The Premise:

Just as a good handyman has a toolbox filled with tools that help him build and repair, a good writer should have a toolbox filled with tools that help him write.

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The Content:

Level 1 (Top Level) - Common Tools

  • The Dos and Don'ts:
    • DO NOT make a conscious effort to improve your vocabulary.
    • DO NOT attempt to "dress up" your vocabulary.
    • DO use a simple word in place of a complex, obscure word.
    • DO use the first word that comes to mind.

  • Why? Because vocabulary is your most common tool, you should be comfortable using it. Your vocabulary is what it is and will evolve as you read. If the first word that comes to mind works in the sentence, then there is no reason to replace it with a "fancier" word that might have a slightly different connotation. Always say exactly what you mean, and if that includes writing a short, sweet word, then so be it.
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  • The Basics:
    • A complete sentence contains a noun and a verb.
    • With an active verb, the subject is doing something; with a passive verb, something is being done to the subject.

  • The Dos and Don'ts:
    • DO use sentence fragments if they help the narrative - DO NOT overuse them.
    • DO NOT break the rules of grammar unless you understand the rules.
    • DO avoid the passive tense if at all possible.
    • DO avoid adverbs if possible - ALWAYS avoid adverbs in dialogue attribution.

  • Complete sentences are nice, but sometimes entire paragraphs of them are rigid and don't flow well, especially in fiction. Fragments are useful for providing suspense and for varying sentence length and style. However, the reason you should know the rules before breaking them is because most rules should be followed no matter what. There is a distinct difference between a well-place fragment and grammatical gobbledygook.

  • King categorizes passive tense and adverbs both as the tools of "timid writers". Passive voice is "safe", meaning that there is no action to deal with. The writer doesn't have to deal much with the subject; they just have to let the action happen. Adverbs, on the other hand, are born of the fear that the reader won't understand the message you are trying to send. Hopefully you have set up the mood and style of the action described by the adverb with previous occurrences in the scene. Have some confidence in the reader as well as yourself, and assume that they can supply the adverb themselves.
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  • QUICK QUIZ: "As a mother of five, with another one on the way, my ironing board is always up." What's wrong with this sentence?

Level 2 - The Elements of Style

  • The Basics:
    • The paragraph is the next level of organization after the sentence.
    • Basic structure: topic sentence followed by support and description
    • Paragraphs provide dialogue, description and stage direction

  • The Dos and Don'ts:
    • DON'T overly structure your paragraphs.
    • DO let your paragraphs form on their own.
    • DO let the rhythm of the scene decide the length of paragraphs.

  • Arguably, the paragraph is the basic unit of writing. While certain types of writing (such as expository) require stricter organization of paragraphs, the flow of fiction writing should be more loose. Trying to structure the shape of paragraphs will over-structure the sentences within and give the writing a tight feeling. Paragraphs should form based on the mood of the scene. For instance, a climax might incorporate a few one-sentence paragraphs to create a suspenseful effect, while some books (like Paradise Falls) may include a paragraph that lasts for sixteen pages. In the end, there is no ideal length.
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  • The Basics:
    • Description draws the reader into the story through the sense.
    • It begins with visualization of the subject of the description.

  • The Dos and Don'ts:
    • DON'T overdescribe.
    • DON'T underdescribe.
    • DO find the medium between too little and too much.
    • DO include all of the senses.
    • DON'T spend too much time describing characters.
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  • As King puts it, "Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted" while "overdescription buries him or her details and images." It is necessary to find the amount of description that is just right. Often, this can be included in a few brief paragraphs without a lot of heavy adjectives. It's also best to use all five of the senses in description where possible. For instance, when describing a setting, include sounds, sights, smells, and possibly touch if applicable.

  • When describing characters you should focus on "a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else." It's better to leave a little anonymity for the reader's sake so that they can imagine the characters from their point of view.

  • The Basics:
    • Dialogue gives characters their voices and defines their characters.
    • You can show things about characters through their speech without explicitly saying them.
    • The key to good dialogue is honesty

  • The Dos and Don'ts:
    • DO interact with people—talk and listen—to improve your dialogue writing skills.
    • DO remain true to your character when writing dialogue.
    • DO NOT worry when some critics react badly to honesty—it is still crucial to dialogue.
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  • It's always important to talk to other people and listen to what they say because you'll hear many different types of slang/jargon/lingo. What you want to express in dialogue is the character's personality and experiences. If you take it too rigidly, then your character will sound robotic or cliched. Don't be afraid to create your own words or use curse words, and don't avoid these things to please an audience. If it's true to the character, then go for it.

  • Here's an example of what Stephen King calls bad dialogue, taken from Hart's War by John Katzenbach:
    • Pryce grabbed at Tommy once again. "Tommy," he whispered, "this is not a coincidence! Nothing is what it seems! Dig deeper! Save him, lad, save him! For more than ever, now, I believe Scott is innocent! ... You're on your own now, boys. And remember, I'm counting on you to live through this! Survive! Whatever happens!" He turned back to the Germans. "All right, Hauptmann," he said with a sudden, exceedingly calm determination. "I'm ready now. Do with me what you will."
    • EXERCISE: Read this passage aloud. What is wrong with it?
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  • The Basics:
    • A theme is a recurring message presented in a piece.
    • Theme can be expressed through characters, symbols, and the story itself.

  • The Dos and Don'ts:
    • DON'T start writing a piece based solely on theme.
    • DO let a theme develop on its own during the first draft.
    • DO make the theme more present in later drafts.

  • Theme is "really no big deal." While archetypes and symbols inevitably crop up from time to time, your primary concern should be writing down the story. Themes can act as a great enhancement, however, and once the first draft is done, you should always ask yourself what the writing means to you or to people in general. Once you've discovered a pattern or motif, you should always bring it out.

How to Get the Tools

  • The Dos and Don'ts:
    • DO read as much as possible.
    • DO set a daily goal for writing.
    • DO write in a "basement" place.
    • DO "write what you know."
    • DO trust your intuition.
    • DON'T get discouraged.
    • DO always be honest.
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