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Tag: Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts

Masterpiece Monday: Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts (Parentheses)

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we had an installment in the series of Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts, and this week I’d like to continue with another addition.

When we read articles about writing online or attend writing groups and such, we’re often told NEVER to do certain things. Never tell always show, never use adverbs, never use ellipses, never use more than two adjectives at a time, etc. etc.

While many of those are usually good advice, they can be a real hindrance if stuck to all the time. I talked previously about how forcing myself to always show in my writing and never tell held me back.

This week I’d like to talk about parentheses. As writers we’re often told to never to use parentheses, unless we’re using it to cite a source in non-fiction writing.

Most of the time that makes sense. Parentheses are meant to insert extra information to the main text, so why would you use them when writing a story? If the information is relevant enough to be included, just put it in normally; if it’s not relevant enough, then just don’t include it. Right?

Not necessarily. Parentheses can do something special to fiction writing that other devices can’t: they can lift the text out of the story.

Here’s an example of what I mean, from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. We’ve looked at this passage before on Masterpiece Monday for a different reason, but now let’s take a look at its use of parentheses. This comes from the beginning of the book, where Hazel is describing her cancer and “depression:”

“Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.)”

Those parentheses are doing a lot of work here. They feel like they’re separating part of the text, enhancing the idea like Hazel is talking just to us, like she’s pulling us aside for a private whisper.

Not only that, but because the more macabre thoughts are encased in parentheses, the parentheses make them hit the reader less intensely than they would have if they were part of the main text. Rather than making Hazel seem actually depressed, she comes off as self-depricating and humorously cynical instead.

A little bit later in the chapter, the same thing happens again, after she talks about how only kids who will die soon take the elevator:

“Michael was next. He was twelve. He had leukemia. He’d always had leukemia. He was okay. (Or so he said. He’d taken the elevator.)”

Again, without the parentheses, Hazel’s words would come off as cruel. But with the parentheses, it turns her thoughts into another private whisper that lets us see into her morbid coping mechanism.

Of course, it should be noted that after chapter one, the usage of parentheses is few and far between. That’s because after the first chapter we’ve become familiar enough with Hazel that we don’t need them anymore. Now we know who she is: she isn’t cruel, she’s just a teenage girl dealing with her crappy situation the only way she can, with humor.

The parentheses helped us get to that point of understanding her, but continuing to use them often throughout the rest of the book would probably bog down the reader. Information overload is all too easy, and it would become mentally exhausting having to pick through parenthesized and non-parenthesized text for page after page.

In the end, using parentheses is like using chocolate syrup – great in the right places in small amounts, but terrible everywhere else. A little bit on some ice cream is fantastic. A lot on ice cream and you have a bowl of regret. And even a little chocolate syrup on a steak is a disaster.

Parentheses, like chocolate syrup, is simply another option you have. Whether you’re writing or cooking, it’s important to never label any option as “off limits no matter what,” because sometimes even chocolate syrup is going to be the best tool to accomplish what you want.

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)

Masterpiece Monday: Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts (Passive)

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we started the series Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts, and this week I’d like to continue with another addition.

When we read articles about writing online or attend writing groups and such, we’re often told NEVER to do certain things. Never tell always show, never use adverbs, never use ellipses, never use more than two adjectives at a time, etc. etc.

While many of those are usually good advice, they can be a real hindrance if stuck to all the time. I talked previously about how forcing myself to always show in my writing and never tell held me back.

This week I’d like to talk about the passive voice. As writers we’re often told to avoid the passive voice like the plague, opting for the active voice instead. For just a quick refresher, the passive voice is when something is done to the subject of the sentence, whereas the active voice is when the subject of the sentence does something.

Here’s some sentences to show the difference:

Passive Voice:
The pizza was eaten by the dog.
Voldemort was defeated by Harry Potter.
Laughter could be heard.

Active Voice:
The dog ate the pizza.
Harry Potter defeated Voldemort.
(I, you, someone) heard laughter.

The difference between passive and active voice can be striking. Even though the sentences are technically saying the same thing, the way they say it is completely different. The passive sentences are longer and feel detached and airy, whereas the active sentences are shorter and feel more concrete and solid.

But here’s the thing: sometime you want to sound detached and airy.

I just recently learned about Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy, and started reading Sabriel, the first book in the series. I loved the opening paragraph, which just so happened to use the passive voice quite a bit:

“It was little more than three miles from the Wall into the Old Kingdom, but that was enough. Noonday sunshine could be seen on the other side of the Wall in Ancelstierre, and not a cloud in sight. Here, there was a clouded sunset, and a steady rain had just begun to fall, coming faster than the tents could be raised.”

Two instances of passive voice in two sentences in a row?! I can see the monocles popping out of its detractor’s eyes.

But yes, the passive voice works great here. The author is describing the scenery in a detached, airy way, as if we’re seeing it through foggy rain. That’s the feeling he’s going for, and it works perfectly by using the passive.

Plus the passive works great in contrast to the active voice in the very next paragraph:

“The midwife shrugged her cloak higher up against her neck and bent over the woman again, raindrops spilling from her nose onto the upturned face below. The midwife’s breath blew out in a cloud of white, but there was no answering billow of air from her patient.”

Suddenly we go from a zoomed-out description of the setting into a zoomed-in description of inside a specific tent. The passive voice worked great to keep us far away for the first paragraph, and the active voice worked great to bring us in close for the second paragraph.

It’s a bit of a subtle thing, but it almost feels like we’re zooming in from the sky to right inside a tent, as if we’re watching a movie camera zoom in, or as if we’re starting off hearing someone tell us a story and then we go into seeing it for ourselves. That effect would not have been achieved as well if the author had simply used the active voice in both paragraphs.

Of course using the passive voice too much or in the wrong places can be detrimental. But it shouldn’t be thought of as wrong to use all the time. Sometimes, as an artist, you have to use finger paints to achieve what you want – and sometimes, as a writer, you have to use the passive voice to achieve what you want.

It can be a little messy, sure, but it shouldn’t be thought of as inherently bad – it’s just another tool in your writing toolbox.

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)

Masterpiece Monday: Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts (Adverbs)

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we looked at a great example of not needing to spice up the word “said.” This week I’d like to start a series that I call Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts.

When we read articles about writing online or attend writing groups and such, we’re often told NEVER to do certain things. Never tell always show, never use the passive voice, never use ellipses, never use more than two adjectives at a time, etc. etc.

While many of those are usually good advice, they can be a real hindrance if stuck to all the time. I talked previously about how forcing myself to always show in my writing and never tell held me back.

Sometimes, you do need to tell. You do need to use the passive. And you do need to… wait for it… use an adverb.

I know, blasphemy right? Even just last week we talked about how using adverbs in dialogue (“he said happily” etc.) can turn your writing from snappy to slow as molasses in seconds.

But that’s just it – sometimes you do want to slow down your writing. Or sometimes you need to convey exactly how a character is saying something in order to get across the hidden meaning behind their words. And adverbs can be perfect for that.

One of the books that really showed me the power of adverbs is Harry Potter. Here’s an abbreviated version of one excellently-written scene that uses adverbs to convey the tense mood perfectly. It’s right at the beginning of the book, when Mr. Dursley attempts to ask his wife if all the crazy stuff he’s seen all day might in any way be connected to her sister (adverbs underlined):

He cleared his throat nervously. “Er – Petunia, dear – you haven’t heard from your sister lately, have you?

“No,” she said sharply. “Why?”

He said, as causally as he could, “Their son – he’d be about Dudley’s age now, wouldn’t he?”

“I suppose so,” said Mrs. Dursley stiffly.

“What’s his name again? Howard, isn’t he?”

“Harry. Nasty, common name, if you ask me.”

“Oh, yes” said Mr. Dursley, his heart sinking horribly. “Yes, I quite agree.”

That’s almost an adverb per sentence! If J.K. Rowling had brought her manuscript to a writer’s group, chances are all of them would’ve been crossed out in red ink and she would’ve gotten a lecture about how good writers NEVER use adverbs.

Except that’s not true. The dialogue here isn’t supposed to be quick and snappy, it’s supposed to be slow and painful, so we can feel the torture that Mr. Dursley is going through. Using adverbs to slow it down a bit, while adding some juicy description as well, is the perfect way to accomplish that.

When it comes to writing DON’Ts, it’s not about never using them, but knowing WHEN to use them. Just like we shouldn’t use adverbs in every single sentence, we shouldn’t eat chocolate cake for every single meal either. But sometimes a little bit of chocolate cake is awesome, even necessary – if you show up to an elementary birthday party with celery sticks instead of cake, then you’d better be prepared to be whacked like a pinata.

So, I guess that metaphor makes sense? I don’t know, but I suddenly having a incredibly unbelievable craving for some freshly-baked adverbs chocolate cake.

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)