249. Share Your Blogging Wisdom!

I wish I knew more about blogging.

Seriously, I assumed I would have this blogging thing figured out by now. TMTF has been around for two and a half years. I’ve written nearly two hundred fifty posts—not counting a novella, some short stories, dozens of geeky commentaries, a handful of guest posts for other blogs and a series of reflections upon the Christian faith.

In all of this, I somehow managed to avoid learning anything.

All right, I may have learned a few things, but I want to learn more. I want to be a better blogger, and I’m asking for your help.

Today, dear reader, is your day! Today is the day you share your blogging wisdom! Tell me: If you have ever contributed to a blog or website, what is the most important insight, lesson, tip or trick you have learned?

Big Boss Wants You!

I want to hear what you have to say! I ask, implore, beg, command, dare and/or defy every blogger reading this to share at least one piece of blogging advice. I especially want to learn how to build a stronger platform, so insights into reaching a wider audience are particularly appreciated!

Share your advice in the comments below! If you prefer not to comment, use this blog’s Contact page or find me on Twitter to share your thoughts. I want to hear what you have to say!

Ladies and gentlemen, the floor is yours. Today I am your student. Take it away!

193. About Writing: Tropes

There is a website called TV Tropes, and it has gobbled up more of my time than I care to admit.

TV Tropes is a fascinating and highly informal collection of articles on tropes in storytelling. What are tropes, you ask? A trope is a recurring convention, element or device in a particular genre or type of fiction.

Take horror movies. I’ve never seen one all the way through, but even know that when the power goes out in a horror film, bad things happen to the person who goes into the basement to check the circuit breakers. Cabins in the woods are dangerous places to be in horror movies, and clowns are evil. We all know these things. They are tropes of the horror genre.

Although tropes are not necessarily good or bad, they can easily degenerate into clichés—conventions that are overused and become trite.

Take the damsel in distress trope: the convention of a female character (often a princess) being rescued by a male character. This trope is everywhere. Consider the Star Wars films, or games in the Mario and Zelda series, or pretty much any animated film produced by Disney. Princesses Leia, Peach, Zelda, Jasmine and Rapunzel are all bona fide damsels in distress.

(I laughed when, in a recent Legend of Zelda game, Princess Zelda—a character descended from a long line of damsels in distress—told the hero, “I will wait for you here. That’s what princesses have always done. From what I understand, it’s kind of a family tradition.”)

While tropes can easily become clichés, they can also be subverted or inverted in clever ways. What happens when the damsel in distress escapes on her own? What if the damsel rescues the hero?

Defying tropes is a wonderful way to surprise readers. We all expect specific things from certain kinds of stories, and it’s a delightful shock to have our expectations shattered.

We’re all familiar with bad guys. Whatever else they may be, they are… well… bad. The trope is simple. Villains are evil. Bad guys are bad. It’s common sense.

Right?

Quite a number of recent films disagree. Despicable Me and Megamind turn villains into good guys. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog goes a step farther, making a bad guy out of a “good” superhero. Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph stars a video game villain who decides he wants to be the good guy for a change.

These films toy with our preconceived ideas about heroes and villains, blurring the lines between our notions of “good” and “bad” characters. These films are also tons of fun to watch.

If you’re writing a story, ask yourself: “Has this been done before?”

Working tropes into your story isn’t a crime; some tropes are so general there’s practically no escaping them. In many cases, however, a story can be much improved by avoiding—or defying—the expectations set by all the stories that came before.

167. About Writing: Narrative Structure

Two brief personal notes: First, my ever-changing schedule has reverted to normal. For now, I’m back to working during the day and sleeping at night like an ordinary person. Second, my thanks to everyone who took part in Be Nice to Someone on the Internet Day! It’s totally happening again on March 4 next year!

This blog hasn’t had a proper About Writing post since… October. Ouch.

Let’s fix that.

Narrative structure is a phrase I use to describe the way a story is told: a catch-all term for those fun, creative storytelling techniques that make a story different.

There are many ways to tell a story. Most stories begin at the beginning and end at the end. Many stories use only one narrator.

These are great ways to tell a story, but they aren’t the only ones.

Consider the following story: A, B, C. Let’s pretend is the start of the story, chronologically speaking. That makes the middle and the conclusion. My story is linear: it happens in order.

What if I want to tell my story out of order? It could be B, A, C. The reader can be introduced to a story in progress, with earlier events in the narrative revealed through flashbacks and the conclusion at the end. I could even tell my story backwards—C, B, A—as movie director Christopher Nolan (who is famous for films like The Dark Knight and Inception) did in Memento, a disturbing yet excellent film about a man with short-term memory loss.

Let’s consider another aspect of narrative structure: perspective.

One of my favorite narrative tricks is to switch perspectives as I tell a story. Two stories I’ve posted on this blog, The Infinity Manuscript and Zealot: A Christmas Story, give each chapter from the perspective of a different character. As a writer, it’s refreshing to bounce from one perspective to another as the story unfolds.

Things get even more fun when stories use multiple first-person narrators with different voices. A single scene can be described or interpreted in many different ways. It all depends on who does the describing or interpreting!

Then there are side stories. I love side stories.

There’s a word I like in Japanese: gaiden, the romaji form of the word rendered がいでん in hiragana and kana syllabaries. (This is what Wiktionary tells me. I don’t actually know Japanese.) A gaiden is a side story: a narrative that supplements or completes another narrative.

Call it a gaiden or a side story or whatever else you like: it’s awesome.

Orson Scott Card published a novel titled Ender’s Game, in which a boy named Ender is trained by the military to be humanity’s greatest asset in an interstellar war. Fourteen years later, Card published a companion novel: Ender’s Shadow.

The later novel tells roughly the same story as the first, but Ender is no longer the protagonist. The spotlight follows Bean, a supporting character from Ender’s Game. It’s the same story from a completely new perspective: introducing new characters, expanding the role of familiar ones and introducing fascinating subplots.

By intersecting with the original story at key points, Ender’s Shadow greatly improves Ender’s Game while being a fantastic novel on its own.

Here’s a geekier example: one of my favorite games in the Ace Attorney series is the criminally underappreciated Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth. This game takes the two most important characters in the series, Phoenix Wright and his assistant Maya Fey, and relegates them to the briefest of background cameos. Supporting characters Miles Edgeworth and Dick Gumshoe become the protagonists.

The other games in the Ace Attorney series merely lengthen its story. This particular game broadens its story. By giving center stage to secondary characters, the game gives a delightful alternate take on the series… and proves its story is compelling enough to survive without its usual protagonists.

There are all kinds of clever narrative tricks, but I’ll mention just one more.

My all-time favorite episode of my all-time favorite television show is, without question, “Tales of Ba Sing Se” from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Up to that point, nearly every episode of the show follows a predictable pattern: a primary plot following the protagonists interweaves (and sometimes intersects) with one or two secondary plots following the antagonists. This narrative structure is simple and effective—and “Tales of Ba Sing Se” throws it out the window.

“Tales of Ba Sing Se” is a series of vignettes or character sketches. There are no great adventures, just glimpses of the characters’ daily lives. Some of these tales are funny. One character gets caught up in a haiku contest that seems suspiciously like a rap battle. Some of these tales are sad. One character visits his son’s grave to wish him a happy birthday.

Tragic or comic, these tales develop the characters and give the viewer a wonderful break from the plot-heavy episodes that come before. “Tales of Ba Sing Se” is a deep breath before the show plunges into a season finale: a chance to get to know the characters a little better before they’re swept off again by their adventures. I love it.

Innovative narrative structures can make a story refreshingly different, but they can also sabotage it. Not every story needs to be a gaiden told in a nonlinear way from multiple perspectives. Some stories are best told straight. It’s easy for a creative narrative structure to become a distracting gimmick.

In certain cases, however, a clever narrative structure can make a story brilliant.

162. A Day in the Life of a Writer

Today’s post was written by Josh “The Scholar” Hamm. For more great stuff from Josh, check out his previous guest post for this blog!

“I don’t know why you would be reading this. I don’t know why anyone would be reading this.”

That’s the kind of thing I tend to think others would say when they read my work. I’ve been writing for a long time. I still have the first story I wrote when I was six, a story brilliantly titled “A Knight at Night.”

At least that explains why I’ve always had a penchant for bad puns.

But even with all the writing I’ve done, and all the reading, and deciding that I wanted to be a writer since I was fifteen, I am a terrible writer.

Well, at least I tend to think of myself as a terrible writer. I have somewhat of a self-confidence problem regarding my writing. For the longest time, I wouldn’t let anyone read anything I wrote.

I lived in a state of fear that whatever I did would be mocked by others.

I could live with criticism in essays and such, but in creative works, if anything other than my grammar was corrected without helpful advice on how to improve, I felt hurt. Like my work was worthless drivel.

The problem is that I couldn’t accept praise either. I came to a point where I didn’t think that any work of mine is good enough to receive compliments.

But the real reason I was scared of writing, and of being praised for my writing, is because I was completely terrified that I wouldn’t be able to meet people’s expectations.

My solution?

I stopped writing.

Because if I don’t write, then I can’t suck at writing, because I haven’t written anything to be judged.

Yes, of course, absolutely brilliant. I should give myself a pat on the back for that
idea. Genius.

So I can go around thinking in my head, “Yeah, I’m a writer—maybe even a good writer if I try.” But I don’t try because I’m scared of not being a good writer. See the problem here? If I don’t write, I’m a bad writer, but I don’t write because I’m scared of being a bad writer.

The irony is hilarious. I love it.

So I started writing again. I write personal essays, music and movie reviews. I write about culture, society, religion, philosophy. I’ve started two novels (and have twenty thousand words in one) and various short stories. Some of it makes to my blog, some of it doesn’t.

And guess what?

Almost everything I write is awful.

And I’m (almost) completely all right with that.

Writing isn’t something you can just be good at. No one can write a bestselling novel without a bit of practice. Sure, some people have natural talent, but it’s worthless without practice.

Even though lots of authors like to look smart and say they write things on a whim, inspired by their muse on the “viewless wings of poesy,” nine out of ten times it takes months or years of hard work.

Many renowned English poets claim to be inspired by a moment of nature and able to write an entire poem in a single sitting.

Coleridge claimed this for his poem “The Eolian Harp,” but he actually spent twenty-five years editing and refining it. William Butler Yeats published poems and then tinkered with them throughout his life.

Alexander Pope, in an excerpt from “An Essay on Man,” writes:

“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, / As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.”

What I’m trying to say is that you’re not a writer just because you say you are. You actually have to write.

Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it makes you competent. Your first book is not going to be a bestseller, your blog isn’t going to be frequented by millions of people, and you’re not going to be rich and famous, but you may get good enough to make a living doing something you love. That’s my dream: to make a living writing in some form or fashion.

If you share a similar vision, you have to stop being passive and take action: Write, write, read, write, read, and write some more.

It can’t hurt. Unless you get carpal tunnel syndrome. That might hurt a bit.

And here are some words of wisdom from one of my favourite writers, Thomas Merton:

“If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men—you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted that you will wish that you were dead.”

Keep that in mind when you’re writing.

152. Nor Can We Be What We Recall

Today’s post was written by Josh Hamm, also known as The Scholar. (I need a title like that; it’s a pity “The Doctor” is taken.)

“Nor can we be what we recall, / Nor dare we think on what we are.”

I like to quote people in my writing. I like to sprinkle references as if Tinker Bell were a little tipsy and got too free with the magic pixie dust. Maybe it’s a remnant from school, where we have to integrate all sorts of quotations. I distinctly remember a teacher in Grade Twelve telling the class that we should quote authors because anything they’ve said is better than whatever we could up with.

I enjoy it though; it’s an act of sharing secrets that were never meant to be secrets. It’s the same as when you feel the urge to start exchanging YouTube videos, but I prefer to exchange the thoughts of influential authors I’ve read. I tend to drop a few specific names in most of my writing.

People like G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, Frederick Buechner and Marilynne Robinson. I don’t solely quote these guys. I read a lot, so I’ve got a lot of wells to draw from, but these are some of my favorites. Besides, let’s be serious, I’ve never met a Christian who doesn’t profess love for C.S. Lewis.

(I’m pretty sure that when Martin Luther declared Sola Scriptura he included a little caveat for C.S. Lewis.)

But sometimes I disagree with what my teacher said. It seems so defeatist, as if we may as well not try to write anything at all, because it’s all been said, and said better and more profoundly than we could ever hope to write.

Now, I rarely use this word, and I’m sorry to use such strong language, but that is just utter balderdash.

Sure, in most cases these authors have extremely profound phrases and witty turns of speech, but whatever we write has value too. We may never become half the writer that Chesterton or Merton was, but that doesn’t render my voice or your voice useless.

Don’t just outsource your thinking.

Don’t check your brain at the door because you’ve given up and assume that others have already taken your place.

Come up with your own viewpoint, your own writing, and then supplement it with authors you like. Quote those that you love, those authors you’ve read or read about and feel a connection to. Then add your own flavor. Add some meaning, some of yourself into their words and ideas.

But whatever you do, don’t blindly accept what they say or regard everything they’ve written as a work of genius. It’s not.

Remember that other writers do not define what kind of writer you are. I read great novels or great autobiographies, or philosophies, or poetry, and I wonder in jealous despair why I will never write like they do.

Then I’ll remember, it’s not my job to write like them. It’s my job to write like myself.

Don’t feel like your message is diluted just because writers and thinkers before you said similar things in brilliant ways. Share their thoughts if you think it will enhance your message, but remember that’s just what it is at the end of the day—your message.

128. About Writing: The Hardest Lesson

A writer must write—and keep writing—for the right reasons.

That’s it.

That, dear reader, is the hardest lesson I’ve learned about writing.

When a story of mine was rejected not long ago, I was surprised at how upset I felt. What was wrong with it? How could the reviewer not recognize how much time, planning and effort I had poured into my work? Seriously, what was the problem?

After asking these questions, I asked two that mattered.

Why did I submit this story in the first place? Was it to benefit those who read it, or was it merely to impress an audience?

At this point in my deliberations, I removed my glasses, set them down carefully and gave my face a good smack with the palm of my hand.

There is a trap that lurks in the path of every writer, and I had fallen into it for the hundredth time.

My purpose as a writer isn’t to impress my readers, nor is it to puff up my sense of self-importance.

My purpose as a writer is to benefit my readers, and to enjoy writing.

Writing is fun. There’s nothing wrong with that! As any writer can testify, writing can be exhilarating, satisfying, cathartic or simply enjoyable.

Much more importantly, writing has incredible potential for good. Reflections and stories can amuse, teach, comfort, correct or inspire. Writers have the power to make their readers think, smile, laugh, learn or cry.

I sometimes forget these purposes, and write as a way of saying, “Look at me! Look at what I’ve done! Isn’t it great? Seriously, check it out—and while you’re at it, feel free to bask in my majesty.”

That’s not good. In fact, that’s deuced awful. It’s selfish and foolish and vain. It’s a trap!

Writing merely to impress an audience isn’t good, but it has one benefit—incentive for the writer. A desire for praise and popularity is a strong motivator! It’s easy to write for the wrong reasons, and dashed hard to write for the right ones.

Whatever your purpose as a writer, don’t lose sight of it. Remember why you write, and never forget two important facts.

It is not about you.

It is about everyone else.

Yes, these lessons have become kind of a motif on this blog. They’re important ones, honestly.

117. How to Kill Off Fictional Characters

Be ye warned: Here there be spoilers; specifically, plot details for Radiant Historia, the Harry Potter books and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Every fiction writer, no matter how inexperienced, possesses an ability with the potential to make readers rejoice or rage or weep. Although this ability can be powerful, too many writers fail to use it well.

Fiction writers can kill off their characters.

I’m currently playing Radiant Historia, a delightfully well-crafted RPG for the Nintendo DS. The story is set in a fantasy world in which two nations are at war over their continent’s dwindling supply of fertile land. Stocke, a secret agent, is given the task of saving the world using a magical book called the White Chronicle.

Early on, Stocke meets a young soldier named Kiel who hero-worships him. Although insecure, overenthusiastic and awkward, Kiel longs to serve his country and become a hero like Stocke.

Kiel, Stocke and their companion Rosch are suddenly plunged into a crisis. Rosch is critically injured. Enemy soldiers are patrolling the area, and it’s only a matter of time before Stocke and his companions are found and executed on the spot.

After hesitating for a moment, Kiel proclaims, “I’ll go and draw their attention!” Stocke objects, offering himself as a decoy in order to let Rosch and Kiel escape. Rosch insists they save themselves and leave him to die.

Kiel responds by shouting: “Sergeant Stocke! Thank you for everything!”

Then he’s gone.

In the end, Stocke and Rosch escape to safety. Kiel is surrounded by enemy soldiers and brutally executed.

I was staggered. Kiel was dead. The story fooled me into thinking he was just a background character, and then ended his life in a scene that made me want to cry.

That, dear reader, is how to kill a fictional character.

In the Harry Potter books, Dumbledore seems invincible, untouchable, immortal. He’s too good to die. He dies.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson with all his heart and soul. When Tom is convicted, Atticus resolves to appeal the sentence. He never has the chance. Tom makes a break from prison and is gunned down. Just like that, Tom Robinson, whom Atticus has spent the entire novel trying to save, is dead.

I’m not an expert when it comes to murdering characters in fiction. I kill off too many people in my novel—and spare one or two characters that probably should have died—but there is at least one death that matters. Those who’ve read The Trials of Lance Eliot know exactly to what I’m referring. One character dies who does not deserve to die.

Killing off characters should not be done lightly. If too many characters are killed, the reader is desensitized to death. Consider action films, in which dozens or hundreds of people are killed (in highly stylized and carefully choreographed scenes) and nobody cares.

Let me give just one more example of how to kill off characters.

There is an excellent anime called Trigun featuring Vash the Stampede (whose beaming face has already been featured on this blog). Despite his unmatched skill as a gunslinger, Vash is a pacifist. He resolves conflicts without killing anybody. When faced with two violent solutions to a problem, he invents a peaceful third solution.

One of the best things about Trigun is how Vash slowly unravels as he witnesses the carnage around him. People die. Lots of people die. Trigun has just as many fights as any action movie. For Vash, however, every casualty is a tragedy. Every death tears him apart. In the end, Trigun is a story about Vash coming to terms with himself and the violent world in which he lives.

When watching Trigun, the viewer comes to care about the victims, even the nameless background characters, because Vash does. He reminds the viewer that each death matters.

Asleep yet? No? Good. Let’s get practical.

Characters should not be killed off lightly

Don’t kill off a character just because you can. Death matters in real life. It should matter in fiction.

Don’t kill off too many undeveloped characters

Let’s face it. Nobody cares about the minor characters. Kill them off when the plot requires it, but don’t get too carried away. Deaths lose their emotional impact if they happen too often. When possible, save it for characters that matter.

The death of characters works well when it’s totally unexpected—or when it’s totally expected

Consider the examples of Kiel and Dumbledore. Part of what makes their deaths so powerful is that they’re unexpected. They happen suddenly, without much warning. Most players and readers are unprepared for them.

At the same time, however, foreshadowing can be a great way to make readers feel for a character. We feel pity when we’re sure a good character is going to die. A doomed character’s actions are poignant, and that character’s death is more moving when it comes.

What writers should avoid is killing off people whom readers suspect might die simply for being a certain type of character. If an obnoxious jerk is featured early in a detective story, for example, he often turns out to be the murder victim.

Quick, brutal deaths work well

There are enough slow, overdramatic deaths in fiction. People don’t usually die in the arms of loved ones after uttering beautiful last words. It’s a mistake to make every death in fiction emotionally satisfying. In real life, how many are?

Killing off minor characters can be a good way to develop major characters

When a military officer executes a civilian for stepping on his toe, we might not be moved by the death of the civilian—but you can bet we learn something about the military officer.

What’s your advice for killing off fictional characters? Let us know in the comments!

111. About Writing: Theme

All great works of fiction have one thing in common.

What is that, you ask?

They mean something.

Granted, most stories mean something whether the storyteller intends to convey meaning or not. A cheesy romantic novel may be awful, but it still expresses something—probably something shallow and clichéd—about romance.

A clever reader can sometimes discern meaning in a bad story, but it’s not very rewarding. It’s like sifting through a ton of sand to find an ounce of gold dust.

Good stories are different. Finding meaning in good stories can be exciting and satisfying, like digging into a cave to find heaps of dazzling jewels.

From Aesop to Jesus Christ, great storytellers have used stories to teach powerful lessons. However, storytellers must use caution and discernment when trying to convey ideas. Stories must not become propaganda. Storytellers must not be preachy. After all, one of the most important rules of writing is to show, not simply to tell.

What are themes?

A theme is a thread or pattern of meaning in a story. If that definition sounds vague, it’s because it is! Themes can be highly subjective. A reader might discern themes in a story that the storyteller never imagined. Consider the hundreds of interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays! Many good storytellers, however, are intentional in weaving themes into their work.

Let’s get practical. I want to write a story about, say, a young man named Socrates going on a blind date. How can I figure out the theme of the story? Where do I begin?

There are several ways to figure out themes. In this blog post, I’ll mention two of the most common.

The first is to use a particular theme (or several themes) as a starting point, and write the story around it. Let’s choose a theme for Socrates and his blind date. Destiny. That’s a good one. As I write the story, I’ll try to make it consistent with the theme I’ve chosen. Soc’s destiny might be to fall in love at first sight, or possibly to have the worst night of his life. Either way, his destiny—not his choices—must guide his blind date.

Personally, I don’t like this approach to figuring out themes. It seems too technical.

I prefer the second approach, which is simply to write the story and figure out its theme afterward. How can a storyteller know a story’s theme until the story is written?

Once the storyteller has discerned themes in his story, he can go back and revise the story to develop those themes. In the case of our friend Socrates, I’ll write his story and let it go wherever it wants to go. There will be time enough once his story is written to discover what it’s about.

I’ll use another example, this time from my novel. When I began writing The Trials of Lance Eliot long ago, I had no intention of giving it any kind of meaning. My only intention was to write a fantasy with swords and dragons and stuff.

As I worked on the novel, however, themes crept in, ninja-like, and wove themselves stealthily into the story. Instead of ignoring them or trying to uproot them, I decided to develop them. It was a good decision. Emphasizing existing themes was much, much easier than forcing the story to fit themes chosen arbitrarily.

Every good story means something. If you’re a storyteller, the meaning of your story is mostly up to you. Make sure it matters!

102. About Writing: Knowing How Language Works

There’s more to writing than understanding the mechanics of language. Grammar and spelling are no substitute for imagination, humor or a really good story.

All the same, serious writers should make an effort to understand their language. Only naïve writers think spelling, grammar and usage aren’t important. Even writers who use language inventively should know the rules before they break them!

Here are a few miscellaneous pieces of advice about spelling, grammar and proper usage of the English language.

Will and shall mean different things

Knowing the difference between will and shall could save your life.

Well, not really, but my grammar professor in college once told a story that illustrates the importance of understanding the difference between will and shall.

Two men fell into a swift river. The first man shouted, “Nobody will save me! I shall drown!” The bystanders immediately threw him a rope and rescued him. The second man shouted, “Nobody shall save me! I will drown!” The bystanders did nothing, and he drowned.

In the first person, will indicates intention and shall indicates inevitability. If I say, “I will drink coffee,” I mean, “It is my intention to drink coffee.” If I say, “I shall die someday,” I mean, “I’m going to die someday whether I like it or not.”

This pattern is reversed in the second and third persons. In the second and third persons, shall indicates intention and will indicates inevitability. If I say, “You shall bring me some coffee,” I’m issuing a command. If I say, “You will die someday,” I’m simply stating a fact.

According to these patterns, the first man who fell into the river expressed his fear that no one would save him, and the second man stated his intention to drown without anyone’s interference.

Remember the difference between will and shall. It might save your life someday.

Never, never, never use alot

It’s two words: a lot. You don’t use abunch, ahouse, acoffeecup or atypewritermonkey. Please, for the love of language, don’t use alot.

It’s improper to split infinitives

What is an infinitive, and why shouldn’t we split it?

To put it simply, an infinitive is a form of a verb consisting of to followed by the present tense of the verb: to eat, to drink, to be (or not to be) and so on.

It’s messy to split infinitives—that is, to insinuate other words into infinitive phrases. Consider the infinitive to drink in the phrase “to drink coffee happily.” I split the infinitive by moving the adverb happily into the middle of the infinitive phrase: “to happily drink coffee.”

Why is it improper to split infinitives? The grammatical rule was adapted into English from Latin, and it’s actually useless. There’s no practical, logical reason not to split infinitives. Some writers, even professional writers, split infinitives all the time.

However, it’s still grammatically proper not to split infinitives. (Notice I wrote “not to split infinitives” instead of “to not split infinitives.”) If you’re composing a formal essay—or writing dialogue for an educated character—it helps to be as grammatical as possible!

It’s improper to split phrasal verbs, but pronouns provide an exception

First infinitives and now phrasal verbs. Why can’t I split things? I want to split things!

A phrasal verb is simply a verb consisting of a phrase instead of a single word. Pick up is a good example. I can “pick up a phone,” but I can’t “pick a phone” or “up a phone.” The verb requires both words to retain its meaning.

It’s incorrect to split up a phrasal verb. I can “pick up a phone,” but I can’t “pick a phone up.”

However—and this is where it gets tricky—pronouns are an exception to the rule. A phrasal verb can be split by a pronoun. Let’s use pick up once more as an example. I can “pick you up from work,” but I can’t “pick up you from work.”

I know, it’s complicated. Welcome to the English language.

All right is more correct than alright

All right is standard. Alright is considered nonstandard and should be used sparingly.

Where indicates place, and in which indicates subject

Where describes a place. “I went to Ecuador, where I drank coffee.” Ecuador is a place.

In which describes a subject. “Going to Ecuador is a circumstance in which I will drink coffee.”

I do not say “a circumstance where I will drink coffee.” A circumstance is not a place. It’s equally incorrect to say, “a case where someone died” or “a situation where I panicked.” Cases and situations are not places. It should be “a case in which someone died” or “a situation in which I panicked.”

Don’t use emoticons, texting lingo, Internet slang or nonstandard abbreviations in formal writing

’Nuff said.

Be wary of common errors

Know the difference between to, too and two, and between theretheir and they’re, and between its and it’s. Common errors like these are the fleas that suck out a writer’s lifeblood. (Yes, that was a terrible metaphor, but I’m trying to make a point.)

Things are not always written the way they sound

Don’t ever use of as a verb instead of have: I can write, “I would have drunk coffee,” but I shouldn’t write, “I would of drunk coffee.” It’s not standard to use old fashion as an adjective: I can write, “Typewriters are old-fashioned,” but I shouldn’t write, “Typewriters are old fashion.” The correct way of writing something isn’t always the way it sounds phonetically.

And break the rules when you need to

Prepositions are sometimes the best things to end sentences with. And sentence fragments can be useful.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Why do spelling, grammar and usage matter?

First, readers are quick to dismiss poor writing. A writer’s ideas or stories may be truly amazing, but many readers won’t bother reading them if they’re presented poorly. Writers owe it to their readers to give them their best possible work.

Second, understanding language can be helpful in writing fiction. One character might break all rules of grammar every time he opens his mouth, and another character might use language perfectly. So much can be done to develop a character using the mechanics of language.

Grammar and spelling and usage aren’t as much fun as, say, plot or setting or characterization, but they’re just as important.

No matter how talented a musician might be, her music won’t sound good if her instruments are out of tune. No matter how gifted a writer might be, his writing won’t succeed if his understanding of language is weak.

Even for artists, technical stuff matters.

93. About Writing: Setting

Setting is one of the most important elements of a story. Besides supporting plot and characterization, it anchors fiction in reality.

The Lord of the Rings takes place in Middle Earth, an imaginary world full of magic and monsters, but Tolkien describes its woods and fields so vividly that the fantastical story becomes believable. In the case of more realistic fictions, the setting does even more to make the story seem true.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about creating settings.

Settings must be consistent

If you introduce details about a setting, stick to those details. Inconsistent settings are a jarring reminder to the readers that the story they’re reading is made up.

Know your setting

As mentioned before, The Lord of the Rings has an amazing setting. Tolkien didn’t just write a story. He created a world. For decades, he worked out every detail of Middle Earth, devising languages, drawing maps, creating numerous cultures and inventing tens of thousands of years of history, including minor touches like legends and genealogies.

You don’t have to be as meticulous as Tolkien, of course, but he sets a fantastic example to follow. Your story may depict only a few scenes within a larger setting, but you should have some idea of what’s going on beyond them. There’s a problem when the storyteller knows no more about the setting than the reader.

Research your setting

I hate research. One of the reasons I enjoy writing fantasy is that I get to make up stuff instead of confirming every background detail. Even for fantasy writers, however, research is important. How tall are oak trees? What does it take to forge a sword? If real-life details aren’t believable, imaginary ones won’t be. For writers of historical or literary fiction, research is even more imperative. Every inaccuracy distracts from the story.

Consider drawing a map

Tolkien was a master of setting, which is why I’m using his work to illustrate so many of my points. (I’m also using him as an example because he is awesome.) I once read somewhere that Tolkien offered this advice to writers: When creating a story, draw a map. It doesn’t have to be an artistic masterpiece. Readers may never see them, yet maps are invaluable because they help writers keep track of details.

For my novel, The Trials of Lance Eliot, I sketched a rough map, which my old man recently transformed into this work of art:

I hope the map will intrigue readers and allow them to visualize the country described in the novel. In the end, however, I created this map for my own benefit. It was important for me to know how long it would take a person to travel between certain locations, and essential to know the relation of towns and landmarks to each other.

Convey more than visual details

When you step onto a farm, what are your first impressions? Yes, you might notice the red barns or the silos glinting in the sunshine, but the first things you notice are probably the smells: fresh earth, manure, grain, wood smoke or other scents. When writers describe scenes using only visual details, they’re giving a picture. However, when writers use all five senses, they’re conveying more than a picture—they’re conveying an experience.

Give impressions, not descriptions

There are writers (like Tolkien) whose long descriptions are interesting enough to be worth reading, but in most cases fewer details are best. In describing a scene, choose the most important and striking details. (The same principle applies to describing characters.) Your reader usually needs impressions, not exhaustive descriptions. Give your readers the significant details, and their imaginations will fill in the blanks.

The analogy is a little clichéd, but if writing a story is like building a house, the setting is the foundation. In a way, every other element of the story depends on it.

Do you have any advice for creating settings for stories? Let us know in the comments!