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About Writing Right: The Blog

CREATING SOUNDS WITH WORDS

Describing sounds in a book or short story is one of the more daunting challenges a writer can face. How do you describe a train whistle? I mean, come on: Whoo-whoo just won't cut the mustard. Similarly, the lilting call of a cardinal or a red-wing blackbird could be described as Tweet-tweet, but that's not going to win you many new readers—or retain the ones you already have.

 

The plain truth of the matter is that sounds can't be reduced effectively to the written word. So, how do you create them in your writing? Simple. You don't.

 

Instead, you write about them, using descriptive adjectives and, yes, adverbs when necessary to plant the audible image in the reader's mind. Remember that word, image. It's crucial to good, effective writing. The train whistle might then be summed up as "The shrillness of its call sliced through the thick night like a knife through a freshly baked loaf." The bird calls could be summed up as "The chattering melodies rang out like the bells of a distant church—up and down in tone, softer and louder, always comforting." Read More 

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FILMS FROM BOOKS

Someone asked the other day why it is that Hollywood only makes films based upon books. I can see where he might reach that conclusion. Still, it ain't necessarily so. here's what I told him.

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For starters, your assumption is wrong because your premise is incorrect. Hollywood doesn't necessarily want to make films based upon books. It wants ideas that are financially lucrative. Correction: It needs ideas that are financially lucrative. Creating a film today starts out in the lower millions of dollars and spirals upward from there; so, you can understand a producer's motivation. Whether or not the next brilliant idea comes from a book or an original screenplay (or even a magazine article, short story, or popular video game for that matter) is subjugated by potential sales.

 

With that said, many producers/directors understand that a well-selling book, particularly one by a big-name author (take your pick here), has already generated a lot of buzz in the story-loving world. Major publishers have invested big bucks to see that their star authors and their novels hit it big. And, every dollar Penguin invests in marketing and promoting a book is one dollar less than Pixar will have to spend on pitching the corresponding film. Read More 

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SWITCHING POVS

When a newbie writer asked online the other day about changing points of view from third person omniscient, he received several reasonably accurate responses and one horrendous resply from our good friend, Queenie. Knowing that even a notoriously incorrect responder such as she can due severe damage to a writer's development, I set about correcting the misinformation.

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Wow. I know the Queen of Wrong mucks up nearly everything to which she responds, but this one is a Lulu. Instead of buying into the fallacy that third person omniscient is like a camera viewing a scene objectively without any possibility of understanding what your characters are thinking, realize that just the opposite is true. In third person omniscient, the narrator has access to every piece of information in the book, including what's going on in all of his or her characters' minds. This is what sets third person POV apart from first and second or limited POV. Not only that, but also, if you like multiple choices when you visit your favorite ice-cream shop, you'll love third person POV because it comes in two flavors. Voila:

 

In third person omniscient POV, the narrator knows all the thoughts and feelings of every character—the exact opposite of what Queenie advised. Knowing the narrator (that is, you) can reveal everything about the story and the characters at any given time he (again, you) chooses gives the narrator unlimited power. How you use it is up to you. This is where the flexibility of an author writing in omniscient POV comes into play. How much will you reveal, and when? How much will you hold back, and why? Read More 

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HOW LONG TO WAIT

Newbie writers often ask me how long it takes to hear back once a book editor requests a complete manuscript for review. Someone online asked that very question the other day, wondering what he could expect after sending his baby off to do battle. Here's how I replied.

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I can tell you from experience in dealing with hundreds and even thousands of publishers of books, magazines, and newspapers over the years that the Queen of Wrong has missed the boat again. Sure, you can expect to wait "as much as a year," but you'd be an idiot to do so when no conventional publisher takes that long to reply to a requested manuscript. None. Nada. If it did, it wouldn't be a conventional publisher for long.

 

Here's the reality. A book editor with a conventional, legitimate publisher takes a few weeks to a couple months to review a query. If he or she finds the query interesting, he may ask to see sample chapters. Once he receives them, he may need another two-to-four weeks to read them. If he likes what he sees, he'll request a "full read," or the complete manuscript. At that point in the editorial process, most responsible, professional editors will prioritize the manuscript. After all, he asked to see it! Read More 

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HOW SHORT IS TOO SHORT?

That's what someone asked online the other day when inquiring about the viability of a four-page chapter. I gave him my most tempered response.

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You know, enough people have given you enough good responses so that I don't feel I can add much to their replies. But, with that said, I do feel I need to remind you of something you seem to have forgotten, and the best way I can do that is to ask you a question:

 

Whose book is it, anyway? Yours or someone else's? Seriously. It makes a difference.

 

You say your longest chapter is four pages, but is it really your chapter, or did your English Lit professor write it for you and ask you to find out if short chapters are acceptable in literature today. Perhaps your teacher isn't comfortable portraying such ignorance; so, he chose, instead, to make you the foil.

 

Or, perhaps your mother is really the author, and you're asking on her behalf. Or possibly J. K. Rowling. Or Clyde Crashcup. Or, who knows? Maybe even the ghost of Elvis! Anyone other than you! Would you still want to ask the question as if you were actually the author of the book you claim you are if you weren't? Well, would you? Read More 

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PROBLEMS WITH ENDINGS

Here's the scenario. You work your butt off, creating an outline for your novel. Then, as you sit down to begin writing, everything goes smoothly. Until you get to the ending. Then you freeze up. Nothing you write seems to work. You're at a standstill. Now, you want to know why. Here's the answer:

 

You're not trying hard enough. Seriously. Oh, I know you think you are, but you're leaving too many "holes" in your outline so that, once you get to writing that part of your story (the ending), you find yourself wallowing in doubt. And despair. And anger. Have you tried taking an Oreo-cookie break?

 

Better yet, if you want a drop-dead gorgeous ending that works, think it through. And I don't mean at the writing stage. By that time, you've missed the bus. I mean at the outlining stage. Keep going over the outline's beginning, middle, and end, and keep refining the ending. Dig deeper. Ask yourself questions such as, "If this, then what?" And if the answers you receive don't appeal to you, ask different questions such as, "What if this happens instead?" or "What happens if someone shows up and throws a monkey wrench into the works?" or "What's the least logical thing my main character can do that later turns out to make sense?" Read More 

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PURCHASING REPUBLICATION RIGHTS

A question came up the other day on how to go about buying republication rights for copyrighted material. That's relatively simple to do--once you know the answer. Here's my take on the situation.

 

First, whether or not you'll have to pay for using copyrighted content depends upon the amount of content, the attribution you provide, and when, where, and by whom the original content was published. It also depends upon where and how you propose to republish the content. Some publishers welcome limited use of their content with appropriate credits as effective, free, word-of-mouth promotion. Others don't. The only way to find out for sure is to write the Rights and Permissions department of the publisher, which information should be listed on a book's copyright page or on a magazine or newspaper's masthead.

 

In your request, provide the publisher with the exact material you'd like to republish, the original publication's name, publication date, and author's name plus any other pertinent information you can think of. Then, propose an attribute, such as "Reprinted with the permission of Random House, Inc." or whatever is appropriate. Don't mention paying for the rights. If the publisher gives you the go-ahead, you're home free. (Retain a copy of the permission for future use, just in case.)

 

If the publisher replies to your request positively and suggests a proposed fee, feel free to negotiate. If they ask for $500, for example, offer them half that amount. You'd be surprised at how many books a publisher has to sell to make up $500—or anywhere near it. By granting limited republication usage rights, the publisher is raking in what is in effect "free money." And that contributes to the publisher's annual statement, which looks good to the corporate offices.

 

If you can't reach an agreement with the publisher, of course, you can always sidestep the entire rights situation by rewriting, rewording, and republishing your own interpretation of the material you had hoped to purchase. Remember: Thoughts, ideas, and concepts can't be copyrighted. Their stylistic rendition (how those thoughts are written) can be.

 

Present the same concepts in your own words, and you're home free. And you won't have to pay for republication rights. Simple, no? Who would have thunk it?

 

Smoke if you've got 'em.

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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his column, "The Author-Ethicist," which runs at Substack.com weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, I do my best!)

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IS RAPUNZLE COPYRIGHTED?

In effect, that's what someone wanted to know when he asked online if he could use characters already in existence, such as a kidnapped princess with long hair and healing powers. He received some answers that were predictably ridiculous. Here's how I responded.

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I see you've received a couple answers so far, both of which are dead wrong and horribly misleading. Your character can have long hair, can lower herself on it like on a ladder, and even have the same name. (Most likely—more about names below.)

 

Ideas cannot be copyrighted, or else all of humanity would be in court defending against copyright infringement continually. Names cannot be copyrighted for the same reason. Likewise common descriptive words such as blonde, brunette, and redhead. Ditto for commonly used nouns such as tire, train, and fart (which is a bit like what the responses you've received so far smell like. And likewise for verbs such as run, procrastinate, and litigate.

 

People who have no idea what copyright means and what the U.S. copyright laws are shouldn't be telling other people what's copyrightable and what isn't. Phrases taken from a published work word-for-word may be copyrighted (assuming the work isn't old enough to be in the public domain, in which case you can do whatever you want with that work, including republishing and even selling it yourself). Entire sentences from a published work not in the public domain are taboo to use subject to the previous exception. In other words, the form an author uses to express himself in words—and not the names, descriptions, titles, and individual words—can be copyrighted.

 

Now, with that said, you can use the name Mickey and you can use the word mouse in your own writing without any fear of repercussion from copyright violation. But you can't use the name "Mickey Mouse" because, although not copyrightable, Walt the Disney Person was smart enough to take out a trademark that prevents anyone else from using that moniker. How you find out what phrases are trademarked or in the public domain is another issue entirely. You can begin with an online search of the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office. You'll find them at THIS address:
 
https://www.uspto.gov/trademarks/search
 
You can also contact an attorney, but that will cost a few bucks. You may want to do that in the end, anyway, if you want to be certain something isn't trademarked before you use it in your own work and risk getting blowback from the trademark holder, which is more likely than not a large, well-heeled corporate entity with a large, well-heeled legal staff on retainer.

Just my thoughts on the matter. Before taking any actions that might result in your legal embroilment, you should check with an intellectual rights attorney or, if you're a member of a writing association such as The Authors Guild, run it by their legal department. That won't cost you anything more than the cost of annual dues for membership.

 

Meanwhile, smoke if you've got 'em.

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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his column, "The Author-Ethicist," which runs at Substack.com weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, I do my best!)

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FORGING AHEAD WITH THAT NOVEL

A novice novelist asked online the other day how he can overcome the problems he faces whenevere he sits down to write. It seems that, despite all kinds of great ideas, he can never quite make it past the first chapter. Here's my advice, something that has worked for me for decades as well as for my students and mentored souls.

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Congratulations. You asked a relatively simple question to which you received a ton of convoluted, incorrect, or inappropriate responses. I think that's a Quora record!

 

Of course, you may want to hold off on rushing to the 'phone to tell dear old dad about your achievement just yet, since you're certainly no closer to receiving an answer that will actually help you to accomplish your goal than you were before—that is, writing a novel past the first chapter.

 

You were no closer, at least, until now. Read More 

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ON SIDONIE-GABRIELLE COLETTE

A reader named Graham Lindsey asked the other day why I thought the stories of Colette resonate so well more than half a century after the author's death. I was happy to respond.

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I think quite highly of the stories. Not so much for their literary scholarship as much as their unbridled ribaldry and shameless guile, which was quite shocking for the era, even in the Gay Nineties. I think even more highly of the author Colette who, as a child of the country, basked in innocence until realizing an entirely new life waited just beyond the confines of the hinterlands and prairies. By that time, she had already begun playing role-reversal games, fantasizing, trying on new hats, tinkering with gender-bending thoughts and activities, and writing.

 

Her husband, a vile and self-fulfilling prophecy named Henri Gauthier-Villars, who went by the name of Monsieur Willy, was the quintessential villain of his day. While forcing his considerably younger wife to toil away at creating titillating and often sexually explicit works, he published them under his own name, made a fortune promoting the "Colette" character's brand of everything under the sun (including cigarettes), and pushed his wife's sexual acquiescence to its limits and beyond. Read More 

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