Tag Archives: attention-grabbing writing

Start Strong, and Carry On

Since last Saturday, my mind has been buzzing with ideas and suggestions about how to make my writing better and more attention-grabbing, and I’m really trying to remember it all before it fizzles away into the arid dustbowl inside my head. I learned a lot from the agents who spoke to us about what makes them take notice of a submission – make your opening snappy, make your first sentence brilliant, don’t overlook the importance of the first five pages – but it was a lot to take in.

This is how my brain feels, right now. Image: cnn.com

This is how my brain feels, right now.
Image: cnn.com

Then I had an idea: compare a current WiP with an earlier version of the same story, and see how far you’ve come – if indeed you have progressed at all. It can be really hard to think objectively about your own work when you’re so isolated from other writers; you don’t know how you compare, where you stand, whether you’re any good in relation to them. So, the next best thing is to compare your current work with what you were doing years ago and see whether you’ve improved.

This, of course, can be a scary prospect.

I’m currently working on a new book, one without a title (so we can call it ‘Mara’, after the main character); it’s based very loosely on an idea I had years ago but which quickly ran out of steam. According to the file, the original work dates from 2006; I couldn’t believe it had been so long. It’s an idea that never quite left me alone, which is why I’m currently working on it again.

In the original version of this story the character was called Molly, not Mara, but everything else is the same. She is a young girl of twelve whose father was lost at sea almost a year before the story begins, and she is finding it hard to cope with her grief. Here’s the opening paragraph of the first version of this story:

Molly wrapped herself tightly in the old tartan shirt that had once belonged to her dad; it still smelled like him, a faint hint of his old aftershave soothing her, making her feel safe. The shirt was red, her dad’s favourite colour, and it was soft and downy against her cheek. Falling asleep had been hard since her dad had died. It had been nearly a year now, so perhaps the scent that Molly could barely detect on the shirt was her imagination, or a memory. She snuggled deeper into it, her forehead wrinkling with effort, praying for the smell to stay with her. Just as she was about to fall asleep, her eyes jerked open, and she glanced towards her wardrobe door. It was open. She blinked into the half-darkness for a couple of breaths, her heart thundering in her chest, before flinging the shirt to one side and clambering out of bed. How could the door be open? She had asked Mum to close it before she went to bed… She shut the door hard, convinced she had woken her mother up with the thump, but there was no stirring from the next room. She crept back over the floor, swaddling herself in the shirt once more, and, checking one last time that the wardrobe door had stayed shut, fell into a fitful sleep.

Right. So much for that.

Now, here’s the opening paragraph of the current version of the book – bearing in mind it’s a first draft, let’s compare the two:

Wait for it, thought Mara. Any second now
The car swung round the bend, like it did every morning at ten past eight, and the big white arrows appeared on the road, as usual. This way to Fun! screamed the sign, looking even more garish than it usually did. It was covered in pictures of kids laughing as they careered down plastic chutes wearing inflatable rings around their middles, and giant hotdogs danced with knives and forks all the way along the bottom. The South-East’s Best Holiday Destination! it announced, as if anyone didn’t know.
‘That stupid place,’ griped Mum, her knuckles whitening around the steering wheel. ‘If I have to look at it one more time…’ Her words fizzed away into mumbles, but Mara didn’t need to hear. She said the same things every morning as they passed the motorway exit for the waterpark.
‘It’s supposed to be quite fun, actually,’ said Mara, gazing out the window as the brightly-painted sign whizzed by. ‘Some of the girls in my class went – ‘
‘I don’t want to talk about this, Mara. All right? Just, I don’t know. Turn on the radio, or something.’
Mara sighed, twisting around in her seat. She leaned forward slowly so the safety belt wouldn’t cut into the side of her neck, and reached toward the radio buttons. ‘You won’t have to do this much longer anyway, Mum. Bring me to school, I mean. After next week, you won’t have to pass it any more.’
Mrs Fletcher’s head snapped around like she’d been slapped. ‘What are you talking about? What do you mean, I won’t have to bring you to school? Why wouldn’t I have to bring you to school?’ Her eyes were bugging out, and there were two tiny white spots on either side of her nose.
‘I – just – the summer holidays!’ said Mara, her words flapping about like a freshly caught fish. ‘I mean, you won’t have to bring me to school because of the holidays. That’s all.’
Mum licked her lips, and looked back at the road again. She blinked, and coughed a bit, and wiped one hand over her forehead. ‘Just – don’t do that. Don’t talk like that. All right?’
Mara slumped back in her seat. ‘Like what?’
‘You know very well what, Mara Fletcher,’ snapped Mum, glancing around as she got ready to indicate. ‘You know very well.’
And Mara did know. She should’ve thought before saying anything. Mum had been like this ever since Dad had died – always thinking the worst, and expecting the worst, and waiting for the next disaster.
Soon, it would be a year.
Mara wrapped her hand around her conch-shell necklace, and stayed quiet until they pulled into the school car park. When she told Mum ‘goodbye,’ all she did was nod.

 I’m not sure which version you prefer, but I know which one I like better – the second, by a mile. It’s like it was written by a different person. This is the difference that almost eight years (eight years!) can make to your writing. The first version is flat – it tells, rather than shows,the reader what Molly is going through. We get no real insight into her mind, or her relationship with her mother. It’s also riddled with clichés – the scent of a deceased loved one lingering on their clothing, a story beginning with someone falling asleep or waking up (this should, I now know, always be avoided), abrupt transitions from one narrative thread to another (the shirt to the wardrobe door), overwrought language – and, frankly, it’s boring.

Forgive me. I was young and stupid when I wrote this.

The second version – though far from perfect – is more dynamic. It makes use of dialogue. It sets up the important things in an opening scene: the relationship between the protagonist and her mother; hints at a couple of different sorts of conflict, not just the obvious one; the reader is shown the grief they are feeling and the stress it is causing rather than being simply told.

Comparing these pieces of work has illustrated exactly how important the lessons I learned at the weekend are – you really can’t overlook the importance of your opening sections when writing a novel. You need to begin in the right place, hooking a reader into an emotional relationship with your characters just before you yank the carpet out from under them. You have to really work at the opening scenes because that’s the only chance you have to attract a reader’s full attention. Personally, I also believe you owe it to your reader to keep that standard up throughout the book – I’ve read so many stories that start off brilliantly but taper away as they go – but it’s definitely true that an agent, or a potential reader, won’t keep struggling with a book that starts off clumsily.

I recommend doing this exercise (comparing something you’re writing now with something you wrote years ago) because it shows you that, even if you didn’t think it, you have progressed. It’s only natural that you’ll get better as you go, and the more you work at your writing the more polished and interesting it will become.

Even if reading your old work does make you feel a bit like this:

Image: mlp.wikia.com

Image: mlp.wikia.com

Bonne chance!

 

The Beginning, and the End

I have written the first paragraph, and the last chapter, of ‘Tider’ about fifteen times. There were no fewer than five attempts to get these vital parts of the book right during the course of yesterday alone. Soon my back garden is going to look a bit like this:

Image: sangbleu.com

Image: sangbleu.com

I’m starting to wish I lived in an era of candlelight and scritchy quill-pens, because back then you had to make every single word work for its place in what you were creating. There were no conveniences born of technology, no handy ‘I’ll just print out these millions of sheets and then recycle them’; if a word went down, it stayed down.

Then again, if I had lived at a time like that, chances are I wouldn’t even be literate, let alone be allowed to create something like a book. So, scratch that. But you know what I mean, I hope.

Beginnings and endings are hard.

The beginning of a book, of course, has to be snappy and engaging and attention-grabbing and interesting, as well as hinting at what’s to come and flinging the reader, in medias res, straight into the fictive world you’ve created. It has to do a lot, and be a lot, and carry a lot of responsibility. Then again, so does the conclusion. If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time you may already be aware that I have trouble with endings; ‘Tider’ is no exception. I find it difficult to tie up short stories well, and I often agonise about the conclusion to my blog posts, too, which – now that I think about it – may be the reason why I usually sign off with a salutation.

Oh, yeah! Image: atlaschiropractic.com

Oh, yeah!
Image: atlaschiropractic.com

Why, then, would concluding a novel be any less difficult?

I think, however, after a long and hard struggle yesterday, that I’ve finally managed to carve out a beginning and an ending for ‘Tider’ that I’m happy with – or, at least, it’s the best I’ve yet come up with, and that will have to do. I think, as the book stands at the moment, I might have erred a little on the side of schmaltz, but at least it’s genuine, and meaningful.

To illustrate how bad I am at wrapping things up, here’s an example of a pair of concluding sentences so cheesy that you could chop ’em up and put ’em in your sandwich. They’re based on the original finishing flourishes of ‘Tider’, and even though they’re not exactly accurate, they’re close enough to give you a flavour:

Without warning, the police – huffing and puffing with exertion and doing a lot more yelling than was strictly necessary – burst through the door. As they surveyed the scene, probably wondering what on earth had happened, Jenny, Buck and Vincent could only gape at one another in amazement, before exploding into laughter.

This is a pathetic ending. I knew it was pathetic when I wrote it, and I wanted to put my fist through the computer screen yesterday morning when I re-read it. It was such a poor, lacklustre, wrong conclusion; just before this, there’s been a scene of high emotion, and so laughter – even relieved, slightly hysterical laughter – is not a true or authentic emotional response. Truth and authenticity are important in fiction writing – characters have to act logically, and in accordance with reason, and it irritates me when a character is brokenhearted in one scene and five sentences later has carried on as if nothing has happened, or something similar. Of course there are occasions when these rules can be broken for narrative effect, but overall I think characters have to act like people, with ‘real’ responses to what’s going on in their lives. Otherwise, how can a reader relate, or respond, to what they’re reading? How can a book make sense, or seem believable?

Anyway.

So, I’ve taken away that tooth-grindingly bad ending and I’ve replaced it. I’ve rejigged my opening paragraph so much that the words are getting travel-sick. I’ve done my absolute best to make ‘Tider’ as good a book as I can write, and so I’m sending it off to an agent, and that horrifyingly scary event is going to happen today. I have no expectations and I have no hope of success, which might be for the best.

Despite all this, maybe you’d like to send me some good vibes, anyway, and perhaps even a prayer or two if you’re so inclined…

Image: fancy.com

Image: fancy.com

 

 

 

Making Words Work

Last night, because I had nothing better to do, I spent some time scanning back over this blog and checking out all my errors. It was a bit like the footage you see on TV of gorillas combing the fleas out of one another’s fur.

Nifty hat, no? I thought so. Image: strivingafterwind.com

Nifty hat, no? I thought so.
Image: strivingafterwind.com

I hissed and cringed my way through clunky sentences, ill-utilised en-dashes, repetitive sentence structure (even, in several cases, repetition of actual words and phrases, perish the thought), sentences so long they threaten to trip over their own hemlines, and a preponderance of commas.

The funny thing is, I know how language works. I know how grammar and punctuation work. Sometimes, though, I write the way I speak, and I get carried away on the wings of thought, and so all my careful training in the art of formal language can get trampled into the dust in my rush to express myself. This doesn’t mean that a reader would have any difficulty understanding what I’m saying; the meaning is there, regardless. However, I know I can do better.

In that spirit, today I thought I’d write a post about ways to make your writing sharper and more effective – in other words, ways to make your words work harder.

Use short(er) sentences

This is something that has only occurred to me in recent times. I used to be the queen of the (allegedly) elegant, multi-claused, welded-together sentence that – like an overpacked suitcase – was asked to carry a lot more weight than was sensible, which normally resulted in an utter collapse of meaning and the tragic loss of several blameless and innocent words. A general rule, I have since learned, is: use shorter sentences for clarity and punch. There’s no use writing a sentence so long that the reader has forgotten how it started by the time it clanks to an end. I’ve now started watching my punctuation, and if I catch myself whacking colons and parentheses into the same sentence, I know I’m in dangerous territory.

Don’t make one sentence do the work of ten

This is (sort of) related to the previous point, but it’s more about narrative flow than punctuation, really. The sort of sentence you want to avoid is one that goes like this:

As Vladimir stood before the full-length, diamond-encrusted, hand-polished mirror, the one his late mother Speranza had been gifted on her wedding day by her one-time lover, Count Guthrum of Thuringia, whom she had spurned in favour of his own dear father the Prince of Esingria, he heard a piercing cry from the linden-laden courtyard outside his leaded crystal window.

Phew. You can practically see the beads of sweat rolling down that sentence’s brow.

The first thing I’d take out is all the needless description. We don’t need to be told that the mirror is full-length and speckled with sparklers in quite the way it’s done here. In fact, it might turn out that we don’t need to know what the mirror looks like at all, unless our pal Vlad sees the reflection of someone being murdered in it, or something like that. The same goes for the linden trees in the courtyard and the leaded crystal window. Descriptive writing is brilliant, and vital, but there is such a thing as describing the wrong thing; not only does it distract the reader but it also makes for confusing images.* If something isn’t necessary, or you’re not planning to turn it into a vital plot point later on, then don’t belabour the description. Adjectives should always be used sparingly, and you really should avoid using lists of them (like ‘full-length, diamond-encrusted, hand-polished’ or ‘leaded crystal’); lists like this are sometimes called ‘stacking adjectives’ and they have the effect of turning off a reader’s brain and making them go instantly to sleep.

Find what’s important in each sentence, and bring that to the fore. What’s important in our example sentence is Vlad hearing the cry from outside, so that should be front and centre, even if you have to turn it into a paragraph:

A piercing cry shattered the morning air. Vladimir dropped his eyes from his reflection and turned just in time to see his guard come bursting into the room.
‘Sire!’ the man cried. ‘Forgive me, but there is trouble in the courtyard. Please come away from the window, and get out of sight!’

All right, so these are useless examples. However, I hope you get what I’m driving at. Cut away the needless stuff, particularly encrustations of pointless description, and get to the action. If someone is dreaming up a sonnet or contemplating the beauty of the morning while the drama is going on, we don’t need to know about it. Focus on the drama.

Just Get Rid of ‘Just’

The same goes for ‘almost’, ‘nearly’, ‘suddenly’ and a host of others.

‘You don’t mean that,’ whispered Sally, tears almost springing to her eyes.

Either the tears sprang, or they didn’t. Try to avoid using ‘almost’, in this sense at least. Adverbs (more often than not, words ending in ‘-ly’) can usually be removed, too. In short, you can sum this up as: be decisive with your writing. Your characters either do or feel or say something, or they don’t. If they go around almost or nearly doing things, it gets irritating fast.

I do this myself, all the time. All the time. I normally run a ‘Find and Replace’ function when I’ve written something in an attempt to remove all my useless adverbs. It’s such an easy trap to fall into.

Don’t say the same thing over and over and over

This doesn’t just go for repeating the same words, but also repeating the same sentence structure or the same (or similar) images. I sometimes can’t believe how easy this is to do, and how many people fall foul of it. I always think of it as being ‘Drunken Scarecrow’ syndrome, after Adrian Mole’s famous poem Spring, where he uses the phrase repeatedly. It’s also a good idea to mix up your sentence structure. If you use a long sentence that trickles on for a bit before coming to a pause around a comma, then don’t use that structure for the next sentence. Make the next one short and snappy.

Repetition is such an easy thing to do. It’s difficult to spot it and watch for it, but once you get the hang of removing it you’ll find it improves your writing no end.

So, I hope these observations will be useful to you. I’m sure I’ll keep on falling into these bad habits for the rest of my writing life, but being aware of them is the first weapon in the armoury, isn’t it? Writing is a craft, and I’m only just beginning to figure it out.

 

*Unless, of course, you’re cunningly preparing a Red Herring; if this is what you’re doing, then by all means proceed.