Michelle Wittle On Rookie Mistakes

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

I have only been in grad school for about a month and I am already amazed how much I have learned about writing and myself as a writer. It makes me sick to learn all the rookie mistakes I have made as a writer. I feel like should have known better. To prevent any other young writers from falling into the same traps I have gotten my leg stuck into, I am admitting my top five errors I’ve made in my own writing.

  1. Never use adverbs when using “said”. An example of this would be: “He smugly said”. The reasoning is the dialogue should express the character spoke smugly and the writer shouldn’t feel the need to explain how the character spoke.
  2. Show, don’t tell. For me, I think I fall victim to this because I was a teacher. I am used to lecturing people and having to explain things many times and in different ways. Readers don’t read because they want to be lectured. Readers read to become a part of the world the author presents. Let the reader live in the world the author created and let the reader take away what he or she can take away from the writing. It will mean more to the reader because he or she discovered something in the writing rather than being told what he or she was supposed to get from the writing.

Also, I think I am so afraid of my writing. I feel like I don’t write the pieces well enough, so I have to tell the reader what I meant by writing the piece. That comes from low writing esteem and in time that fear will dissipate.

  1. Opening up with the weather or time. My first novel (that my Mac ate) opened with Meredith walking to school on a beautiful fall morning at the start of a new school year. These two things are major no-no’s. With the weather, no one cares about it not unless it is a crucial part of the plot. If it is a great hurricane and the character is struggling to keep the family safe, then the weather description works. However, if the weather is just setting the stage, then trust me no one cares about the stage. Let the characters set the stage.

With time, it’s the same thing. If the time is important because at 12:15pm the main character’s friend died and now the character feels his or her life shifting at that moment, then it might be acceptable. However, if the time is just to set the stage…toss it out. Let the character and his or her actions and reactions tell the reader the time of day.

  1. 4. Heavy description. Luckily, it is not the Victorian times and writers no longer get paid by the word. Heavy description tends to kill the world the writer creates because the writer is investing too much of him or herself inside the piece. The writer’s job is to create the world and, again, let the reader play in that world. I can’t tell you how many times I have read a book or a short story and looked at that heavy prose paragraph and just turned the page. I can recall one book I read and it was describing how some water dripped off a girl’s body. The whole time I was reading it I was frustrated because why do I care how the water dripped off the chick? Apparently it was a well written piece, but again I couldn’t stomach reading it because I didn’t care. That scene served no purpose other than establishing the writer’s ability to write description.
  2. 5. Writing true dialogue. This is by far one of the most difficult things to do because as a young writer (young meaning new to the game and not chronicle age) one tends to insert the writer’s own voice in the character’s voice. Also, the dialogue tends to be too long and forced. Most people don’t speak to someone for a page and a half without taking a break or moving. In just writing this blog, I have drunk a cup of tea, watched some curling on TV, put towels in the washer, and I’ve been cheating on you by texting a friend. People multi-task and it is crucial when writing dialogue the writer allows the characters to move about as the conversation moves along. My one professor calls it the “floating head syndrome” and I feel that is a great visual to hold in mind when writing dialogue. Are your character’s just floating about having a conversation? Give them action.

With action in dialogue also come speech patterns. People speak over one another. People use slang. People use contractions. Speech isn’t all grammar free and pretty, so don’t write it that way. Speech is also a great way to get a character description across without having to explain everything about the character. Words help define us; allow that to happen in writing.

Michelle Wittle On the Writer’s Purpose

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

I can recall many times when I was in the English classroom, my students would tell me the reason they were writing an essay was because their teacher told them to write it. I always died a bit inside when I would read that sentence because, while it was true I had assigned the essay, that never should have been the reason for writing it.

No matter what the underlined purpose for writing an essay (or any type of writing  for that matter) there is always something the writer wants to express to the reader. Every writer has a purpose. Every word written has a function beyond the literal one of being on the page. There is always a reason why an author uses this word over that one. The writer picks and choses what details to expand on and which ones to compress. Every time a person writes, there is a purpose.

In strictly non-fiction, purpose doesn’t change as much. Normally when one sets out to write about a subject, through the writing the subject stays static.

However, when dealing in the word of Creative Non-Fiction and Fiction, a writer’s purpose tends to change from draft to draft. In my own writing, the purpose I have in the first draft is never the purpose I find in my later drafts.

Why is that?

In my opinion, I think drafts are the writer’s way of cleaning out his or her brain. Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Breakfast of Champions starts out with Vonnegut telling his reader this book is basically him taking all the thoughts (strange as they may be) and putting them down on paper. Whether that statement is true or is hyperbole could be  debated. However, I believe it is important for a writer to get all his or her thoughts on the paper in order to find the true meaning or his or her true purpose in writing the story.

For example, I have this story that started about four years ago. It was just a page and a half long and it was about a man coming out of a coma. Now the story is about twelve pages and explores the man and his relationship with his mother, his friends, and finally his girlfriend. When I first wrote the story, I had no intention of writing a piece on relationships. But now, that is the story I am working with.

Our characters tell us what to write. We can’t force them into a plot or a setting. They will revolt.

The same is true in setting a purpose. Don’t be afraid to let your purpose change as your drafts change. It is all part of the bigger writing process picture.

Data is as Data were. Emerging Language in Everyday Speech.

Writing Tips

Data, Media, Rice, Water. Emerging language and winds of change.

Language changes. It grows. It adapts. Nouns are turned into verbs (e.g. “friend”), words take on many meanings (e.g. “peer”) and subject/verb agreement transforms. Scholars know that the phrase “correct English” is a misnomer at best, a downright falsehood at worst. Languages are living things that grow and change.

We are on the cusp of one of those changes now. It truly could go either way. As a language geek, it’s an exciting event to watch. How will the now-ubiquitous words “data” and “media” be treated? Will the educational system catch up and drill the original usage of “data” and “media” as being plural nouns that require a plural 3rd person verb agreement? Or will colloquial usage overwhelm the textbooks and the subject will be simple, single and quick?

Let’s go over some details.

Datum is a single piece of data. Data are more than one datum.
Medium is a single type of media. Media are all the mediums lumped together.

The subject/verb agreement with these words traditionally went like this:

The datum is written on a piece of paper.
The data are enclosed in the report.

The medium was radio.
The media were newspapers.

(Or, in the case of journalists as a group of people: “The media report a storm coming up the coast.”)

Usage of “data” has morphed into the singular subject/verb agreement for many colloquial speakers (that means “regular people speakers and not specialized people like academics, scientists, etc.) “Data” and “Media” are being treated as mass nouns, like rice (e.g. “The rice is in the cooker”) or water (e.g. “This water is cold!”). Now we are seeing usage like “The data doesn’t support your claim.” and “The media isn’t welcome in the courtroom.”

We are seeing the singular subject/verb agreement usage more with the word “data” and with the word “media.” I don’t think most people would have “medium” on the tip of their tongue if they were asked to name the singular of media, but journalists have been drilling us with their self-referential phrase forever. So we know what “media” is supposed to sound like in a sentence, for the most part (If “data” usage changes, then I think “media” won’t be far behind. But we’ll leave “media” be for now).

“Data” is another problem entirely. I’ve been intimately aware of the usage rules around the word “data” for my entire adult life. When I was 18, I started at the University of Pittsburgh in a Psychology major, and I was quickly treated to a grammar lesson I didn’t soon forget. After years of psychology and biophysics research, then on to business research, I knew the expected plural subject/plural verb conjugation for the word “data.”

But here we are at the crossroads, where seemingly everyone else besides the hardcore researchers use “data” as a mass noun. Sure, the Twitterati will do their best to knock you back into their supposed knowledge and comfort zone as soon as they see a wayward “data is” or “data was.” But they aren’t looking at the big picture. Let’s think for a moment about data. This is a perfect example of why language changes. A cultural change happens, then language reflects that change. (I am now going to start using “data” as a mass noun. That means I will be using it in the singular, so those of you who are grammar-feint-of-heart, I suggest you stop reading now. But I do wish you would just hold your breath for a second and hear me out.)

Data is everywhere. It is coming at us from all sides. We have many convenient ways to get data. We have to make an effort to avoid data. We are data junkies. All of us. But in the end, we see data as a separate entity from ourselves. It is something we consume, like water. We choose to step up to it like we walk to the ocean’s very edge. We make the choice to dip our toes into it, or run away. We have our favorite ways of getting data, just like we have our favorite shoreline beaches. But we see it as a huge mass, almost one big entity of which we take small parts. We make distinctions on its bits. The grains of rice are in the container, but my rice is already cooked. No drops of water are on the window but water is leaking in everywhere. Bits of data are scattered around the internet but my data is on my blog. Wikipedia defines as mass noun as such:

“In linguistics, a mass noun (also uncountable noun or non-count noun) is a common noun that presents entities as an unbounded mass.”

An unbounded mass. Think about that. Think about all the info on the internet. Doesn’t it feel like “an unbounded mass” to you?

(ok grammarians, you can let out that breath. wasn’t too bad, was it?)

See what I mean? Which way will this go? Will data be accepted as a mass noun in the general culture? Or will everyday speakers be exposed to the word in its plural form so much that the phrase “the data are everywhere” sounds right to them?

Let me know what you think in the comments. Your data is/are important to me.

Christine Cavalier, PurpleCar

Michelle Wittle On Understanding Creative Non-Fiction

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

This is one of those terms everyone throws around and no one is man enough to admit no one really knows what the term means.

It’s simple enough. Creative non-fiction is something that is true yet it has a dash of creativity to it.

But, what does that mean in practical terms?

How do we draw the line between fiction and creative non-fiction?

I will use my own writing as an example of what not to do.

I once wrote, what I thought was a creative non-fiction essay about Barbie. However, Barbie is a doll. She is not a person (even though to my childhood self, she was more than just a doll). The subject alone made my essay fiction because I made it all up. Sure, Barbie’s actions could be real and the thoughts I gave her were mine own, but the bottom line remains; my Barbie essay was a fiction story about what her life was like in my eyes.

Fiction is made up. Creative non-fiction looks at real personal experience and adds the creative flair to it.

It sounds easy, but there are such fine lines to what fiction is and what constitutes creative non-fiction. People get confused.  I think what starts confusing people is the word creative. People immediately think because it is creative it must automatically be fake. But, think about the best story teller in your life. They may have exaggerated the truth a bit, but let’s be honest, were those things what made you pay attention to the story? No, it was the way the story was told to you. It was the storyteller’s voice and the way the storyteller presented the information to you that made you want to listen to your Uncle Henry for hours.

That is the key to creative non-fiction.

It is the way the storyteller uses his or her voice to tell you the personal experience. The storyteller’s unique eye for seeing the world around him or her and the ability to grab the audience; those are the things that push creative non-fiction.

Creative non-fiction is looking at the horrors of life and finding that small ray of hope.

Michelle Wittle On the Great Novel Escape

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

Once upon a time, I wrote a novel in about three days. I never left my computer or my house. I just typed until my hands turned red and my fingernails were just pink soft tissue. For about a week or so after the first draft of the novel, I let people read it. I changed things around a bit. I added scenes and characters…all the usual writing draft stuff.

Then, I stopped playing with the novel. I just left it in my laptop. I did back it up on one of those flash drives some people are prone to wearing around their neck. I knew the novel wasn’t complete; I just needed some time away from it. Also, I had another novel idea brewing and I wanted to write that one out as well.

It’s been about three years and I thought maybe it was time to revisit my first novel. I searched high and low for the flash drive I saved the novel on and each one I plugged into my new computer laughed at me as if to say, “silly girl, your novel isn’t in here”.

I figured it was no big deal because I could just go into my computer’s hard drive and just copy it out of there.

I figured wrong.

My Mac was dying and acting all kinds of crazy, so a few months back I erased all my work from it and put it on those cute hanging flash drives. I didn’t think I erased my novel.

Oh, but I did erase it.

Now I am faced with a bigger problem. I need a completed novel in about two weeks’ time. In my head I think about how easy it was for me to write the first draft of my first novel. It shouldn’t be that hard, right?

You know what I am about to say…WRONG.

Because I have evolved as a writer, it is now more difficult for me to finish a novel in just three days. I am taking the second novel I wrote and I am reworking it. I am about 41,000 words in and I still don’t have an end in sight. The characters are being coy with me. They are making me work extra hard.

In my head the mantra, “show don’t tell” keeps going off every time I just want to write down the scene.  

I am getting tired and cranky.

I need a nap.

But I need a workshop draft more.

So, every day I wake up at 7am and start writing more and more of my novel. I take lunch and bathroom breaks and that is the only time I step away from my writing. My knees hurt and I have a cramp in my leg.

It’s all my fault really. I am the one who said I wanted to be a writer.