obliged to have them make sense. Nor can you throw in just anything at any point. You have to avoid digressions. Every word must support the theme, reveal character, or advance the plot. Better words do two of those things. The best words do all three.

Recall that sailing ship a bit upthread, ready to get underway? Think of the elements that advance your plot as sails. Each one properly rigged on its mast and yard adds to the speed of your voyage and the beauty of the overall design of the ship.

Elements that don't belong in the plot -- however diverting they may be on their own -- are like taking those same sails and trailing them over the side in the water. They slow the ship, make it look slovenly, and perhaps put it in danger of capsizing.

Story, now, is the wind that drives those sails. Story is simple. "Who are those guys?" "How do I get home?" "Who am I?" "I saw something neat." "What makes us human?" "Am I normal?"

With story we're back around the campfires thousands of years ago, telling each other who's sleeping with who, what the king's up to, what's up in the next camp over. The fire casts shadows out in the dark, the shadows of monsters and demons and gods. We tell stories about them too. Those shadows are, however, the shadows of humans.

All stories are about people.

James D Macdonald

Re: Story

"You can get farther with beautiful prose and a plot than you can with beautiful prose alone."

"Plot will get you through times with no prose better than prose will get you thorugh times with no plot."

"I am a professional writer. I tell lies to strangers for money."

"One Damn Thing After Another is a perfectly good plot."

"Anything that doesn't add to the story takes away from it."


Re: Story

I boiled down a chapter into a four-page paper for a history class by jettisoning much of the detail necessary in a book lengh story to the essence of it.

Betty Kruk

Re: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim

James MacDonald, how do you have so much time to post and answer posts? Your name is more frequent than any other; sounds as though you have quite a background in writing; you make your living that way. How do you find the time to appear on so many boards?
Just curious....:D


Re: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim

he has several trained monkeys that type for him.

James D Macdonald

Re: Learn Writing with Uncle Jim

Hi, Betty.

a) I type fast.
b) I don't sleep.

James D Macdonald

Backing off for a moment

It might seem like I'm slagging off prose. I'm not. Beautiful prose is a wonderful thing. It is a necessary thing.

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug," as Mark Twain said.

Words are your tools. You must make them your friends. If you aren't the sort of person who can regularly ace the It Pays to Increase Your Word Power feature in Readers Digest every month -- become that sort of person.

At the very minimum I expect you to have the following books in your office:

Miriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

The Chicago Manual of Style

Roget's International Thesaurus

The Elements of Style

There are other useful references, which I may mention later. These you must have, and must use.

The words themselves, the nouns and verbs ... they're the polish with 000 steel wool. They're the hand-rubbed oil stain. They're the carnuba wax buffed with chamois. But if you don't have a solid piece of woodwork to start with, all the finish in the world won't make a piece of furniture.

Yes, I'll be talking about prose, including some of my idiosyncratic pet peeves. There, their, and they're are three different words, with three different meanings. Similarly, two, too, and to. Its and it's mean different things, as do farther and further. You are expected to be expert.

If what exactly I mean by "noun" and "verb" (not to mention "adverb," "adjective," and "conjunction") is obscure to you ... go right now to your local bookstore and pick up some of the test-preparation study books for high school students, and work through the sections on English. It's okay, no shame, but you've got to be good with words.

If you can put together two consecutive pages of grammatical English with standard spelling, you'll be ahead of 90% of the people in the slush pile.


Another note: Yes, William Strunk did self-publish the first edition of his Elements of Style, as the PoD and vanity presses are fond of pointing out. You have to remember that it happened in the days before the invention of the Xerox machine -- Strunk printed up copies of his class notes to hand out to his students, so that they wouldn't have to copy it all down by hand as he lectured.
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Re: Backing off for a moment

I except your word usage notes accept they do not apply to me. In effect, these rules do not affect my writings at all. Allot of other people, though, will learn alot from this. A lot won’t.

I would rather have someone write incorrectly and to censor them than to censure them. After all we have freedom of speech.
James illicits good thought on this so we learn and won’t write elicitly.
I write as that so don’t look at me like I’m wrong.


Re: Backing off for a moment

Look, James is spot on in what he says. Many so-called writers I've seen, especially at vanity sites and others fail the test above. That's why slushpiles are difficult to get out of.

The shear volume of the dazed and confused constitutes long odds of one crawling out of the pit of ignorance because the majority refuse to learn and claim to have the right to write. They also have the right to be judged for the untrained amateurs they are. Because it shows.

Karen Ranney

A comment about prose

I personally feel that beautiful prose should be invisible, just as a writer/author should be invisible. The story is more important than its creator. If the reader has to struggle to read something because of purple prose, improper grammar or self-indulgent phrasing, you've jerked him out of the story. That's why I write - to tell a story.

James D Macdonald


Which leads very nicely into the next topic: Characters.

Plot isn't the whole of your novel. Plot is more like the ropes and poles that hold up the big top where the circus is going to be held. Plot provides structure, but it isn't the novel.

Nor is story the novel: story is the space inside that big top where the show is going to happen.

No, your novel is in the characters: the bareback riders, the ringmaster, the trapeze artists, the lion tamers. A novel is about people, without the people it's an empty tent.

(And you were wondering where I was going to come down on the plot-generated vice character-generated novels.)

When you are coming up with characters, I beg you make them interesting. Interesting people doing interesting things in interesting places make your novel interesting.

You need to develop characters so that they serve a purpose other than Keeping The Front Cover and Back Cover Apart. Two rules for that: Every character thinks that he's the main character in the story, and Every character thinks that he's the good guy. While you are writing the character (from the main character, to the most minor of minor characters) you're in his head, and those two things are true while you're writing from his point of view (POV).

We beat up our characters. We make them miserable. Writing is about a lot of things; being kind to your characters isn't one of them.

Generally speaking, you need at least two characters in a story; otherwise dialog is very hard to do. How many characters you can handle is a measure of your skill level and the needs of your book. Characters all serve a function in the book. If two characters are serving the same function, make them into one character.

Now, I'm going to add two more characters to your story. These have to be characters, though y'all might not have thought of them so.

First is the author. You are a character in your story. Cast yourself. Then stay in character. Are you a lecturer? Are you a genial host? Are you a salesman? Are you a stranger here yourself?

Second is the reader. You have to cast the reader. Picture the reader. Is she a teenage girl living in suburbia? Is she a sophisticated urban professional? Is he a business traveler looking for something to read in the airport? The reader is why you're doing this. He's a character. See him. Make him consistent.

If you want to imagine you and your reader sitting in your living room (or some other location) while you tell the story, that can work. Just be consistent! We are building a dream, here, creating an illusion. Inconsistencies are illusion killers. Don't let your reader see you palming a card.


Re: Characters

In my screenplays I'm the narrator, but I don't chime in very often in voice over. In the novel I started I'm the lead looking back on the story. Authors are always in the story at some level. I think that's inherent.

James D Macdonald

Re: Characters

More on Characters, and a little reward for having borne with me so far. A story.
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