Tag Archives: writing tips

The Art, and the Craft

It’s no secret that writing is hard. It’s lonely, it’s isolating, it’s like trying to swim at night in unfamiliar waters, it’s tough to get a handle on, and there’s no ‘rule book.’ If you want to do it, you’ve just got to go for it and trust that you’ll get to where you’re aiming for, eventually. You’ve got to be able to keep yourself going, and you’ve got to be able to put aside a lot in favour of writing. It takes sacrifice. It takes work. More than anything, it takes practice.

Photo Credit: aurelio.asiain via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: aurelio.asiain via Compfight cc

Sometimes it amazes me that the idea of writing as a ‘perfect’ career, or as being somehow ‘easy’, still persists. Perhaps because people are used to reading books which are polished, perfect, and seemingly effortless, they begin to think that the words formed on the page that way without authorial or editorial intervention. They have no idea of the anguish, the endless drafts, the pained emails to editors at all hours of the morning, and the self-doubt which all had to be dealt with, worked through and overcome to make it look the way they expect. None of that effort is in evidence once a book is done and ready, and that’s exactly as it should be.

I dream of writing. I have always dreamed of it. It’s what I want to do with my life, and nothing else I’ve ever done has given me half as much enjoyment. (Nothing else has been even a fraction as challenging, either, but that’s to be expected!) Many hundreds of thousands of others are just the same, and that’s a brilliant thing. I would never discourage anyone from wanting to write, but I would also be the first to say this: it’s not a cop-out, or an easy option. It’s a profession, the same as any other, and it deserves the same passion, commitment, investment and respect. If you want to write for more than the simple pleasure it brings, then pursue that goal by all means, but be prepared to work hard, often for a very long time, and often for little or no feedback or reward. This is the reality.

Recently, in discussion with someone who knows more about books and publishing than I ever will, I learned how so many people are working against themselves from day one by not approaching their writing career the same way they’d approach their non-writing career. They make slapdash, half-thought-out approaches to editors, publishers and agents; they do not work and slave and sweat over their writing until it is the absolute best they can produce; they persist in querying industry professionals with half-finished or incomplete submissions; they consider their first drafts good enough to represent them.

These mistakes are all catastrophic. They are also all completely avoidable.

What makes me sad is this: if a person really, truly wants to write, and it burns within them, and they try to take their first steps into the industry in a misguided way, they will (in all probability) receive a rejection. Perhaps more than one. This may lead the person – who may have a true talent burning within them, a pure passion, an important story – to give up, and that would be a tragedy. It takes a strong person to continue if all you’re receiving is knockback after knockback. I know. But to succeed as a writer you not only need your talent, and your interest, and your passion, and your desire to improve, and your love for words, but you also need a sensible head on your shoulders and a professional approach to life. You need to be respectful of the time, effort and expertise of agents, publishers, editors, and every other publishing industry professional you meet. You need, in short, to be able to listen to good advice when you get it, and to incorporate it into your efforts to find a home for your writing.

During this same discussion, I also learned that the publishing professional in question considers my blog to be a good source of advice and information, and they have recommended that other people read some of my articles if they are looking for help, which was a hugely encouraging and flattering thing to hear. This post in particular might be helpful if you’re new-ish around here, and are on the lookout for writerly advice, but if I could sum up what I have learned about writing over the past two years, it would be this:

TAKE YOUR TIME.

Take the time you need to write your book. Put it aside. Take the time you need to re-read it, and edit it, and perhaps have someone else look over it, and then leave it aside again. Leave it there. No! I said, leave it there. Forget it even exists. Then, pick it up again, and repeat the process. Do this as often as you can bear, but at least three times, before you even consider sending it anywhere or submitting it to anyone. Do your research into agents, publishers and editors. Check that they accept the sort of work you’re writing. When you do approach them, do it respectfully and professionally. Follow their guidelines. Do not be arrogant. Do not assume that you know better than they do. Then, be patient as you wait for their reply.

If you’re self-publishing, a lot of the same rules apply. Take your time over your work, primarily. Write the best book you can, and then do a lot of research into the best platform, the best formatting style, the best pricing structure, the best editorial and design work, before you put your writing anywhere near the eyes of other people. If not, barring a miracle, you’ll wish you had when you see your sales figures.

There is no rush. Writers are not in a race with one another. You owe it to yourself to put your best work forward, and let it speak for you. The craft of writing is one thing – the ability to make sentences which sing, and images which linger in the mind, and characters who leap off the page – and it’s an important first step. But the art of being a writer – including but not limited to the ability to be professional, patient, organised, respectful, willing to learn and utterly committed to producing the best work you’re capable of – is just as important. People tend to forget that, and expect their talent to carry them through. For some lucky individuals, perhaps this works. For the rest of us? My advice is: learn how to work as a writer the same way you’d work at anything else, and you’ll be on the right track.

Heartsong

This morning, as I lay approximately one-eighth awake wishing I didn’t have to get up and face a cold, dark day, I found myself thinking about a picture book idea. It involved a witch with an itch and a crooked wand, and it was (at least, to me) very funny. I created the story as I went, imagining the illustrations and enjoying how my witchy character grew more and more exasperated as things went on – and it was huge fun, even if I had to get up before I finished it.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

I’m not a person who wants to write picture books, particularly. Besides the classics, I haven’t even read very many picture books, and it’s something I keep meaning to remedy (the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen, in case you’re interested, is Journey by Aaron Becker, which should be checked out immediately by everyone). I think a good picture book is a thing so difficult to pull off that it’s practically impossible, and I feel it’s beyond the scope of my skills – but my mind still decided to explore an idea for one while in a hypnopompic state.

The reason for this? I love stories for children. I love them so much that I think about them even when, all told, my brain would rather be unconscious. I think about them even when I’m supposed to be grown-up and thinking about other things like bills and taxes and the economy and politics and other stuff I know nothing about. Yesterday, I was unwell – sore throat, fuzzy head, sniffles, and a serious case of the ‘OhPoorMes’ – and as well as taking plenty of fluids and as much rest as I’d let myself away with, I self-medicated with stories. I read Howl’s Moving Castle, just because there’s a scene in it where Howl the wizard has a cold and makes everyone suffer because he’s a crybaby. I feel better today, and I’m sure the paracetamol in the medicine I took made a big difference to the state of my health, but I know that reading did the rest.

Once, I met a lady who had written a book for children. She wasn’t sure what age range, particularly; she thought perhaps children from twelve and up, because there were things like war and slavery and family breakdown in her story (it was historical fiction). However, its word count was way too low for this age range, being more suited to children between five and eight. She was shocked to learn that twenty thousand words wouldn’t create a book long enough for her target audience, and even more shocked when I asked her what her favourite children’s book was. ‘I don’t read children’s books’, she told me, half-laughing at the very idea. ‘I’m more of a romance fan, myself.’ She paused, frowning slightly as she thought about it. ‘In fact, I really wanted to write this story as a romance about one of the older characters, and I’m not really sure why I wrote it this way,’ she said, looking confused.

And I thought: Why don’t you write romances, then? If that’s your heartsong, why aren’t you singing it?

I wouldn’t tackle a picture book not because I don’t enjoy them, but because I’m not immersed in that world. I’m not obsessed with picture books, with the making and creating of them; I’m not expert in the field (and if you think there’s ‘nothing to making a picture book’, then I invite you to try to make one). I love books for older children – they are what I read, what I love, what I admire. I haven’t read everything, because there is only so much money and time in the world, but I’d like to think I have a fairly broad exposure. Stories about adventure, and friendship, and challenging the odds, and fighting evil, and finding parents, and learning to live without parents, and learning what it is to be an individual, and how to trust yourself, are what my heart sings. That’s why those are the stories I write, too.

Writing involves a lot of different skills, all interconnected, but one of the most important is this: knowing what your heartsong is. Knowing how to be still and listen to yourself, and hear the whisper of the story that lies curled up inside you waiting to unfurl. It doesn’t sing with a very loud voice, sometimes, particularly if you’ve never tried to listen to it before, but it is there. If you can gently encourage it – and not drown it with thoughts like ‘I can’t write a story like this, it’s stupid/silly/inappropriate/unreadable/wrong‘ – perhaps you’ll be lucky and it will grow stronger, and clearer. Let it grow whatever way it wants – don’t try to force it to go one way, or another. Give it space and time and freedom, and allow yourself to astound yourself.

Read widely – particularly within the genre in which you’re writing, but not exclusively. Learn how stories work by reading how other people do them. Don’t write something in a particular way because you feel you ‘should’; write it whatever way it wants to be written. Become a reader before you become a writer. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t write to markets. Learn to listen carefully, particularly to yourself.

Write what you love.

Love what you write.

And let your heartsong burst forth, loud and clear.

 

 

 

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!

 

Imagining Places, Imagining Spaces

I’ve been doing a lot of hacking away at ‘Emmeline’ this week – in other news, I think I may have come up with a better title for the story, but more on that anon – and I’m right up there within, I’d guess, 5,000 words of the Grand Dénouement. However, nothing ever runs easily in my world.

I feel a bit like this guy. Image: lookandlearn.com

I feel a bit like this guy.
Image: lookandlearn.com

I’m finding it tough going these past few days – maybe 500 words here, one thousand there – and I reckon there are a few reasons for that. One of the main reasons (besides a few plot issues, which I’m pretty sure a rewrite will take care of) is the fact that the ending of the book takes place in a part of the world I’ve never been to, in a space I find hard to imagine, and in a setting so unfamiliar and different from my everyday life as to be completely alien.

I’m learning that one of the most important things you can do for yourself when you’re writing is this: Believe in your settings.

If your book is set in our world, and you have the means to travel there, then I suppose nothing can beat the experience of seeing it for yourself. But, however, if you’re like most people and your means are feeling pretty mean, travelling to far-flung parts of the globe isn’t really an option. The internet can help, of course, with images and inspiration and handy phrases in the local language and first-hand testimony of how it feels to scale Everest or survive an earthquake or visit Pompeii, or whatever it is you’re writing about, and it’s a good tool to use if you can’t see your setting with your own two eyes. But something as important as all that – and something I am currently finding difficult – is the necessity to believe, wholeheartedly, in the setting you’re writing about. Write about it with as much confidence as if it was the view you can see out your bedroom window. Write about it with as much pizzazz as if your fictional setting was somewhere you know intimately. Open your imagination up, and make sure your settings – your landscape, your climate, your vegetation, your animal life, your transport networks, your geographical anomalies, your people, your language(s), whatever – are all as clear to you as the reality around you, whether or not your imagined landscape is strictly true.

Now, obviously, you don’t need to describe all this detail to the reader. All the story needs is what’s necessary to make it happen. But it helps you to know your setting in all this detail. In a lot of ways, depending on the book, the setting is as important as another character. You know your characters inside-out – their backstory, their dreams and hopes and loves, their motivation – so why not your landscape, too?

Image: minigardenshoppe.com

Image: minigardenshoppe.com

My story, right now, is suffering because of my own fear of the setting I’ve put it in. It’s a vast canvas, an empty and howling landscape, a frozen and barren expanse. I don’t know what it’s like to live and work there – and I don’t know what it’s like to breathe its air or walk on its surface or exist in its embrace. I’m trying to imagine it, and it’s hard. I lack the confidence in myself and my own ability to just trust myself to write it well, even if it’s not entirely geographically and/or climatically accurate. This particular landscape is important to the plot insofar as it’s a challenge, and an obstacle, and it’s home to certain creatures who do not have anything good to say about the heroine and her brave band of comrades – but I’m not writing a natural history of the country, and so I feel I’m getting hung up unnecessarily, in some ways. I’m allowing myself to be derailed by doubts – ‘could that actually happen?’ ‘There’s no way the landscape would look like that,’ ‘This is stupid! None of this could actually take place!’ – and I have to keep reminding myself that this is my book, my world, my story, and anything I dream can happen within it.

If verisimilitude of setting is important to you, or to your story, then by all means get your work checked over by someone who’s familiar with that part of the world, or do some more intensive research, or whatever you need to do once the words have been written. If, however, you’re not writing a book whose plot hinges on whether a particular type of flower grows at a particular altitude or whether a certain wave pattern brings specific weather effects to a defined part of the world, then perhaps it’s not as important to be absolutely accurate, in a geographical or scientific sense. What matters is that your landscapes and settings are real to you, and that they make sense in the world of your book – without, of course, taking liberties like placing a sandy desert in the heart of Antarctica (without having a very good, and logical, reason, at least!)

It’s hard to write without a backdrop against which to place your characters – at least, it is for me. But, equally important as having a clear, skilfully described landscape (not too much detail, and not too little) to place them in is having the confidence to say ‘this is my story, and this is my world. These are my rules.’

Image: covermyfb.blogspot.com

Image: covermyfb.blogspot.com

I’m going to tackle ‘Emmeline’ with a different mindset today. I’m not going to let my fears that I’m writing something ‘wrong’ derail my desire to finish this story, and I’m going to stop letting the backdrop run the whole show.

And I’m going to start trying to believe in myself a little more.

Wordsmithery

I read a great blog post yesterday guest-written on Lorrie Porter’s blog by Marcus Sedgwick, who is an author I admire. I find his books are punchy and action-driven, intelligent and ‘wordsmithy’, dark and thrilling, and – more than anything else – short. He says as much himself in the blog post,  where he writes about something he believes is vital to a good story – judicious and sparing use of description in order to bring a scene alive.

Marcus Sedgwick Image: cam.ac.uk

Marcus Sedgwick
Image: cam.ac.uk

This is contrary to most people’s expectations: surely, a scene cannot come alive in the mind of a reader unless every tiny thing is described minutely?

Well.

Consider this paragraph:

Jeremy ran, full pelt, hearing the thundering boom of the dragon’s footprints crashing down behind him. It felt so close – close enough to breathe right down the back of his neck, or to step down – splat! – on his head. He had never been so terrified in his life, and he knew he had to run fast, or he was done for. He looked around, but there was no clear line of escape. The far-away sky above was hazily blue, looking down on him disinterestedly, the occasional cloud streaking over it like a veil. The walls to his right and left were crumbling red-brick, with ivy scattered through them like icing on a cake, and the ground beneath his feet was studded with small rocks, like tiny grey eggs made of stone. Then, finally, he saw a corner up ahead; he turned it at speed, without looking, and found himself smacking right up against something – something that said ‘Ouch! What’re ye doin’, ye great…’ followed by a splutter. Jeremy bounced back, and saw that he’d almost knocked someone over – an older man, with hair like silver yarn that tangled up, almost exactly like a messily-made bird’s nest on top of his shiny pink head. Right beneath the hairline were dotted small constellations of freckles, and a thick bulging vein rain down his temple where it was lost in the bushiest white beard Jeremy had ever seen. The man’s face was red, tending to purple in spots, and his moustache was so big Jeremy wondered why it didn’t need scaffolding to hold it up. His nostrils were huge, and flaring, so wide and deep and dark that Jeremy wondered if another dragon lived up each of them. He shuddered as he looked at them. Tiny hairs waved inside each one as the man’s breath burst in and out, in and out. Then his teeth, square and white and strong, appeared in the centre of his beard as the man started growling his anger at Jeremy. ‘Tell me what ye’re playin’ at this minute, child!’ he said, his voice like someone heavy walking across a gravel pathway.

So, clearly this is something I’ve just made up, and it doesn’t hold a candle to a properly polished and edited section from a published book; I hope, though, that it makes a point. I have read paragraphs like this, at action-packed junctures like this, in books, and it drives me mad. Surely everyone would agree that the point of this paragraph is that Jeremy is running from a dragon. Does the reader need to know about the crumbling red-brick walls and the distant hazy sky and the number of waving nose-hairs displayed by the man into whom he crashes in his haste to get away?

Count the nostril hairs, now... Image: medicalobserver.com.au

Count the nostril hairs, now…
Image: medicalobserver.com.au

I don’t think so.

Jeremy’s heart thundered in his chest as he ran. His legs burned with effort. Risking a glance back, he saw there was no sign of the dragon yet; all he could see behind him was this endless brick-lined corridor, this weird place he’d somehow woken up in. He almost turned his foot on a rock, then; they were dotted all over the ground like cobblestones, slippery and treacherous.

‘It’s coming,’ he thought. ‘It’s coming!’ Just then, a roar from behind made the skin all over his body shrink, and terror pumped through him. Gritting his teeth against the pain in his ankle, he ran faster, desperate to find a place to hide.

Then – a turning! A break in the brick wall. He flung himself to the right, taking the turn without looking.

‘Ouch! What’re ye doin’, ye great…’ Jeremy skidded to a halt, realising he’d crashed right into someone – someone big, and white-haired, and strong, if the grip he suddenly felt around his upper arm was anything to go by. He looked up into a pair of runny blue eyes, scrunched up in suspicion. White teeth flashed at the heart of the bushiest grey beard he’d ever seen as the man spoke again, his voice raspy and rough.

‘Tell me what ye’re playin’ at, this minute, child!’ Jeremy didn’t think he had the breath, or the courage, to reply.

I think this second paragraph – which says much the same thing – is a lot stronger. It does a better job of keeping the action going, and keeping Jeremy’s momentum alive. We get the same sense of place and character, I would argue, and enough description is given for a reader to imagine where Jeremy is, and who he meets. Interestingly, paragraph 1 is 359 words long; paragraph 2 is 231.

I know that time passes differently in books, in a sense. In reality, if you or I crashed into an elderly white-haired man, we would take in a lot of physical description instantly, through our senses; it takes a lot longer to write all that information out. I just wonder, sometimes, whether any of that description is needed. A scene shouldn’t carry too much extra weight, I think: the description should serve a narrative purpose, as well as a scene-setting one.

And yet – description is vital to writing, of course. Without description, all a writer would do is recount endless reams of dialogue between characters who exist only as words on a page, and not fully fleshed, rounded ‘people’ we can see in our mind’s eye. Having said that, if your protagonist is running for his life from a dragon, we don’t need to know how many liver spots are on the forehead of the man he runs into, or how many stones are in the ground at his feet. Give the reader enough to put the puzzle together themselves, and always allow them space to use their own imagination.

And go and read that blog post by Marcus Sedgwick. He says all this much more briefly and in a far more interesting way than I’ve done here.

Happy Thursday. Happy writing. May all the dragons pursuing you be slow and clumsy ones.

The Long Game

I’m starting to realise that writing is one of these ‘lifelong learning’ things, and that peskily, it’s something at which it’s always possible to improve. At the same time, it’s something most people will never perfect, not because they’re not talented, but because writing can never truly be perfected. Due to its very nature, and the subjective reality of its reception by readers, I don’t think there’ll ever be a piece of writing that is considered the definition of sublime accomplishment by every single person who comes across it.

In some ways, this is comforting. In others, it’s infuriating beyond measure.

The more of it you do – writing, that is – the better you get. At least, this is the slender hope upon which my existence hangs. This means that, while your chances of writing success are pretty poor at the beginning of your writing career, it’s possible to imagine that your best work is always ahead of you. There is, undeniably, something exciting about that.

Image: coaching-journey.com

Image: coaching-journey.com

I am learning, every day, what writing is all about. I’m learning that having an idea is a vastly different thing to making something out of it, and I’m finding out the truth of the maxim ‘an easy read is a difficult write.’

So. Here follows a short list of some of the things I’ve learned recently about writing, and how I do it, and what works for me.

Don’t be overly descriptive

This might seem strange, and wrong, and horrifying to some people, readers and writers alike. What makes a work come alive more keenly than acutely observed detail, you might say? What’s the point of reading a book if nothing is described? Would it be a book at all?

Well. Let’s think about it a bit more, shall we?

Descriptive language is something that can turn me off a book, without a doubt. I am all for describing just enough to give the reader a sense of something, and then letting their imaginations fill in any gaps. Books, in some ways, should be interactive: they shouldn’t be a closed system, complete in and of themselves, and completely sealed off from a reader. How alienating is that? I think a book should give a reader’s experience enough breathing room to bring a story to life, and overdoing description can kill that vitality in its tracks.

Also, it depends on what you’re writing. If your book is set on a distant planet seven centuries from now, then you’ll have to think carefully about your descriptions, and also about your comparisons. There’s no point in saying ‘her hair was the colour of a beautiful sunset’ in a book like that, for instance – while ‘a beautiful sunset’ might mean something to a present-day reader, it might mean nothing to a character in the year 2813. Do they live underground? Is the sky full of a steel-grey cloud from centuries of pollution? Do they even have eyes, or do they navigate their planet using sonar? Do people even have hair any more? You get the drift. If you describe something in terms that would be meaningless to your character, then you’re dragging your reader out of the world you’ve created and ruining the spell of your novel.

This is really easy to forget and all too easy to do, and it can be disastrous for your writing. Of course. Nothing in this game is ever easy.

Also, don’t describe everything in exhaustive detail, particularly not things which can safely be assumed to be familiar to a reader, like the smell of grass or the taste of a common foodstuff or the feeling of sand underfoot or whatever. There are things which need lots of elaboration, and things that don’t. If you describe everything to the nth degree, a reader’s eye will start to skip, and they’ll get bored. You don’t want that.

Don’t be overly proscriptive

This is the flip-side of the first point, in some ways. If you over-describe, then you close off a host of ways of thinking to your reader. Don’t prohibit your reader from bringing their own experience and reality to what you’ve written, and don’t deny them the ability to make it real for them, in their terms. Once you make a piece of writing public, you allow a reader to make what they want of it, no matter what it is you meant by it, or what your artistic vision intended.

Make clever use of dialogue and exposition

Something which irritates me in books is exposition which isn’t handled properly. This can happen when a character explains something to another character in a way which is clearly designed to do nothing but give information to the reader, or when a character simply addresses the reader to give them a Vital Plot Point. When I read dialogue between characters in which they tell one another things which they really shouldn’t have to – i.e. things that, in the world of the story, they should know without having to be told – it really makes me grind my teeth. This is clearly a ploy to bring the reader up to speed, and it should, where possible, be avoided. I also hate characters describing themselves to a reader by looking in a mirror or at a photograph of themselves and bemoaning their freckles/curly hair/straight hair/lack of teeth, or whatever the case may be; I’d much rather not know what a character is supposed to look like, and bring my own imagination to bear on the matter, than have it described to me like this.

Until yesterday, I had a whole chunk of clumsy exposition in ‘Tider’, at a point where our heroine is explaining to the reader what, exactly, her father does for a living (hint: it’s bad); it existed as a big monstrous lump of direct explanation, and it had always bothered me. Yesterday, I turned it into a piece of dialogue between our heroine and her best friend. Now, not only is there a hint of humour in there, but also a sense of the depth and importance of their friendship, and a subtle pointer towards the development of the best friend’s character, too – which came to me, naturally, as I wrote their dialogue. Conversations have a tendency to do that, I guess – develop organically, and go in all manner of unforeseen directions. This is why they’re brilliant, if they’re used properly in fiction. Make sure to have the characters ask one another questions which are sensible and intelligent, and which they wouldn’t already know the answers to; not only will this help to advance your plot, but it will also add another layer to your characters.

Oh, and – I managed to get as much information about my heroine’s father across in this piece of dialogue as I had done in the big, ugly, clunky, irritating paragraph that had been there before. It just looks and reads a whole lot better now.

As a writer, you’re always learning how to improve, and the beauty (and pain) of the job is there’s always improvin’ to be done. The only thing a person really needs to be aware of as they’re starting out in this wordsmithing game is that improving enough to please yourself can take a lifetime.

If something's worth doing, it's worth doing right... and for the rest of your life. Image: sodahead.com

If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right… and for the rest of your life.
Image: sodahead.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.