Tuesday, April 23, 2013

8 Signs You Are Not the Chuck Norris of Writing

As a writer, you're a target. You're putting yourself out into the world and asking both readers and ubiquitous Internet heroes to comment on your work.

Some of these folks are looking to take you down, to give you a bad review, to tell you you don't know what you're doing. They are the Kim Jong-uns of the Internet: puffy, whiny, self-important, and probably in need of a kick in the pants. As a writer, the last thing on earth you want to do is give these people ammunition. You want to be the Chuck Norris of writing, the one-man-army capable of telling a legion of disbelievers to go straight to hell: Vaya con Chee-Tos, mothertruckers.

One of the best ways to do this is to make sure your fundamentals--your phrasing and grammar--are correct. Many writers skip this step, preferring to rely on their storytelling ability to carry them through the process. But this would be like Chuck Norris skipping all the other color belts that lead up to a black belt. Did Chuck Norris skip out on the yellow belt or the purple belt? I think not. He mastered that shit because he's Chuck Norris.  You can do the same.

One more note, before we dive in: Chuck Norris would never use Microsoft's grammar check. He knows it's wrong half the time. He ignores it, and you should, too. Chuck Norris learned how to write by reading.  A lot. And more than just kung-fu how-to manuals. Chuck Norris reads classics, sci-fi, historicals, biographies, and oh yes, even a vampire book or two.  If you want to learn to write like Chuck Norris, you need to read out of your pay grade. 

In any case, Chuck and I offer this starter kit of 8 stupid mistakes never to make with your writing. Some of these are actual mistakes I've seen in books, many self-published. Go forth and conquer.   

1. You use turns of phrase without actually knowing what they mean. 
  • "...the change knocked her world on its axis..."  This is not correct. An axis is an imaginary line around which an object (presumably a planet) rotates. When something incredible happens to your character, her world cannot be knocked ON its axis. It was there to begin with. Her world may, however, be knocked OFF its axis.  
  • "...step foot in..."  This is everywhere. People say it, but it IS NOT RIGHT. The phrase is "set foot in." It might make sense at first because "step" is a logical word to combine with "foot." But the sense in which it is used is totally wrong. To "step" automatically implies you are using your foot, which makes the use of the word "foot" stupid and redundant. To "set" does not automatically imply you are performing this action with a foot; therefore, it is reasonable that you then specify "foot" after the verb.  
  • "...she thought to herself..."  Unless your character is telepathic, there is no way she could "think" to anyone else.
2. You use adverbs when the verb you use already implies that adjective. 
  • "...tripped clumsily."  Can you trip in a way that's not clumsy? Even if you can, is that what your character is doing?
  • "...shouted loudly."  Is it even possible to shout quietly? If it is, "shouted" is the wrong damn verb.
  • "...jumped quickly."  Let's see you jump slowly. I dare you to try. I dare Chuck Norris to try.
3.  You use adverbs too much in general. We all know adverbs are to be used sparingly. But occasionally, they creep in and that can be okay. But it's not okay when you're using an adverb because it's easier and faster than describing how a character does something. You're a writer. You're supposed to be describing how characters do things. That's your job. So do better at it. Here are some examples of lazy adverb use:
  • "You murdered my nephew," he said angrily. Really? Because I always thought proclamations of murder were issued joyfully. Gosh, wouldn't it be nice if the punctuation could somehow reveal the character's emotion? If only someone had invented a single punctuation mark that conveys strong feeling.
  • "Constantly stepping from foot to foot, Joe looked nervous." In this case, the adverb is unnecessary. Stepping from foot to foot already implies the motion is constant. 
  • "Moving slowly through the graveyard..." If your verb requires an adverb for the reader to get the picture, you picked a shitty verb. 
4.  You misuse prepositions.  Oh God, the prepositions. They are under attack. I don't know how this happened. It's like waking up one day to find out that all the streets have been renamed and now you have no idea what people are saying when they're trying to give you directions on how to get to the grocery store. And you're like, "Man, all I wanted is some mac and cheese. Why are you making it so hard?" Don't make it hard on your reader. Prepositions are the street signs that tell your reader where your sentence is going. If you don't use the right street sign, your reader is lost.  And lost people get angry. Sometimes they get murdered by drifters. Do you want your readers to get murdered by drifters? Don't answer that. Like Blair Waldorf, I rely on plausible deniability.
  • "...ponder on..."  You ponder something. You don't ponder on it. If you tell me you're pondering on a Corvette, I will imagine you perched upon a car, thinking about a subject you failed to specify.
  • "She was ignorant to the fact that he was an ex-con."  She ain't the only one. You can be ignorant of a fact, but not ignorant to it. There's no easy way to learn this stuff. You just have to read good books and absorb these idioms.
  • "...disappointed from..."  You can be disappointed by the fact that you died from dysentery, but you cannot be disappointed from the fact that you died by dysentery.
  • "She glanced on her watch."  A glance is not a tangible thing, so it cannot actually be on the watch. She may, however, glance at her watch.
  • "You can never go wrong on fruits and vegetables."  I BEG TO DIFFER. You can go very, very wrong. In order not to go so wrong, try going with them instead of on them.
5.  You use descriptive dialogue tags. You've probably seen Elmore Leonard's advice for writers, one point of which states that you should never use anything other than "said." 98% of the time, he's right. There is rarely a case when you need to use a dialogue tag. If you use one, you're following the same lazy pattern of writing indicated by adverb use. Your dialogue, in combination with the motion of the character in the scene, should tell the reader how that line is spoken. If you have to specify with a dialogue tag, you haven't effectively conveyed the feeling of the scene, the emotion of the character, or his or her mindset. 
  • "Eww! I hate spiders!" she shrieked. The problem with dialogue tags is that they are often unnecessary. The exclamation points tell you this character has strong feelings about spiders. She is probably angry or afraid, and you as the writer should provide the context to tell us which it is. Using both exclamation points and a tag such as cried/shrieked/wailed/exclaimed is overkill.
  • "And the best part is...I never pressed play!" he cackled.  I call C+C Music Factory on this one. A cackle is a laugh, right? Can you actually speak all these words while cackling? Or is the laugh coming between the words? Or did the cackle come after, in which case the words themselves were not "cackled"? Or is the laugh really even a cackle to begin with? Do you see what kind of problems a poorly thought out dialogue tag can get you into? 
6.  You get subject-object agreement wrong. This is a tricky one, but once you know what to look for, you'll see it everywhere. Remember, no one's asking you to speak properly. You don't have to obey this rule when you're talking to your mom or your wife, but you do have to obey it on the page. Because if you don't, someone who does know the rule is going to put down your book and think, "Amateur." And by someone, I mean Chuck Norris.
  • "Americans who love The Fast and the Furious live their life a quarter mile at a time." What's wrong here? The subject of the sentence is "Americans." You're making a statement about a large group of people. But you used the word "life," which is not plural. Do all Americans live one life?  Apparently not, since "One Life to Live" was canceled. See? Even ABC figured this shit out. Now it's your turn. You want to say that Americans live their lives a quarter mile at a time. Now you're cooking with gas.
  • "One cannot have their cake and eat it, too." You would think that a word like "one" is enough to tell you that it means "one."  As in singular. As in not plural. So who are all these other folks you've invited into your sentence by using "their"? Is your "one" a schizophrenic? Are you a schizophrenic? If not, shape this shit up by keeping this a party of one: One cannot have one's cake and eat it, too.  
7. You use semicolons. Badly. You do not know how to use them, yet they appear throughout your book. Why is this? Do you randomly sprinkle mathematical formulas throughout your book just because they look intellectual and important? That's what lots of people do with semicolons. They look fancy, and probably imply that your sentence is multi-layered and complicated....right? No. Just...no.  If you can't tell me the rule for semicolons, right now, don't use them. Ever. Until you learn the rule, which is this:
  • One rule to rule all the rules: Semicolons are used to separate TWO COMPLETE THOUGHTS. If either part cannot stand on its own as a grammatically correct entity, DO NOT USE A SEMICOLON. Chuck Norris will hurt you if you do this. If there's one thing Chuck Norris hates, it's bad semicolon usage. Don't believe me? Try it, and then go to sleep. See if you wake up.
  • "One time at band camp; I did things my mom wouldn't approve of." A semicolon is not a comma. These two thoughts are clearly connected, but they cannot stand on their own.  "One time at band camp" is not a sentence...it is the beginning of a sentence.  And yes, I know that sentence ended with a preposition. Some rules were meant to be broken. Deal with it.
  • "Rochelle had more to do that Saturday night; more than get wasted." Again, the second half of this sentence is placed for emphasis--it is not a sentence in and of itself. Only the cheese stands alone. Sentence fragments are not cheese.
8.  You confuse the most basic contractions you learned in first flippin' grade. I'm serious. Now you've got Chuck Norris *and* your first grade teacher really pissed at you. Is that what you want? He'll hold you down and punch you while your first grade teacher spits in your face. Or just drags her nails along the chalkboard. That's no one's good time. So do the world a favor and just learn what six-year-olds in good schools already have.
  • For the last time: the apostrophe means it's a contraction. Contraction means two words are smashed together tighter than Kim Kardashian's boobs in a bustier. Some of the letters got kicked out because they couldn't breathe. The apostrophe tells us those letters are missing and someone might want to find them someday. Or not. It's up to you. 
  • You're/your.  You're going to get your ass kicked by Chuck Norris for fucking this up. If you cannot replace the word with "you are," you should use "your."
  • It's/its. It's a damn shame the snake left its home and decided to sleep in your bed instead. If you cannot replace the word with "it is," you should use "its."
  • Their/they're/there. They're late for their own funeral because Chuck Norris got there first. 
If you're seeing some of your own mistakes listed here, now you have the power to fix them. This is progress! If you're not seeing any of these mistakes in your writing, look harder. Look even harder still. And then, if you still don't see these mistakes, congratulations on possibly being the Chuck Norris of writing. I salute you.