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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

To Thine Own Self Be True ~ by guest blogger Mary Ellis

Before “retiring” to write full-time, bestselling author Mary Ellis taught Middle and worked as a sales rep for Hershey Chocolate for 20 years. She grew up close to the eastern OH Amish community, where her parents often took her to farmer’s markets and woodworking fairs.

Mary enjoys reading, traveling, gardening, bicycling and swimming. Before “retiring” to write full-time, she taught Middle School and worked as a sales rep for Hershey Chocolate for 20 years—a job with amazingly sweet fringe benefits.

To Thine Own Self be True

I’ve been thinking about the famous quote by William Shakespeare lately. There’s been much talk in the writers’ loops about rules that new writers must follow if they hope ever to be published.

I jotted some of the rules down, but I still have my original list from my early days as a beginning writer: Reduce adverbs; never use –ly words. Never use passive verbs. Eliminate multiple prepositions in a row. Remove dialogue tags. And of course, let’s have no redundancies, euphemisms, petty modifiers, clichés, or hyperbole.

I won’t even get into the rules regarding punctuation. Many writers of various levels can benefit from looking over the list prior to a final edit of their work. I, myself, was once guilty of walking slowly instead of staggering and eating hungrily instead of devouring my fried chicken. Now I use stronger verbs to convey my meaning, and I wouldn’t think to writing something like whispered softly.

But let’s be honest, sometimes a good old –ly word is just the ticket. Fellow writer, Mary Johnson, offered this marvelous example from Dick Francis’ best-selling novel, Hot Money: “I intensely disliked my father’s fifth wife, but not to the point of murder.” A lovely sentence…ly word and all, don’t you agree?

To leave out the dastardly adverb would have sacrificed much. Does anyone remember the first line of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield? “I was born” is the epitome of passivity. Now I don’t put myself in Dick Francis’ league, and certainly not in Mr. Dickens’, but Ms. Johnson said it well, “In the end, the craft is there to serve the art, not vice versa.”

Another rule I read on the loop is “never use more than two POV’s in a romance.” I was midway through a short romance containing one main plot, advanced by four POV characters. I sat up straight and asked, “huh?” and then called my editor. She replied that she’d never heard of such a rule and wondered who made these things up.

Before you fire off an email to me, insisting that fledging novelists need guidelines to hone their skills…I agree with you. But the list of rules should be guidelines to improve a manuscript; not laws never to be broken.

Writers who rely too much on critique partners’ or contest judges’ suggestion also scare me. I once read the comments from a contest I had entered with confusion. One judge felt “I should have better developed my hero/heroine to create empathy,” while another judge felt that “I’d spent too much time sketching characters to the detriment of the plot.”

What did I learn from the two opposing viewpoints? Not too much. After I dried my tears that I hadn’t finaled in the contest, I learned that judges have subjective opinions.

I also read in the [ACFW] loop about one writer who presents her work to her critique group at the end of each chapter. Her fellow writers probably offer good advice on how to improve the pacing, etc., but when she finishes the manuscript, will the book still have her voice? I’m not so sure.

A writer’s voice is the only thing that sets her/him apart from the thousands of other writers in the same genre. A writer gets an idea, creates a story in her mind, and sits down to tell the tale. Any advice on how to improve should come after the first draft in finished. The book might have the same theme or plot twists that have already been rehashed to death. But in a new voice, this story can come alive for a reader.

Contest judges, critique partners, editors who are kind enough to offer suggestions—these people can offer great advice for improvement. But remember, they have subjective opinions. You’ll never please everyone, so you should first please yourself with the work you create. Happy writing.

Abigail's New Hope


Love Blooms in Unexpected Places

As an Amish midwife, Abigail Graber loves bringing babies into the world. But when a difficult delivery takes a devastating turn, she is faced with some hard choices. Despite her best efforts, the young mother dies—but the baby is saved.

When a heartless judge confines Abigail to the county jail for her mistakes, her sister Catherine comes to the Graber farm to care for Abigail’s young children while her husband, Daniel, works his fields. For the first time Catherine meets Daniel’s reclusive cousin, Isaiah, who is deaf and thought to be simpleminded by his community. She endeavors to teach him to communicate and discovers he possesses unexpected gifts and talents.

While Abigail searches for forgiveness, Catherine changes lives and, in return, finds love, something long elusive in her life. And Isaiah discovers God, who cares nothing about our handicaps or limitations in His sustaining grace.

3 comments:

Marti Pieper said...

I think our drive to publish fuels this suggestion-into-rules craziness. In EXPERIENCING GOD, Henry Blackaby referenced the bus ministry craze of the 70's. First one and then another church had a bus ministry and brought in hundreds. Soon, if you had a church, you needed a bus--regardless of the age and location of your congregation, its established ministries, etc. You can anticipate the outcome.

Like those churches, writers should be aware of the bus, study the bus--but only DO the bus if and as God leads. As you mention, voice matters. We can't have a consistent one if we're double-minded writers, unstable in all the nuances that make our work unique.

Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

Nicole said...

Truth.

She Wrote said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you.