Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, Volume 1

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Re: Your comments and suggestions

One thing you should discover about Writer's Digest is that once you get to the agent/publisher stage of writing--the magazine will seem useless. You won't feel the need to pour over it to find what "they" did to get that agent or publisher or to land that book contract.

Same with a lot of how to books--once you reach the stage that they are trying to pitch--they no longer have much value. And no I am not talking about reference books, like Stunk and White of the Chicago Manual of Style--you need these all the way through.

Another good one is, Grammar for Dummies. Simple to understand for the grammar impaired. read it and then Stunk and White will make a whole lot more sense. Even if you majored in English and Creative Writing it's a great book.


James D Macdonald

Briefly, on Thanksgiving

A very short post today. Holidays, kids home from school, you know....

First, a Trick for Analysing your Writing:

Take ten or twenty consecutive pages, and tape them, side by side, to the wall of your livingroom.

Go stand on the other side of the room.

Are all the pages big grey blocks of text? If so, perhaps you need to break things up with dialog, with paragraphs of varying length, with line breaks. All short paragraphs and dialog? Your reader won't have a chance to catch his breath and assimilate what you've just said. Your text should be varied, just as your story varies. The rhythm of your story will be apparent across the room. Big grey blocks = boring. All jagged = tiring.


Next thing: Two books for you to read, over the weekend. They're novels, but you'll find lessons on writing in them if you care to dig those lessons out.

First, The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars by Steven Brust.

Second, Misery by Stephen King.

Of the two I recommend the Brust more highly. You can buy copies, get 'em from your library, interlibrary loan, whatever.

(Please note, too, that Brust's book is still in print, even though it was first published in 1987.)
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James D Macdonald


Is everyone so stunned that they don't have anything to say?



Hi, James - I just started reading this thread yesterday and you have some really great info. here. I am really curious as to why you have recommended Misery - would you explain your reasoning please?



Re: Readings

I've been posting links to this thread at a couple of other message boards. And my library doesn't have the Brust book handy. That will take a week or so.



"Is everyone so stunned that they don't have anything to say?"

James, I'm still recovering from those revelations about how prolific you are. "Stunned" is the word, all right.

James D Macdonald


Why did I recco Misery?

This is all In My Opinion, of course, but books are about something other than the surface plot. What I think this one is about is the relationship between the author and the reader.

The author is the reader's slave, the reader's captive. The reader has control of what we write. The reader also takes away parts of us.

Observe the long descriptions of how the author has to play fair with the reader, and provide beliveable explanations for the events in the novel. The reader will withdraw her approval if we fail to satisfy her, if we fail to make her believe. The discussion, with examples, of how the fictional author makes the fictional "biggest fan" believe that Misery didn't really die at the end of the previous book is brilliant. And it works through the choices the author has to make, why some lines are right, and why some lines are wrong.

I enjoy looking at the why of a thing. If I know why, I can often figure out what needs to happen in some other specific case by looking behind the surface.

The descriptions of what it feels like to be writing (the "hole in the page") resemble what writing seems like to me.

The clues that this is meant to be a writing manual include the long digression on why Corrasible Bond (do they even still make that stuff?) is dreadfully wrong for writing a novel.

So, aside from the action/adventure/thriller surface of this novel, read it as a parable of the creative process as it pertains to writers and their readers (who are we without our readers?) and I think you'll find lessons that can improve your own writing.

All I can really say is that I found it useful.


Reph, not a day goes by when I don't think "Gee, if only I got serious about this I could be really productive." But yeah, we are prolific. That's what it takes to average two novels and two short stories a year, and that's what it takes (at least, that's what it takes me) to make a living doing this.

James D Macdonald

Write what you like

Reprinted from elsewhere on this board:

Your readers can always tell when you're bored.

Writing is a lousy make-money-fast scheme. If you aren't doing it at least a little bit for love, I can point to a lot of things that will bring you more money for less work.

Next: Observe this diagram.

The area labeled "A" is what fascinates you; what you might write about. The area labeled "B" is what fascinates everyone else, that they want to read about. The area labeled "C" is what's marketable.

You can't guess this in advance.

Take, for example, Maureen F. McHugh. She was fascinated by Chinese people, gay guys, and subways. She wrote China Mountain Zhang. This was her first novel, and it was picked out of the slush pile. It was published, remains in print, and led her to a career in mainstream literary novels.

The books you're seeing now as the Hot New Releases were bought two years ago. The trend as to who's buying what has already moved on. Write what's going to be on the shelf two years from now, not what's on the shelf today.

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What a great explanation of Misery - I like your notion of the writer being slave to the reader and the idea of suspending disbelief by making the correct choices.

One I've always recommended because I think King is poking a bit of fun at writers who claim to have no control over what they write (it just happens - the muse, or whatever one calls it, simply takes over) is The Dark Half - not great literature by any means and I may be reading more into it than King intended, but I don't think so.


James D Macdonald

Re: Misery

King is an interesting writer. He's one of the full-blown Calvinist writers; Calvinism tends toward horror. (Once, when asked why he wrote horror, King replied "What makes you think I have a choice?")

(An example of ur-horror, that passionately American genre, is Johnathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." People traveled for miles to hear Edwards preach. When he spoke people would weep, or fall to the floor senseless. That's more than a good sermon: that's entertainment.)

King is also, if memory serves, one of the few writers who has taught English at every level in the American educational system. That's more than a need for money -- that's a love of teaching. I expect that on some level everything he's written is meant to be didactic.

IMHO, however, when he's remembered, King will be remembered for his short works.

Oh, yes, his On Writing is highly recommended.
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James D Macdonald

Borrowing Trouble

Elsewhere at the Water Cooler, I find a reference to this essay: How Lucky Can You Get? by whiney Usenet troll M. J. Rose. (See? I can be snarky.)

Okay, guys, go read the article, all the way down to What’s the Problem?

M. J. lacks the publishing experience to figure out the answer to her own question. Y'see, I know exactly what happened to "Carl P." He had Golden Word Syndrome.

His first book was publishable, or would be, with editing. Perhaps a lot of editing. The editor liked the voice, or the story, or some aspect of what was a deeply-flawed but correctable work.

"Carl P" got the contract. The editing process started. Then Carl decided that his words were golden. He refused to participate in the editing process, he vetoed the editor's suggestions, he wouldn't make the changes that would turn his manuscript into a commercial novel, his ego was too big to allow him to listen to a mere editorial assistant. He bought a "STET Dammit!" rubber stamp.

Read the little tale that M. J. tells with that in mind. Makes sense now, doesn't it? The editor's actions aren't inexplicable and unmotivated any more, eh?

Carl P's book was printed as unedited slush, with predictable results.

I recently had a chat with a New York editor who had bought a first novel out of the slush pile. The book was interesting, the story moved right along, the voice was unique -- and it fell apart in the last quarter. The author had no clue how to end a novel for all that he'd started brilliantly.

Where most editors write revision letters, this editor wrote a revision novella.

"What will you do," I asked, "if the author won't make the changes?"

"Put a cheap cover on it," the editor replied.

Here endeth the lesson.
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Karen Ranney

True, oh so true

The Golden Word Syndrome. Great title. I used to call it the Princess and the Pea Syndrome, as in "Not me. Not my words. Edit? Heaven forbids!"

The hardest thing about writing is the EDITOR'S REVISION LETTER. All caps for a reason. Here is where you take a deep breath and squint at the second page for a while. You don't want to really read it, you're only trying to get a flavor of it at first. Then, you see how many pages are in this letter. Less than 6? Okay. More? Oh God, they want me to rewrite the bloody thing. Then, after a day or so, you have the courage to read the first paragraph, which is always the "You're a glorious, wonderful, brilliant writer, one of our most talented authors" paragraph which precedes the paragraph that begins with: "We think the book is marvelous but can only be made better with the following changes."

The first inclination is anger. Then depression sets in. After you've wallowed in that a few days, you get down to work and make the changes, realizing as you do so that you don't know everything, that the editor is right, and the book is better.

I've never known one author who accepts the process easily, but if you want to be published, you suck it up and do the work. It's what makes professionals - and survivors - of us.

The easy part is the writing, frankly.

James D Macdonald

Re: True, oh so true

Hi, Karen --

Just wanted to say that you've been saying good, true, and useful things on this board. And I'm honored that you're posting here ... I love a good romance, but darned if I can write one.

Karen Ranney

Forums and stuff

What an honor to be honored! I normally don't post anywhere, but I've just finished a new book and I'm in contract negotiations. Either I have to start a new book (and I've given myself a week off) or otherwise occupy myself while all of that is happening. I do NOT want to indulge in a blue funk along the lines of: I just KNOW I can't write, and I'm brain dead, and all the people who ever read one of my books is an idiot, and I've been fooling people all this time, and one day they'll find out, and I can't think of a plot or characters and they'll never give me another contract and my sell throughs suck and my print runs are going to be lowered and I didn't place high enough on the bestseller list and...you get the drift.

I think your writing "seminar" is great. It's all wonderful advice. I had to laugh about the taping the pages to the wall. I do the same thing, but print preview in Word, select six pages and squint at the screen. Same method in determining how to eliminate the big chunks of prose, though.

Oh, and a romance is only a story about a relationship, and all good books are about relationships.


Re: Forums and stuff

James, from:


If you have one plot presented three ways, you have three plots. If you have three plots presented one way, you have one plot. (I stole this principle from Jim Macdonald's lecture on how to really generate plots, which is much better than my lecture on stupid plot tricks.)

Would you explain this a bit, please? Or is it a subject for a later post? :)


Dialog Format

Jim et al,
I saw some comments on how to format a manuscript but I had one specific question around dialog. This is how I have been formatting my dialog thus far:
"Blah blah blah" he said
[blank line]
"Blah blah blah" she said. She then went onto do something else that was interesting here.

Can anybody tell me if this is correct or not?

By the way I have found this thread very interesting - THANKS!



missing ,

you are missing end punctuation.

"Blah, blah, blah," he said.
blank line
"Blah, blah, blah, she said.

Not to be rude--and I really am not being so--but look at an already published book and pay attention the punctuation.


James D Macdonald

Replies and Such

First, the formatting thing:

The only blank lines in your story will be where you expect linebreaks, and those will have a centered # in them, thusly:

<font face="courier">

"But why are you telling me all this?" Jane asked. She

passed a trembling hand across her brow.


Next morning, Paul awoke to find his refrigerator had gone

off in the middle of the night. Again.


As you can see, you indent the beginning of each paragraph (and each time a new character speaks, it's a new paragraph).

Let's try your example:

<font face="courier">

"Blah blah blah," he said.

"Blah blah blah," she replied. She then went on to do

something else that was interesting here.


Notice that you end the quoted words with punctuation, either a comma, an explanation point, a question mark, or something else. The comma stands for a period.

I will comment here that "said" is a totally invisible word, and far preferable to all the "said-bookism" synonyms you'll find out there: he bellowed, he shouted, he rasped, he gritted, he snarled, he yelled, he demurred, he apologized, he extemporized, he welded, he [some verb that is not said].


Now on the subject of plots and such:

Many years ago I studied magic. Back when I was six years old, one Halloween night, the firefighters had a Halloween party at the firehouse. I went with my parents. They had a magician! I decided rigth then that I was going to be a magician when I grew up.

I got pretty good at it, if I say so myself. I made money in high school putting on magic shows, doing kids parties and such. It was fun. (It's all the entertainment business!)

Along the way I ran into a book called <A HREF="http://used.addall.com/SuperRare/submitRare.cgi?author=bruce+elliott&title=magic+as+a+hobby&keyword=&isbn=&order=PRICE&ordering=ASC&dispCurr=USD&binding=Any+Binding&min=&max=&timeout=20&match=Y&StoreAbebooks=on&StoreAlibris=on&StoreAntiqbook=on&StoreBiblio=on&StoreBibliology=on&StoreBiblion=on&StoreBibliophile=on&StoreBibliopoly=on&StoreBooksandcollectibles=on&StoreChapitre=on&StoreElephantbooks=on&StoreHalf=on&StoreILAB=on&StoreMaremagnum=on&StorePowells=on&StoreStrandbooks=on" target="new">Magic As A Hobby</A> by Bruce Elliott. In there, I found a line that's stuck with me, that I've found to be absolutely true: "If you know a thousand ways of finding a selected card and only one way of revealing it, to the audience you only know one trick. If you know one way of finding a selected card and a thousand ways of revealing it, to the audience you know a thousand tricks."

I've shifted my focus over the years from magic to writing (a kind of magic all its own -- genuine thought transference!) but that lesson stuck with me.

Up above, I suggested using the plot of The Trojan Women, transported to Mesa, Arizona, in 1965. Suppose you wrote that book. Then suppose you put the plot of The Trojan Women into a novel set in feudal Japan. Then you did another novel with the plot of The Trojan Women, this one set in upper-class Westchester in 2003. Then you used The Trojan Women for a novel set among in the biker bars of Long Beach, California, in 1990.

To the readers those would be very different novels.

A bit upstream Karen commented that all novels are about relationships. I'll generalize that a bit: All novels are about people. Write about people, folks. The rest all follows.

From this you can further derive: You must become an expert on people. You have to learn to see through the eyes of others. You have to understand yourself very well, then you have to understand them.

Now, to reward you: <a href="http://www.sff.net/people/doylemacdonald/tricks1.htp" target="_new">A magic trick</a>.


Re: Replies and Such

I just joined this message board tonight and have read through this entire thread. There is a lot of very useful information in here.

One thing I was wondering though, is about the narrative of the story. Which is best? For the narrative to be a dry report on things or for it to reflect a bit of the author's personality?

This scene for example:

Kassady gave J.B. a look of disgust.


Kassady gave J.B. a look much like that which one would give a nasty, mutant insect before squishing it.


Author's voice

Raymond Chandler did pretty well with sentences of the "nasty mutant insect" type. You could do worse than to write like Raymond Chandler.

I had a bit of a hard time, though, with "that which one" in the middle.

Probably the real answer is that it depends on where you are in your narrative. In the middle of a frenzied action scene, for example, you wouldn't want to intrude by entering the room and holding up a nasty mutant insect. That would take the reader's mind off the characters.


Re: Author's voice

Yeah, I couldn't think of how to phrase that as I wrote it. I'm half alseep at the moment. I probably should have written it as: "Kassady looked at J.B. as if he were a nasty, mutant insect in need of squishing." Or something along those lines.

I do tend to write like that, but never in a hectic action scene, or in a very dramatic scene. I use it mainly because I find "just the facts" narrative all the to be a little boring.

On the other hand, constant, colorful descriptions can be annoying. I think, when carefully peppered into the story at certain moments, that they can add a lot to the story. Especially moments that aren't supposed to be very fast.

James D Macdonald

Re: Author's voice

That's part of casting the author as a character. It doesn't really matter, provided you are consistent throughout the work.

After that, the test is does it work for you?

Done it Duncan

Magic trick

Hey James, that's a nice trick. Took me three times to figure it out.


Reading writers' magazines

Don't you find the writers' magazines helpful in that you can read the interviews with other novelists and find comfort that they struggle with certain writing problems too? I enjoy my 'Writing Magazine' (UK) and 'Writer's Digest' (USA) for the news about markets, the publishers' and agents' comments and the interviews. There's always something new to learn surely!
Happy Writing
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