I have a blog interview at Natasha Larry Books. Check it out by clicking here!
Where possible, write in the active voice. The active voice occurs when the subject PERFORMS an action; for instance, “A tornado toppled Uncle Frank’s barn.” In contrast to the active voice, the passive voice occurs when the subject RECEIVES an action; for instance, “Uncle Frank’s barn was toppled by a tornado.”
The example written in the active voice is shorter (by two words), simpler, and more on point. It reads better, and it moves the scene at a faster pace.
Is it “wrong” to write in the passive voice? Not always. While it doesn’t read as well as the active voice, and it often necessitates more words to convey a thought, the passive voice still isn’t literary taboo–you just need to watch it carefully. Is the passive voice ever the “correct” approach to a piece? Yes. It’s good for achieving effect and emphasis; for example, to make sure that a particular word receives the greatest emphasis (by forcing it to the end of the sentence).
When it doubt, go with the active voice. It tightens your prose, gives it more punch, and moves your story along.
Today is World Book Day! Celebrate by reading a good paperback, reading a good eBook, hugging an author, or donating to your local library!
But first…. Ready for fright season? Get your copy of “Ghostly Cries From Dixie,” TODAY! Kindle and paperback editions available. Click here! Pleasant dreams.
Checking my stats this evening, I noticed someone had found my site by using the search term, “how to write a ghost story.” How to write a ghost story? I’m flattered, indeed, but I’ve yet to offer any insight into writing about things that go bump in the night. Until now.
What is a ghost story? A story involving a character(s) of a ghostly, paranormal nature? A story about a ghost that swipes cookies from the kitchen, wakes you up, and sucks all the energy from your body while regurgitating said cookies? Could a ghost story be a journalistic approach to solving, or trying to explain, a haunting? I suppose it could be any of the above, but I deal only with the latter, the journalistic approach. Neither a believer nor a skeptic, my unbiased approach to a haunting entails digging up lots of information (records), analyzing the information to separate fact from hocus-pocus, and presenting my findings–anything factual or noteworthy–to my readers.
Assuming I’ve completed a five-day trip to a haunted location 1000 miles away, and analyzed my findings, the example below is how I write the story. The example is NOT a perfect (edited) story. It flowed from the top of my head to my fingers, and then to my keyboard, as I thought it up. The example is based on a historic hurricane, but I know neither the date nor the particulars–I only know it happened at one of my favorite places. I borrowed the example’s main character from my book, Ghostly Cries From Dixie, changing her name from Marie LaVeau to Madame Treme’. Without further ado, here’s how I write a ghost story.
The Intro sometimes includes a ghostly hint before transitioning into the main story. By “story,” I mean the story of a real-life tragedy that caused the haunting. Here is an intro with a hint:
For years, people have heard the thunder of Voodoo drums and seen scantily-dressed characters dancing along the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. The eerie thumps and fervent apparitions fade into the early morning fog when approached, leaving witnesses terrified and searching for answers.
Other times, the intro goes straight into the story (no intro):
For over fifty years, Madame Treme’ led exotic Voodoo rituals involving animal sacrifices, drunken orgies, live boas along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. These rituals would begin around 10 o’clock at night and last until daybreak.
The Tragedy (the reason for a haunting)
Ok, let’s assume we’ve done the intro and a three-page story, thus far. Now it’s time to seal the story with a tragedy:
Just before daybreak on a sweltry October morning, Madame Treme’ and her followers experienced what they thought were the gods. Thunder boomed and roared, the howling wind picked up, and lightning crackled in the usually dark sky. Weather warning systems didn’t exist in 1835; people were left to fend for themselves when they saw bad weather approaching. At night, there was no way to tell how bad an approaching front would be, until it was too late. The Voodoo ritual grew more intense as sheets of rain swept the now whitecapping lake and trees buckled. Within five minutes, a powerful hurricane changed the face of Lake Pontchartrain forever and buried Madame Treme’ and her followers in the lake’s murky depths.
The Transition (get your spook on)
Tragedy accomplished. Boo hoo. Now, let’s transition to the paranormal and create a ghost story:
Long lost, but not forgotten, Madame Treme’ was the most notorious Voodoo queen in Louisiana history. Men loved her, women coveted her, and the organized clergy cursed her. She weilded sceptre over those who followed her, sacrificing to the Loa, manipulating the human psyche, and destroying those who dared to cross her. And now, almost 180 years later, Madame Treme’ still wields her sceptre, more forcefully than ever, from her watery grave!
The Evidence (why we think there’s a ghost)
Paranormal transition accomplished. Now that we’ve got our spook on, we need to provide evidence to back our claim.
Anglers frequently report seeing an older Creole woman wandering the shores of Lake Pontchartrain at daybreak. When spoken to, she smiles and quickly turns in the opposite direction, then disappears. In 1998, two college students who had camped in the woods near the lake reported hearing Voodoo drums and seeing people dressed in Voodoo attire late one night. The figures danced near the shore and wailed repeatedly. The drum’s beat grew softer over the course of five minutes, and the mysterious revelers faded into the fog.
That’s not much evidence. For a real story in a book, you will need to interview more people. Make sure to get their names and make them sign releases, too. Now we need to present possible theories:
Some say the anglers and campers were smoking crack, and they hallucinated. A local scientist says the mysterous dancing figures, which are hard to discern at night, represent concentrations of methane gas, and that the drumbeats are the rumbling of nearby towboat engines. However, most people in the hamlet of Port Manchac feel the eerie sounds and apparitions are none other than Madame Treme’ and her followers, trapped in the worst hurricane on record, and trying to complete their rituals.
Despite many oft-conflicting theories and generalizations, one thing is certain. Something is wrong, very wrong, on the shore of Lake Ponchartrain. Is it evil? Is it religious? Will it hurt you? Your children? Should you dare to find out for yourself, make sure to carry a cross and watch our back.
And finally, if you’d like to see detailed examples–REAL ghost stories–you can snag a copy of Ghostly Cries From Dixie at Amazon for only $2.99 (Winter Special).
Writing tip #1: Avoid verb forms of “to be,” if possible. Am, is, are, was, and were –the most useless words in a writer’s toolbox. Why? Because 1) they usually aren’t necessary for conveying your message, and 2) removing them usually renders their accompanying qualifiers and modifiers unnecessary. When you find these potential problem-words, try removing them and rewording the sentence. You’ll often end up with a shorter, punchier sentence. Say twice as much, but with fewer words.
Writing Tip #2: To emphasize a word, place it at the beginning or end of a sentence. That’s where words stand out the most. Words or phrases of little importance should be placed mid-sentence, if possible. Also, place a paragraph’s most important sentence at the beginning or the end of the paragraph. When writing, don’t forget about emphasis.
Writing Tip #3: Go on a “which hunt.” Read this sentence: “The car, which had big wheels and a loud, roaring muffler, rolled past me.” Horrible. Now, let’s try this: “The big-wheeled car roared past me.” See there? By removing that nasty “which,” and thinking creatively, I cut more than half the sentence–eight words–without distorting its meaning. If you can remove “which” without distorting a sentence’s meaning, then remove it! If outright removal won’t work, consider using “that” instead of “which.” That uses fewer letters, and it rarely requires a preceding comma, unlike that nasty old which.
From Turkey Creek – A Memoir
The Armand Press (2013 )
“Often hysterically funny, sometimes wrenching, Fitzhugh’s straight-shooting memoir is laced with fine storytelling, sharp wit, and acute observations of life in rural Tennessee. He remembers vividly what it felt like to be a kid: the pleasure of being outdoors; the unquestioned bonds of a friendship; and the oddness of many of the things adults do.”
–Pre-publication Review, 2012
From Turkey Creek – A Memoir is scheduled for release in late 2013. Below is the book’s introductory chapter:
I N T R O D U C T I O N
If you look at a map of Tennessee, there is, on Kentucky Lake’s east bank, north of Waverly and east of Big Sandy, a little bay called Turkey Creek. Don’t fret if you can’t find it; even some locals have trouble finding the place. Look for the little cove with a tiny island at its mouth. That’s Turkey Creek.
Originating in the hills of northwest Humphreys County, Turkey Creek snakes through eight miles of hickory forests, manure-laden pastures, and lowland thickets before widening and emptying into Kentucky Lake. At its mouth, Turkey Creek is nearly a half-mile wide.
The name “Turkey Creek” describes not only a rolling stream of minnows, crayfish, and cow poop, but also the countryside through which it flows—and any location within, say, eight miles of the creek. When someone says, “I live at Turkey Creek,” they could live anywhere in northwestern Humphreys County. People describe area roads in much the same way. Most are simply called, “Turkey Creek Road.” It’s easier that way.
Up until the last decade, when a modern marina and scores of new cabins sprang up, Turkey Creek rarely changed. In 1950, a lonely dirt road led past a campground and a fishing resort, then around a sharp curve at the creek’s mouth, and to a handful of cabins fronting Kentucky Lake. In 1960, the same dirt road led past the same campground and fishing resort, around the same sharp curve, and to the same lakefront cabins, and in 1970, and 1980, and so on. The number of cabins near the lake remained constant for many years, but the structures changed often; old cabins fell down and new cabins took their places. What was constant was always changing.
I grew up in two of those cabins. Turkey Creek is where I shot my first fish, snagged my first possum, spewed my first obscenity, kissed my first girl, and savagely attacked a family of tame ducks. Along the way, I learned the difference between a largemouth bass and a buglemouth bass, a water snake and a water moccasin, a pint of whiskey and a pint of moonshine, deer hunting and dear hunting, and a knot and a concussion. This was from the late-1960s until 1980.
During that period, Turkey Creek was more than simply a place for wild-eyed young boys to grow up. Turkey Creek was a place where friendships were forged, enemies were forgiven, lessons were learned, and where amazing things unfolded just beneath the surface of everyday life. Turkey Creek will always be special to me; it was my life’s starting point and the source of my fondest memories.
There has never been an official source of information about Turkey Creek during that period, perhaps because so few people are left to tell about it; some have moved away, others have moved on. Moreover, no sane person would want to read about Turkey Creek, much less write about it. Until now.
The book that follows is the true story of a young boy growing up at Turkey Creek, written by that same boy, years later. It is a memoir, a sigh of gratitude, a way of returning.” ♦
eBooks have really taken off over the past few years, with more becoming available each day. Many traditional bookstores have closed their doors, and more closures are on the horizon. This leads me to ask two questions:
- For readers: Do you still purchase paperbacks? Do you see yourself purchasing paperbacks in two years? If so, why?
- For authors: If you write eBooks, do you also publish paperback editions of your eBooks? If you write paperbacks, do you see yourself still writing paperbacks in two years? If so, why?
I’ll go first. I love the convenience, feel and smell of a paperback. I read digital and paper, but I prefer paper–and I’ll still read paperbacks in two years, even if I have to buy them at antique stores. As an author, I shoot for paperbacks first, followed by eBook editions of my paperbacks. I feel it’s important to cover all bases, and there is still a market for paperbacks. Plus, I like to do signings; you can’t sign and personalize an eBook (yet).
What are YOUR thoughts?
My approach to editing is likely considered strange by most accounts. I perform my biggest, most radical revisions during my second draft, and fine tune them even more during my third, fourth, and fifth drafts. My writing’s “holy grail,” however, comes in the form of a checklist that I use during my second draft.
First things first. My first draft entails committing my thoughts to paper (or digital media). I’m not concerned with editing; I focus on documenting my thoughts. My first drafts usually range from 400 to 500 pages, and my second drafts range from 200 to 300 pages. You read that correctly! For my second draft, I whip out my machete and cut 200 pages on average–and sometimes more, when I can get away with it.
To me, writing is 30 percent committing to paper (or digital media) and 70 percent revising what I’ve committed. Revision involves not only finding the right words or combinations of words, but also getting the words “right”–the right time, place, order, tone, and context. When you find the right words and get them right, you achieve, among other things, efficiency–saying more with fewer words. Give your readers a bang for their buck by giving your writing a bang for your words. The all-important second draft, where I mercilessly excise 200 or more pages of fluff, is where my quest for efficiency begins.
Writing my second draft–a revision of my first draft–entails cutting unneeded chapters, paragraphs, characters, and scenes–the usual big picture things–and “tightening up” anything that survived the blade of my ruthless machete. This refinement is my first “technical edit,” where scenes become clearer, conversations more realistic, characters more human, and so on.
Words, paragraphs, and phrases that survived my machete’s first pass did so because they contribute to the story, and not because they’re written correctly. Regardless of how well a scene, sentence, or paragraph fits into a story, attention is often still needed at the technical level. Many writers defer the technical edit until their third or fourth draft, but a story that’s readable and relatively free of clutter makes later drafts easier to work with–for me, at least.
Once I’ve performed the customary “big picture” revisions, I use the following technical checklist to help me tighten up my writing:
- Does the paragraph, as written, move the story forward?
- Does it hold the reader’s attention?
- Does it express a complete thought?
- Are transitional elements present near the beginning and end of the paragraph?
- Are words or ideas requiring emphasis placed at or near the beginning or end of a sentence or paragraph? Is the paragraph’s most important point made at the end of the paragraph?
- Have I removed all instances of the “being” verbs (am, is, are, was, were) that I possibly can–and perhaps even more?
- Do sentences contain strong, concrete nouns with precise action verbs nearby?
- Are my sentence lengths varied?
- Does my story contain unnecessary instances of the passive voice?
- Have I used clauses to correctly promote and subordinate ideas contained in complex and compound sentences?
- Is dialog tagged and punctuated properly? Is it realistic?
- Do opportunities exist for parallel sentence structure? Assonance? Alliteration? …and all those other writing tricks? …without overdoing it?
That’s a fair sampling of my checklist. If I had to pick the most important points, I’d go with “verbs of being” and “passive voice.” More on those later if anyone’s interested in my take. Hopefully, my checklist will help you add some bang and kick to your writing.
Thanks, and take care………. pf
I found Mark Coker’s predictions interesting, but not surprising. I would encourage other writers–especially independents who produce eBooks–to read the article and take heed. Mark’s predictions usually end up being right on the money. Click the title of this post to read the article.
Ok. So it’s not really a web site in the strictest sense. It’s a blog with a web site address! From here on out, the official Pat Fitzhugh “web site,” also known as patfitzhugh.com, will be this WordPress blog.
“A blog?” you ask. Yep. I’ve run web sites since the early 1990s, when the World Wide Web first emerged, and I’ve learned a few things along the way. Web sites are great for many things, as are blogs, but the latter is easier to update and maintain than the former. Today’s tech delicacies, such as tag clouds, bookmarking sites, RSS, and the whole social media craze, add speed, relevance, notoriety, and credibility to any topic people find interesting. When that happens, they share it with their friends, then their friends share it, and so on. Blogging and social media are today’s digital incarnation of yesteryear’s old-fashioned “word-of mouth” network. Blogging enables me to better interact with my readers–the people I write for.
One of my earlier web sites, originally created around 1994 and now in its tenth incarnation, “bellwitch.org,” isn’t going anywhere. In fact, I’ve been gutting it out and optimizing it. The site will undergo the biggest overhaul (and promotion) of its lifetime, beginning in March of 2013.
I hope you enjoy visiting patfitzhugh.com and reading the blog. Make sure to check the accompanying pages, too. You’ll find current news, descriptions of the books I’ve written, my biography (for the nosy at heart), and a FAQ page.
Take Care …… pf