Break Your Horse’s Legs!

Posted on 01/05/2010


Break your horse’s legs!


When I first got the notion of writing a real story, I thought I would sit down and just start—and I did—and it sucked.

I actually wrote my first couple of stories when I was in high school, but I don’t count those. I start counting with my epic fantasy, The Swords of Saddig. (Horrible name, I know!)  I renamed it to the Swords of Chaos later after about 50 revisions of book one and 20 of book two and 3 or so of book three.

But during these revisions, I learned a few things, and have continued to learn things as I go. We all do. Here are some things that I have figured out so far. Some of these (hell, most) will probably be pretty simplistic to most people, and some of them were quick lessons, some were harder—as in, I am still wrestling with them.

Here, in something close to the order I learned them, are my items.

Lets versus let’s

I used to write, “Lets go!”  Which really doesn’t make much sense. Lets is: John lets his butt itch when he’s sleeping—and let’s is, “Let us”  Simple. But I had no clue in the beginning.

Towards versus toward

One of my original critique partners used to hammer my ass over this one.  Thank God MS Word has a find and replace function.  You see, towards, while correct, is British English. Toward is standard American English. Flip open any novel today, and you will see TOWARD.

Break your horse’s legs

This one was from a scene where I had a horse fall through the roof of an underground house…and he broke no legs from the ten foot drop.  My crit partner read it and marked the hell out of it. What does this one mean? It means, watch your follow through. If you’ve ever bowled, you know that your follow through is a very important part of your swing.  With writing it’s even more important. You can’t have two characters slogging through a sewage tunnel and have one lift the other above his head without disgusting sewage dripping all over the dude on the bottom.

Don’t have your characters go eat dinner

This one really pissed me off in a manuscript I read.  Two lead characters finally discovered a KEY part of the story, something that leads them to the villain…and they look at each decide to GO EAT DINNER then…so they go eat dinner, meet some people one of the other guys knows, get into some long arduous discussions about life, and start flirting.  I was like, ”WTF?! GET BACK TO THE STORY!!!”  What did I learn? Don’t put in scenes for the sake of putting them in. HAVE A PURPOSE FOR EVERY SCENE and when the action starts to ramp up, don’t sidetrack the story.  When that ball starts to roll downhill to your Climactic Scene, don’t stop it from rolling, and push it to the side. Let that thing keep rolling and building up speed.

Passive voice

Yeah, we all know this one. Apparently this was one of my most serious problems when I began, and I still fight it. I go through my manuscripts and hunt for this stuff. Sure, you can have some passive voice, but it should be kept at a minimum. I’m not going to go in passive versus active verbs. There’s no need here, there are much better places to teach that. I am getting better at it though. I usually catch myself AS I am writing it and make the change.

Exposition through dialogue

This one is easy for me to do now, but I used to do it all the time.  This is basically when you tell us the story through people talking.  “This reminds me of your affair ten years ago,” Mary said. “Yes, it was a hard time for us,” John said.  “Your affair really ripped the heart out of our marriage.”  Really?   No.  People don’t talk like that and they don’t say things that both parties (and the reader) already know.

Was +ing

This one is more personal preference than a standard rule. I started finding this when I looked for passive voice in my manuscripts. For instance: John was listening to the radio as Harry was pulling out his gun.  The loss of blood was causing her to get woozy.  He was sewing her up. The farmer was running toward them.   Those types of sentences bug the crap out of me. Like I said, personal preference. I much prefer: John listened to the radio as Harry pulled out his gun. (I could put up with John was listening, but not the was pulling out the gun) The loss of blood caused her to get woozy. He sewed her up. The farmer ran toward them.  I hate that was +ing stuff. I’m sure there’s some rule somewhere about this, but I’m not really a rules dude. I’ve learned the basics, but I am far from being an expert. (Like Ms. Lamb!)

A scene is conflict

This one took me a very long time to get down, simply because I didn’t know it. (I didn’t know what I didn’t know!) If you don’t have conflict, you really don’t have a scene. Sure you need scenes that set up later scenes that may not have conflict in them, but you simply must have conflict in some fashion in every scene. It doesn’t have to be violent blood-letting, but it needs to be there. Even minor conflict is good. Bob Mayer once told me he had a scene where there was no conflict, so he added an ancillary character whose only job was to add conflict to the scene. That’s what I do now. If I can’t find conflict in a scene, I determine a way to add some. If that’s characters arguing, a waiter being a dick, whatever.  If you have a scene, and there is no conflict, add conflict, or remove the scene. Easy.

Tension in every scene

Learned this from Donald Maass.  He talks about micro-tension, which is tension in every paragraph.  You must have some measure of tension in every scene, no matter what. What is tension? Hmm….How about this for an example: in the book Lonesome Dove, Call and Gus are always at odds, but they never outright fight. They argue, and they bicker between each other adding some measure of tension. It’s not always in your face, but you feel it. Another example was There Will Be Blood. Daniel Day Lewis as Daniel Plainview added tension to every single scene in that movie. Just by being on the cusp of going ballistic every time he is on the screen. It was tension, and a lot of it.  Also, if you want to know how to do it in a novel, try reading the first Dresden Files by Jim Butcher…brilliant. He never lets up with the tension in the whole book. It’s always a page-turner.  Dean Koontz does the same thing in his book (well, a few of his books!) The Husband.  He starts off fast, and never lets his foot up off the pedal. 

Break your entire story into one sentence

This is what Bob Mayer calls your “Original Idea”. It’s the very first thought you had about this story.  I have written an entire blog piece on this so search it down. Suffice it say, if you can’t tell what your story is about in one sentence, you are prolly having problems writing the damn thing and are lost.

And that’s it. Then things I’ve learned since I started writing 9 years ago. It’s been a long process, and I still have mountains of more stuff to learn, but these are the things I can still recall “learning” from someone else and thinking about it when I read and write.  Any things you’ve learned that you still keep top-of-mind when revising or writing?  Any corrections to what I wrote above? Tell me, fools!

Posted in: Writing