Showing posts with label novel-writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label novel-writing. Show all posts

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Writing Tips

(My apologies for taking so long between posts, but honestly I've been busy -- among other things getting diagnosed with diabetes as well as working on End Of The Line.  Mea culpa.)

A dear friend and I ended up discussing writing the other day.  She enjoys my blogs (here and at  More she recently got back into writing herself.  Given that she asked, I offered some "tricks of the trade" and she suggested I write them down.  So...

Let me begin with acknowledging loads and loads of writers have their own such tricks.  Many would probably not agree with mine at all.  Or approve of some, disapprove of others.  Fine.  Kindly take what follows as advice only -- consider what I say, then accept or dismiss as you see fit.

First, and this one I see violated time and time again, avoid the passive voice.  Read nearly any textbook, business report or form letter for examples of the passive voice.  Ditto encyclopedia entries, legal documents of nearly any kind, and far too many works of fiction.  "The cat was found by Millie" instead of "Millie found the cat."  Nine times out of ten (or more) the passive voice creates boredom.  Always?  No.  In truth, the passive voice can be a stylistic trick, one that creates a powerful effect.  "We hold these truths to be self-evident" is in the active voice but the very next clause of that famous quote "that all men are created equal" is passive, yet rings like a bell in the annals of history.  Examine it closely, you'll even see why it proved so effective, as well as why it more usually does not.  The passive voice gramatically shifts responsibility for the verb away from the subject, often onto the object.  A cat is found rather than Millie did the finding.  In the Declaration of Independence, the "all men..." clause refers to some kind of Creator, whether natural or supernatural (a fair number of our Founding Fathers were not Christians).  So the passive voice nearly always takes focus away from the subject of the sentence, the main character as it were.

Secondly, try to avoid the verb "to be."  Which sounds daft.  How more fundamental can you get than the verb that denotes existence?  And isn't that the very heart of Shakespeare's most famous monologue?  Yes and no.  "To be or not to be..." functions as a metaphor.  In context, Hamlet muses not about existence so much as life versus death, pondering over suicide in the face of life's travails.  Kindly note also my recommendation's actual words--"try to avoid" not "never use."  I encourage you to try and see for yourself how much more interesting your prose becomes when avoiding that verb.  Try to banish it altogether, just as an experiment.  Judge the results for yourself.  Quite simply, hardly a more dull verb exists in the English language--or at least more over-used to the point of boredom.  My own writing improved greatly after taking on this little rule of thumb (not axiom, not holy writ--just a rule of thumb).

Third, I cannot recommend enough varying the length and complexity of sentences.  What do I mean?  Glad you asked!  Consider the simple sentence.  Now consider what English teachers call the compound sentence and how useful such things can be.  Finally, we really should think on the compound-complex sentence, and while we're at it try to remember how often you come across such things in texts difficult to follow (like academic papers for instance).  See what I did?  When mentioning each type of sentence type I used an example of same! 

Eye iz sew klevur (we all know not to misspell words or mangle grammar right?).

 I was also (hopefully) demonstrating why variations generally work better than repetition.  A Compound-Complex takes more concentration to understand than a Simple.  Putting two or more together might end up beautiful and more accurate, but requires a lot more labor on the part of the reader.  Which can work brilliantly!  Remember Bilbo's speech at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring?  "I don't know half of you as well as I should like and like less than half of you as well as I should."  You can almost see his birthday guests blink a few times.  They don't say anything, trying instead to work out whether most of them were just insulted or not. (Yeah, they were.)  Now imagine sentences of that complexity piled one on top of the other.  Problems.  Especially for the reader going through your work for the very first time.

Yet another consideration regarding sentence length--the rhythm of your story.  Songs rarely begin with gigantic swelling notes.  Listen to particularly stirring songs to hear what I mean.  "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables, for example.  Or "Pity The Child" from Chess.  Both start slow and soft, building to louder and more complex moments, then returning to quiet in order to give still greater crescendos later.  Writers methinks should use a similar model in terms of their own rhythms.  Lacking notes and orchestras, we use words.  More than words.  Sentences, clauses, vocabulary, the passive versus the active voice, etc.

Lastly, a few words about letters with which words begin.  Call me picky (go ahead--really, I don't mind) but one major goal in my writing remains readability.  Anything that helps achieve that remains a valuable tool.  Towards that end, I wrote myself two simple rules:
  1. Never begin two adjacent sentences with words that begin with the same letter.
  2. Never begin two adjacent paragraphs with words that begin with the same letter.
Kindly refer to the text of this blog as an example.  Mind you, I did put this rule-of-thumb last, and for a reason.  You wouldn't be wrong calling me picky.  I am.  But my own sense of how reading works, how the human eye picks up on lettering, how we keep our place and retain a memory of what we're reading lends me to think this a good idea.  Certainly the opposite has the exact impact I hope to avoid.  Reiterating the same capital letters over and over impedes readability.  Usually.

Take my words as wisdom or as the eccentric ramblings of a pretentious scribe.  Or both.  Whatever helps you create the words and works dearest to your writer's heart.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Writing Survival List

This is my entry in the November Blog Chain for Absolute Write Water Cooler. In this case the subject matter will be a Writing Survival List, i.e. what I need as a writer. For me, this will focus on what I need to write fiction (as opposed to, for example, this blog).

Oh, do I write fiction, you ask? Well, yes. Plays, screenplays, fanfiction, and now I've got two full-length novels in the works -- one a reworking of the 1840s "penny dreadful" Varney The Vampyre. But details on that for a later time...

Writing, for me has four parts (and each of those innumerable other parts but this is a blog post not a book-length exploration of writing). Each has their own needs.

First is Inspiration, which can take hundred different forms. I may contemplate an actor or actress who always plays a certain role and imagine them in a vastly different one. Or I may read or see a story with a perfectly good premise, IMHO botched during execution. More likely, some little detail with attach itself to the stuff that has fascinated me for years and years. Either way, to get that inspiration what I need most is plenty of exposure to the world--to history, to news, to a variety of people, to different places as well as a lot of fiction itself, of whatever media.

What follows, once a trail is found, is the exploration of said trail. I call this (with a singular lack of imagination) Research. It can easily take up years. Truth to tell, often what interests me most are things at which I don't have that much first-hand experience. Well, have you lived in Regency England? Or know that much about about lighthouses? All that is part of understanding the "floor" upon which I'm getting ready to dance. It is an uneven thing, that floor, and dancing there without knowing it very well risks a broken ankle. Or neck. Some might disagree but to me research includes fashioning background details that exist only for the sake of the story. There isn't really any large island off the coast of San Francisco named Cuervo Vista, but that doesn't mean I don't need to know that island very well. Interestingly (at least to moi) much of the plot gets worked out in this phase, arising from details discovered or invented (although they all feel discovered, to be honest).

Third (in process but not necessarily chronologically) is Percolation. I also call this Simmering. Which reveals my penchant for cooking. What has been learned needs time to jell, to brew into something the conscious mind wouldn't do on its own. Connections fuse together never considered before. Points of view shift. Some preconceptions evaporate while new imperatives make themselves felt and heard and seen. Since, alas, a relatively small portion of my life is spent actually writing, this is my way of using the rest of that time productively (in ways other than earning money to pay rent, washing clothes, etc.).

Fourth is Composition, no less complex (i.e. ofttimes weird) than the other three. Putting the words together into sentences, paragraphs, descriptions, outlines, conversations, chapters, and the like. Physically, this does require a writing medium (the word processor is the one I'm used to--in another age the quill would have done) as well as time with a minimum of distractions. Sometimes music helps set the mood, or words of art in and around my workspace. Caffeine in the form of chocolate and coffee blended together with plenty of dairy.

Such is what I need. These are my keys to survival as a writer, in other words to write. I look forward to reading what others in the chain have to say...

1. DavidZahir -
2. shethinkstoomuch -
3. Lost Wanderer -
4. aimeelaine -
5. Ravencorinncarluk -
6. Bsolah -
7. Charlotte49ers -
8. Angyl78 -
9. truelyana -
10. Claire Crossdale -