Re: What comes *before* the plot

#1
Today, I tried to review some stories, and failed miserably.

I'm not a successful writer, probably not even a good one. But the two stories I *tried* to review (yes, I just couldn't make it) weren't bad (I think), but they were so unreadable I just couldn't get through the first page. So, in response, and hopefully of some use to some, I wrote a little blog post. It has nothing to do with plot, style, word-smithing, beautiful language. It has nothing to do with creating beautiful adventures, or creative world building, or complex and compelling characters. It has to do with the least important thing of all: format.

Some time ago a wrote a little ditty on paragraphing https://www.royalroad.com/forums/thread/105782?page=1#pid876705 and you could consider this its 'sequel'.

The original version of this post is here: https://ninelizardsblog.blogspot.com/2020/10/the-readers-first-impression-or-what.html and hopefully :-) it will see updates as I learn more myself. Unfortunately, Blogger and RR have some different formatting. Below is most of the same text, without the links.

I hope this can be of use to some of us.


Writing

You're an aspiring author. And your work just... sucks. Potential readers run away with polite excuses, and it seams they can't understand your great vision. Fear not! You can get better, or at least better than me 😁

It's not that hard. But before you craft wonderful plots, believable characters, and encompassing worlds, you might want to have a quick peek at the basics, and what kind of first impression your work will leave behind.


Disclaimer

I am neither a professional nor a successful writer, so please take all my advice with a lot of salt. But I'm happy that some people found my words helpful, and perhaps they might help you.

There are a huge number of resources online that delve more deeply into these different topics (and deal with them way better than I do). Use this post as a starting point, but Google any of the topics that you feel you need more help with.

(If you have a link you like me to add, drop me a line and I'll check it out.)


So, form over content?

Absolutely not! But if you don't package it right, you will lose readers. Period. So, get the basics right, then you don't have to worry about those pesky little things when you come to what really matters: your story. But for now, let's have a look at the very first impression your work will leave behind, which is very much defined by its 'format'.


A short 'quick reference' list

- Paragraphing
- Person and tense
- Dialogue
- Commas
- Clarity
- Knowledge
- Motivation
- Logic
- Consequences
- Dirt and flavor
- Show don't tell


Reader versus writer

You're the writer, the author. You know what to expect, you know the worlds your characters live in. You know what goes on in their minds, but the reader does not.

So, things that are perfectly clear and logical to you, are not to the reader.

To make it easier for the reader there are certain conventions to follow, certain ways to present the story. That will make it much easier for a reader to follow your tale. A reader should spend his or her time reading and enjoying, not to puzzle out the exact meaning of a sentence, who does what, or where that comma should go.

That's your job, as a writer.


Why even care?

True. If you write entirely for your own enjoyment, you should not. But if you want to reach a larger audience on an online platform such as Wattpad, you should write in such a way people can enjoy your works. If you want to be come a professional writer, you should definitely make your work as accessible as possible, to reach the biggest audience possible. It's your income, after all!


Paragraphing

Before doing anything else, first format your text properly. By giving it the correct format, you'll accomplish ten things:

1. Readers wil find it easier to understand what is going on
2. It will be much easier to find your own mistakes
3. It will be much easier to find your own mistakes
4. It will be much easier to find your own mistakes
5. It will be much easier to find your own mistakes
6. It will be much easier to find your own mistakes
7. It will be much easier to find your own mistakes
8. It will be much easier to find your own mistakes
9. It will be much easier to find your own mistakes
10. It will be much easier to find your own mistakes

I've written a separate post on paragraphing.

No matter what you do, first fix your paragraphing! 


Person and tense

There are four common forms to write your story in. As a general rule, pick one, and do not switch. You might decide to combine different styles to great effect, but it isn't easy, and only few can pull it off. For now, I suggest to stick to one flavor.

There is no 'best' choice. Pick a form that matches the story you want to tell, and consider the readers. For example, First Person / Present Tense may get a strong, negative response from certain readers.

- First Person / Present Tense
- First Person / Past Tense
- Third Person / Present Tense
- Third Person / Past Tense

Whatever you do, make a choice and stick to it.


Dialogue

Writing good, witty dialogue is difficult. What helps is following a specific format, which (dare I say it) requires good Paragraphing.

(I'll need to convert that part on dialogue, but for now it's here: https://ninelizardsblog.blogspot.com/2020/06/dialogue-group-conversation.html )


Commas

Commas are a disaster for non-native English speakers. Compared with all other possible problems they are just a minor thing, but it's best to have them (roughly) fixed before working on clarity.

Grammarly isn't too reliable when it comes to commas. You better know the rules yourself, and use Grammarly only as an indication.


Clarity (references)

With format, tense and dialogue fixed, the next thing is to make sure the reader understands who or what you are referring to. Who is doing what, who is saying which.

Re-read your chapter, and on every line, ask yourself: could the reader misunderstand what I've written? Who is the he or she I refer to? Again, proper paragraphing helps immensely!

   β€œOh, that?” The dark-skinned stranger looked at the raven in his hand and raised it. β€œThat's my meal.” he said.
   Ted aimed his bow at him.
   The captain looked at him in silence. β€œI understand you have a thing for birds.” He carefully threw the raven at him.

With some minor changes:

   "Oh, this?” The dark-skinned stranger looked at the raven in his hand and raised it. β€œThat's my meal,” he said.
   Ted aimed his bow at him.
   The captain looked in silence at the short man, then sighed. β€œI understand you have a thing for birds.” He carefully threw the raven at the man.


Repetition

Avoid endless repetition. Look for synonyms, different ways to build sentences. Nothing is more annoying than every second sentence starting with the same word.


Grammar

Work on the grammar. Find the mistakes and fix them. Things don't have to be perfect, but they must be good enough. What is good enough depends on your audience. You'll get away with a lot when writing online fan fiction, but your readers will find and complain about any mistake they find in a purchased work.

Tools like Grammarly, though not perfect, do help, but do not completely rely on them. When in doubt, look op the correct grammar yourself.


That's it for format. The following six items are not something related to structure or format, but they are so common I decided to add them here, just as short reminders. 


Suspension of disbelief ('too easy')

If you, as a writer, stretch things too far the reader will laugh and walk away. In movies and TV shows, this 'leniency' by the viewer is often typified as 'Suspension of Disbelief', and is a whole topic by itself.

If you doubt you may stretch things too far, ask yourself this question: are things 'too easy' or not?


Knowledge

You (the author) may know what a certain symbol means, may speak a certain language. You may know everything about the relation between two characters. But does the reader?

Or, perhaps just as important, if not more so: does the character? If the character acts upon knowledge he or she can not possibly possess.


Motivation

Whenever your character does something, ask yourself: why? Does he / she have a reason to do something? Do you think your reader will believe the action of your character, if that character has no reason to do something?

What is acceptable, and what is not, depends on the reader, the genre, and the audience. You may be able to get away with quite a bit, but take things too far and 'poof' the illusion is broken.


Logic

If your character walks outside, and it rains, he or she will get wet. Will that affect weapons? Will matches get wet? If your character wears armor, can he or she still sneak up on to an unsuspecting guard?


Consequences

Anything that happens, has consequences. Make sure those are covered. Throw a stone through a window, and the rain will come in, making the room cold and wet.


Dirt and flavor

The world is lived in. Nothing is new. Make the story believable by adding dirt, describe the environment.

This is a very personal thing, and depends on the taste of the reader. Some readers like to hear bout the world the characters live in, the texture of the clothes, the moss on the stones. Other readers prefer to jump into the action.

Keep in mind that some dirt and flavor is required to make the world a believable place.


Show don't tell

Then, finally, one of the most talked-about topics. There are different explanations and takes. Just keep them in mind.


Anyway, please, in heaven's name, put yourself in the position of the reader. Will he / she understand what you wrote? My eyeballs are still bleeding from trying to review those two stories...

Re: What comes *before* the plot

#2
It should be mentioned that there are a huge number of resources online that delve more deeply into these different topics. Use this list as a starting point, but google any of the topics that you feel you need more help with.

I would add another topic: Point of View. If you combine Point of View with "Person and Tense" (as they're described above), those three things taken together will define how you write. Usually Point of View and Person are combined into a single entity, such as "third-person limited" or "third-person omniscient", and tense is listed separately.

But however you think about them or label them in your head, you *have* to decide those three things before you start writing, and you *have* to stick to them. I've talked to a few authors who not only jumped back and forth on the type of point-of-view they were using, but they didn't even realize there was a decision they were supposed to make.

Related to Point of View is the number of characters whose head you'll be in. This applies mostly to third-person limited, where you might be in a single character's head for the entire book, or you might go back and forth between two characters, or you might have an entire cast of PoV characters. Be sure to follow best practices for PoV switching (only switch PoV at chapter breaks or scene breaks).

The number of PoV characters can also apply to first person, but ... please don't. Switching PoV characters when writing in the first person tends to be painful for the reader. If you want to jump between different perspectives from one chapter to the next, third-person limited is usually a better choice.

Deciding on the number of PoV characters doesn't really apply to third-person omniscient, where you're in everyone's head at once, or third-person objective, where you're not in anyone's head.

Re: What comes *before* the plot

#3
I think this is something that gets overlooked on the site. There are huge swathes of people who have no got a grasp on even the most basic fundamentals. In that vein, I really appreciate people that make posts like this trying to help. 

I would also asks every writer, regardless of skill level to not take comments or reviews personally but use them as ways to improve. None of us are perfect and we can all make improvements in some way or another. And this is a great place for it. Go out there, get opinions on your work, and improve.

Re: What comes *before* the plot

#5

The Wrote: I think this is something that gets overlooked on the site. There are huge swathes of people who have no got a grasp on even the most basic fundamentals. In that vein, I really appreciate people that make posts like this trying to help.



I agree in principle, but I have serious doubts about how many of those people actually bother to visit this forum to look for advice on how to improve. I suspect that in many cases they don't realize there is any urgent need for improvement in their writing skills -- or, if they do have suspicions of that fact, they simply don't want to take the trouble to learn all the nitpicking rules of grammar and punctuation and so forth. Instead, they just want to write down the story idea that popped into their heads, and they hope someone will like it, just the way it is, in what you or I might call "the very rough draft." 

Once, in a writing-themed forum on Fanfiction.net, I saw someone happily proclaiming that his understanding was that if he ever got around to submitting a manuscript to a professional publishing house, he wouldn't need to worry about fixing his own typographical errors before the book went to press, because copy editors are the ones who are paid to tidy up all those boring little details on behalf of the creative talent! His point was supposed to be that this meant reviewers on FanFiction who tried to point out little typographical errors in his posted stories were just wasting their time (and his), because it wasn't his job to worry about anything so insignificant.

I tried to explain to him that the existence of copy editors at a publishing house does not constitute a "Get Out of Jail Free card" for the writer. If there are, let's say, dozens of typographical errors in the first few pages alone, the typical professional editor is not going to say, "Gee, this is such brilliant writing that it sure will be fun for us to fix all these irritating little mistakes!" Instead, she is more likely to say, "This writer still has a lot to learn -- I'll throw this one into the Reject Bin, and move on to another manuscript to see if that author has already mastered the bare essentials!"

Guess what? He didn't want to believe me. In fact, he quit participating on that forum shortly after that -- apparently because it annoyed him that several others (not just me) were telling him that his smug policy of ignoring constructive criticism about technical flaws in his posted work was not the right way to go if he ever wanted to be taken seriously as a writer . . .

Re: What comes *before* the plot

#6

Lorendiac Wrote: I agree in principle, but I have serious doubts about how many of those people actually bother to visit this forum to look for advice on how to improve.



Well, they might not visit this forum to look for ways to improve, but they should :-)

To quote myself:

> Today, I tried to review some stories, and failed miserably.
> I'm not a successful writer, probably not even a good one. But the two stories I *tried* to review (yes, I just couldn't make it)
> weren't bad (I think), but they were so unreadable I just couldn't get through the first page.

At least now I have a blog-post that I can refer to with a simple link, every time I run into the same issues again... Getting too tired to explain it time after time :-)

So whenever I run into another one, I have a standard reply :-)

' Hey, I like the concept and the effort you put into it, but you know, I had real problems getting into the story. It would help if you worked on the format a little. Readers like that. I had similar problems myself, so I wrote a little blog post on it. I think it might seriously help. You'll find it here: https://ninelizardsblog.blogspot.com/2020/10/the-readers-first-impression-or-what.html Drop me a line if you have any questions. '

Polite, non-insulting, and sometimes sooooooooo necessary...

Re: What comes *before* the plot

#12

Ramingo Wrote:
Nine Wrote:
Oskatat Wrote: Why do you say commas are a disaster for Non-native English speakers? They're a disaster for native English speakers, let alone for anyone else



Because many languages have a very simple rule: you put them where you pause. English has rules.


I assume you don't speak many languages then.


Probably not then. Just Dutch, English, French and German.