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Want to be a writer? It helps to learn the trade…

Posted Sep 03 2012 8:39am

Writing , at its best, is an art. Writing for money is a trade that needs to be learned. The two are not mutually exclusive, but only one is essential.

I read recently, that anybody reading an ebook and bitching about plot holes and typos is a pedant. Hell, I am a pedant, I don’t have a problem with that, but I have huge problems with people who think sloppy writing, especially if they expect to be paid, is acceptable. If you’re going to write for money – especially if it’s my money – then you’d better damn well learn how to do it properly before holding out your hand, or expect pedantry, big-time!

There is nothing wrong with being a pedant, by the way, if that means you actually get things right.

Let’s start with typos, because that’s something pretty much anyone who uses a keyboard is prone to from time to time, and for a variety of reasons, I’m probably more prone than many.

For example, I have a nasty habit of inserting an apostrophe into the possessive “its”. I know it doesn’t have one, but when pounding the keyboard on autopilot, it often gets one. There are others, as well, caused, I believe, by long-term damage from a lightning strike addling parts of my brain. For example, I’ll transpose definite and indefinite articles, or type A instead of I (and vice versa), and confuse homophones. None of these things will be found by spellcheckers, so if you have similar foibles, or even different ones, it’s important to read everything assiduously before publishing.

Why? Simple – whether you’re writing a blog post you expect people to read (and return to read future, or previous, posts), or a book you expect them to pay you money for, it’s bloody bad manners not to. It also displays a contempt for your readers that beggars belief not to at least make the effort. (And even then, I’m sorry to say, some slip by me.)

Proof-reading is a vitally important skill – newspapers used to employ sub-editors to proof-read everything that went into the papers – hacks would pound out their copy on a typewriter, with widely varying degrees of skill, and pass their copy on to the subs for vetting. Only then would it be sent off, annotated where necessary, to be typeset. These days, though, there is no hard copy; copy exists only as a stream of electrons in a computer, and sub-editors are almost extinct, thanks to a bizarre belief that using a computer enables hacks to sub their own work.

Any regular Guardian reader will know how well that works; it didn’t even work that well when they had subs** (the Daily Mail is possibly worse). Just this morning Alexis Petridis blithely started a sentence with the word “Humilty”. And here’s the thing – his computer would have flagged that as an error, yet he apparently chose to ignore it. I, pedantically, didn’t. ;)

**Infamously, the Guardian once spelt its own name as Grauniad. I suspect the tale is apocryphal, but I do hope not. ;)

Coming at the same subject from a different angle, it’s apparently widely believed among self-publishing ebook writers that content is everything, and that correct spelling and punctuation don’t matter much.

Wrong.

These people should be taken out and bludgeoned with dictionaries and thesauri, while being pelted with copies of Lynne Truss’s book “Eats shoots and leaves,” the title alone demonstrating how much a comma, omitted or misplaced, can totally change meaning. Try it for yourself.

As for “plot holes” the writer clearly had no real conception of what one of those really is, since he cited the ending of the movie “The Birds” as having a massive plot hole because it failed to explain the actions of the birds, and, hey, nobody had complained about that, so plot holes were acceptable.

Nobody complained because that wasn’t a plot hole you moron!

In Daphne du Maurier’s  original 1952 short story, upon which the movie was based, the fact that the birds had inexplicably become suddenly homicidal was the point. That, and if we didn’t know why it had happened, then there was every possibility that it might happen again, because we had no way of predicting or stopping it. (Paraphrased somewhat – I read it in my early teens.)

It wasn’t a plot hole – it was a major, and final, plot element, the very opposite of a denouement.

Oh, OK then – in a denouement, all the loose ends are neatly tied up and resolved – “The butler did it!” being the one everyone knows. In The Birds, the loose ends were incapable of being neatly resolved which, as I say, was the point.

Plot holes** mainly occur when writers try to take short cuts with the writing process – you can write a blog post off the top of your head, or a short story – try that with a novel and unless you have a quite exceptional talent, you’ll quickly have your artificial world coming unravelled.

**You see them a lot on TV, but as sequences are so short-lived – just look at how often the shot, or camera-angle, changes, it’s every few seconds – they often slip by unnoticed. They’re often caused by too-enthusiastic editing, too, in pretty much every medium. Snip out a sentence or sequence too many and you’ll have readers/viewers sitting slack-jawed and thinking “Huh?”

A serious writer will be surrounded by notebooks, charts, maybe even genealogical charts, detailing almost everything and everybody he or she intends to write about, plus any backstory that might become necessary/useful, as well as location details (minutely detailed in many cases, and they might even take time out to travel to locations, and ensure they get the details right), along with an outline, maybe detailed, maybe just roughed-out, of the way the novel is expected to develop (I know how to write – I simply have no talent for fiction, which is where the money is).

If you’re a Stephen King fan, read his notes in his books, and check out the dates – he often took years, and for only a part of that time was he actually writing, the rest was dedicated to research and preparation, and – inevitably for any writer – occasionally being stalled.

If you go at it without a plan, you wind up with a book full of holes if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky you’ll write yourself into a corner so tightly that the only way to extricate yourself is to sacrifice the last few chapters, or maybe the whole thing, and start again, because the events that turn you into a blind alley in chapter17 might very well have their roots in chapter one. Failure to do all the preparatory work, and sketch out the thing beforehand, is how people wind up with a half-finished novel that haunts the rest of their lives, and is doomed to be forever unfinished.

If you’re not prepared to put in the preparatory work which will ensure that your book holds together in a logical sequence, with a strong plot and characters, and people don’t just fall off the bottom of a page and vanish, for no apparent reason, then maybe you shouldn’t be a writer. And you certainly shouldn’t expect to earn money.

An analogy – a good book is a like a good meal in a first-class restaurant, where  the reader or diner is unaware of, or doesn’t care about, the vast amount of prep work that’s gone on behind the scenes, or the number of people who have been involved, but if either the author or the kitchen cuts corners, the end product suffers and repeat custom is unlikely.

The fact is, if you want people to pay you money for ebooks, or just read your blog, then you have to accept that sloppiness is not acceptable. Period.

Would you buy a red car if a sloppy worker had thought, Oh, sod it! and fitted one green door, on the basis that they’d seen cars with mismatched doors and no-one complained? No, of course you wouldn’t, so why should you expect potential customers to put up with you doing essentially the same thing in writing?

Seriously.

NB: There’s bound to be someone who’ll claim you don’t have to do any of the above, and I would direct them to my comment about exceptional talent, above. and remind them that the market for crap is almost limitless, witness the success of Fifty Shades of Grey.


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