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Posts from the ‘Writing Tools’ Category

Keeping it simple

I see the advice ‘keep it simple’ a lot, and it’s good advice, mostly.

It’s also often misinterpreted, or misused, when it relates to writing.

Some people say it means using only small words, to be more easily understood. Others recommend small sentences, to avoid losing the reader in rambling prose. Others still, insist that it means to write without embellishment or much description, like Hemingway.

In all honesty, all of the above might work, or it might not. It’s more simple than that. When we say, ‘keep it simple’, all we mean is ‘make it easily understood’.

There’s nothing worse than being pulled out of a story by a writer’s failure to communicate clearly. Re-reading a sentence or paragraph, trying to work out what’s going on, is one of the number one reasons I will put a story down and probably not pick it up again.

It’s not always about vocabulary. You can expect the average reader to know what most commonly used words mean, and if they come across a less commonly used word, you can expect them to look up the meaning. It’s how I expanded my vocabulary, at least. Of course, using a lot of big, or unusual words, where the reader has to resort to the dictionary too many times, might become an annoyance. My advice would always be to use the right word for the job. That word could be ‘noise’ or it could be ‘cacophony’, depending on what you’re trying to convey.

It’s not always about sentence length, either.  In fact, varying sentence length is a good idea – it stops the prose from becoming monotonous. Don’t believe me?

This paragraph is made up of sentences of ten words. Not nine words, or eleven words, but exactly ten words. Count them if you don’t think I’m telling the truth. Tell me, have you noticed anything about the sentences yet. They’re all starting to become a little boring, aren’t they?

If we use sentences of a uniform length in an effort to keep them short, they start to sound the same and it’s harder to keep our attention focused. If we vary the length, it’s less noticeable. We can keep focus for longer. We follow the story instead of noticing the writing.

Sentence length can also be used as a narrative tool. If you want a relaxed, calm atmosphere, you can use longer sentences to convey a sense of tranquility, or of lingering in a moment. Your characters aren’t in a hurry if they’re stopping to admire the scenery and noticing small things like initials carved into a tree, or the way the tips of a willow’s branches brush the surface of the pond, like a caress. If your character is in danger, or angry, then short, terse sentences are key. They carry the action. They set the tone. Fragments work too. Especially. Just. One. Word.

Keeping it simple is not about using less description, either. How much description to use depends a great deal on the story itself and the mood you want to set. If you want to create a picture of a stark room, you’ll use language that conveys that picture. White, unadorned walls. A couple of bare wooden chairs. A cold tiled floor. No curtains, bare bulb, etc.  If you want to create a picture of opulence, you’d probably go into more detail and talk about how the rich fabric of the curtains hung, or the sparkling chandeliers, polished marble, lavish upholstery.

Perhaps we mean the plot? Well, yes and no. Some plots are quite linear, some twist and turn all over the place. Both are enjoyable and both have their good and bad points. What all kinds of plots have to do, however, is make sense. Don’t show the character having a fear of deep water in act one and then have them swim across a river in act two, unless there’s a good reason for doing so (like their arch nemesis has chased them to a river bank and they have nowhere else to go).

So, how do we ‘keep it simple’?

We use the right tools for the job. The right words to paint the picture you want the reader to see. The right amount of description to set the scene, the right sentence length to set the pace. Make it understandable. Read the sentence aloud – if you trip over it, your reader is going to trip over it. Make sure the punctuation is correct. Make sure the word you use conveys the exact meaning you want to give. Make sure that you, the writer, don’t get in the way of the story you’re trying to tell.

I can imagine that you’re reading this and thinking ‘this isn’t simple!’ and you’re right, it’s not. But that’s the trick. We, the writers, do all the hard work so that all the reader has to do is read.

H is for Hook

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It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fiction, journalism, marketing copy, or an essay; if you want to claim your reader’s attention, you need a hook. The hook is what makes the reader want to continue reading and comes within the opening paragraph.

Since I mostly write fiction, I’ll be concentrating on that, but hopefully this will be helpful for writers in all fields.

Think of all the stories you’ve read, whether they’re novels or short stories. What makes you continue past that first paragraph? For me, it’s the promise made that this is going to be something I will enjoy reading. The author doesn’t always follow through (I’ve stopped reading novels and stories that had great openings because they didn’t fulfil that promise), but for the most part I can usually tell that this is going to be my kind of read from what’s in that first paragraph, or even in the opening line.

We see lots of advice on not to use certain things for openings because they have been done so often they become cliché: someone looking in a mirror, the weather, someone talking, someone waking up. And yet, a good writer can take these clichés over-done openings and make them into something new and original. Here are some examples below:

“Polly cut off her hair in front of the mirror, feeling slightly guilty about not feeling very guilty about doing so.”  – Monstrous Regiment, Terry Pratchett.

monstrousThis is the opening to one of my all time favourite novels. Polly Perks is cutting off her hair, so she can pretend to be a boy and join the army to look for her lost brother. When people use mirrors, they tend to do so to describe the character’s appearance, which is a cliché, but in this case, Pratchett used it to show us something about Polly’s character rather than her appearance. Cutting her hair off is something she is expected to feel guilty about, so we can tell immediately that she’s in a world where society believes women and girls should have long hair. The fact that she doesn’t feel guilty enough tells us that she’s independent and can think for herself. I’m immediately interested in Polly.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – Neuromancer, William Gibson.

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I like this opening because it gives me a sense of something being not quite right. The language is stark, and the image is foreboding. It’s also unusual as far as a weather description goes. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a sky that colour before, so perhaps it’s somewhere other than earth? I’m pulled in to read further so that I can find out more about this place.

 

“A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard.” – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick

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This opening has someone waking up but it’s the mood organ that makes me want to read on because I immediately know we’re either not in this world, or if we are it’s somewhere in an imagined future.

 

 

“They’re made out of meat.” – Terry Bisson

“They’re Made out of Meat”  is one of my favourite short stories. Not only does it open with dialogue, but the whole story is a conversation between two disembodied voices. There is no narrative, no description, no action, just dialogue. Everything about this story is a literary ‘no-no’, and yet it works perfectly.

Of course, these are all notable exceptions. I’m not saying that we should all go out and ignore the advice on not using cliched openings. These are examples of what a skilled writer can do with something that is considered a cliché.

A good opening line or paragraph sets an expectation of who or what the novel, story, article or essay will be about. It also sets the tone of the piece of writing, whether that be matter of fact, foreboding, humorous, etc. In speculative fiction, it also often gives us a glimpse into another world.

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.” Old Man’s War –  John Scalzi

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This opening starts off normal enough for a seventy-five-year-old man. Then boom, Scalzi turns that impression upside down and we’re immediately asking ourselves questions because joining the army is probably the last thing we’d expect a man that age to do.

 

 

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.” Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

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I love this opening. If you know anything about the galaxy or solar system, you immediately know that this is earth we’re talking about here. There’s a self-deprecating humour in the way it’s written that is so English and so endearing that I immediately want to read on.

 

 

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka

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This one is so matter-of-factly talking about something so odd that it is an immediate draw. There’s no sense of panic, no terror, which creates a kind of morbid fascination. Just what has happened to Gregor? We need to know.

 

 

I’ve often found that I don’t know the opening line until I’ve written the whole story. I start at the beginning, of course, but it’s mostly just a placeholder until I’ve written the whole thing and know how it ends. Then, when I’m going back to edit, I look at the opening and fiddle with it until it becomes the hook I need for that particular story.

What was the most memorable opening line you remember reading? Or better still, give me an example of an opening line of your own. Here’s one of mine to leave you with:

“Whispers flitted across his mind. Distant voices murmuring words he could not quite grasp; like moth wings, they brushed memories he had tried for so long to forget, wafting loose the shrouds he had wrapped around them over so many years with so many empty wine-skins.”  The Lost Weaver

G is for Groups – writing groups

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Writing can be a lonely business. Especially early on, when it feels as though it’s impossible to know whether your writing is any good, or what you need to improve. You can share your writing, of course, and your family will give you all the encouragement and support you need to keep going. To learn writing as a craft, though, you need input from people who know the craft. This is where workshops and writing groups come in.

Sharing your writing with people other than your mum is always a daunting experience. Receiving a rejection from an unseen editor is bad enough, but having someone go through and point out all the weak spots and areas for improvement can feel like those dreams where you forget to get dressed and realise you’ve gone to work naked.

Oh, you don’t have those? Okay, moving on.

I’ve joined a few writing groups over the years and found them extremely helpful. Here are some non-profit ones I’ve taken part in (links in the titles where available).

Critters

I joined Critters way back in the late 90s, when I first started online. I thought it might help me with the writing portion of my university coursework, and it did. Through Critters, I got to know a lady who would become a great friend, and whom I’m still yet to meet in person. Hopefully, one day. I interviewed her – Elizabeth Kelley Buzbee – here on my blog, a couple of years ago about one of her novels.

Joining Critters taught me how to give and receive critiques of my writing. It also let me take that first step in sharing my writing with people for the specific purpose of receiving feedback. I’d recommend it to any writers in the SF, Fantasy or Horror genres. You are required to put in a bit of work to earn the critiques (at least one critique a week), but the reciprocity works out. Andrew Burt, the guy who runs the site, is a genuinely nice man. Not only that, but the site is completely free and relies solely on donations from good-hearted Critters.

Dargonzine

I joined Dargonzine around the same time as Critters. It’s less a writing group and more of a shared world writing experience. It does have the same feel as a writing group, though, and all the stories are workshopped before they’re published. Again, it gave me more experience of workshopping my writing and what I learned there I could apply to my non-Dargon writing.

Beaverton Evening Writers

I joined this group when I moved to Portland, Oregon, and I was excited because they were my first face-to-face group. I was also extremely nervous!  I needn’t have been, though, because they were lovely.  They meet every two weeks, send writing ahead of time and give the critiques in person. This allows for a kinder, more gentle delivery of critical feedback, which I think is essential.

After I moved away from Portland, I kept in touch with the writers and we put a short story collection together for charity: Five Elements Anthology.  I follow the blogs of two of the writers. Sheron Wood McCartha writes excellent Sci-Fi book reviews, and D. Wallace-Peach blogs about writing, her novels and all manner of interesting subjects. Check them out.

Youwriteon

This is another online group, supported by the Arts Council of Great Britain. While the site looks a bit old-fashioned (it’s been around quite a few years and could probably do with some TLC), the feedback is pretty good, and if you get enough reviews there’s a chance to get feedback from people in the publishing industry. You don’t have to work as hard as some sites to get your work reviewed (critiques appear to be one for one, and they give you the first one free). They also offer a free self-publishing service on a partner site, Feed-a-read.

Northwrite SF

When I came back to the UK I missed being part of a face-to-face group and looked around for something similar to the way the Beaverton group worked. I found it in Northwrite SF, run by Jacey Bedford (you should check out her novels, she writes wonderfully engaging SF and fantasy and is published by DAW).  I’ve learned a lot from this group. They’re all lovely people who read and critique with a keen eye, and give honest, constructive feedback. They meet quarterly in Yorkshire.

I also have a great critique partner, whom I also met while in Oregon but not through the Beaverton group. We swap about 3,000 words a week on our works in progress and look at the big picture stuff rather than pick over line edits. We keep each other going when the energy to write is low and one of these days I know I’m going to be introducing her debut novel, so watch this space!

As part of my coursework for my upcoming MFA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, I’ll be workshopping with my fellow students, which I’m excited about. I’m sure the experience I’ve gained through all these fab groups will help me support others through their learning progress and teach me more about my own writing at the same time.

What about you? Do you workshop your writing with others?

F is for … Foreshadowing

I’m late posting this week; things have been busy, and the blog post I thought I’d be publishing this week isn’t happening yet (but will be something to look forward to in the future, I hope!).

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I’ve also had some brilliant news: I had a telephone interview yesterday with one of the tutors at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Writing School and have been offered a place on their MFA in Creative Writing, starting September. I’m so excited! I’m also terrified I won’t measure up.

Once I submitted the application, I tortured myself for two weeks. If you write, you’ll know what I mean. From the moment I sent off the paperwork (containing a writing sample, book review, reference and personal statement), I started to doubt everything. One moment I’d think, ‘this is a good sample of my work,’ and the next I’d think, ‘Who wrote this rubbish? They’re going to laugh me out the door!’ I seriously considered asking if I could withdraw and submit again.

Luckily, I didn’t. The tutor I spoke with liked my writing, and, after a brief chat, offered me a place! Now I just have to wait for the official offer.

Did I mention I was excited?

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Right, now that’s out of the way, let’s get to this week’s post.

Foreshadowing

You may have heard the term before. In a nutshell, foreshadowing is where you drop clues in the story about something significant that will happen later. Usually, the clues are subtle, so that the reader might not think anything of them until the important event happens and then – if you’ve done a good job – they’ll say ‘Oh yes! I should have seen that coming!’

Sometimes, the writer will try to disguise foreshadowing by misdirection. They might have the main characters dismiss something as impossible and never going to happen, but then, of course, it does.

Or they may use nature. Nothing says there’s trouble ahead like a raging storm, or animals acting oddly.

The trick is to make the foreshadowing innocuous enough for the reader to absorb it as background detail, or worldbuilding if it’s speculative fiction. Details that seem minor and vaguely interesting at the time we read them, are rendered pivotal at the novel’s climax. Or at least they should. There’s a fine line between innocuous and forgettable. Don’t make your foreshadowing too noticeable or you’ll puncture the suspense you’ve so carefully built, and don’t make it too unnoticeable or it won’t give the reader that ‘Oh, of course!’ feeling later.

Examples

In Lord of the Rings, Tolkein foreshadows the climax at Mount Doom:

‘Pity? It’s a pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play in it, for good or evil, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.’

In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Harper Lee foreshadows the novel’s main story arc.

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.

What are your favourite foreshadowing moments?

 

 

 

 

Apostrophe Abuse

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I was going to write a B post today (since it’s an A-Z and I wrote about Allusion last week) but I decided to stick on A for another week. Why?

Apostrophe abuse. It’s the one grammatical horror that makes my eye twitch, and I see it everywhere. Many people have difficulty knowing when and when not to use one, so – as a public service and for the good of my twitchy eye – I’m going to explain when to use an apostrophe.

An apostrophe is used for two reasons:

  • Contractions
  • To show possession

It is never used to mark a plural. It may occasionally be used with a plural, but even then, only to show possession.

Contractions

contraction

 

 

 

 

 

No, not that kind of contraction.

A contraction happens when we ‘contract’ two words into one.

Some widely-used examples are:

  • It is = it’s
  • You are = you’re
  • They are = they’re
  • We are = we’re
  • Who is = who’s
  • I have = I’ve

As you can see, we use the apostrophe to replace the missing letter or letters.

Possession

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Now you’re just being silly. I mean the kind of possession that means something belonging to someone. Something that we own.

We use an apostrophe to denote possession for nouns but not pronouns.

Nouns:

  • Cheryl’s cat
  • Bill’s bicycle
  • Annie’s fudge
  • Scotland’s border
  • Humanity’s conscience

Pronouns

  • My cat
  • His bicycle
  • Her fudge
  • Its border
  • Their conscience

The easy way to remember this is if the object is owned by someone or something with a name, then we use an apostrophe. If not and a more generic pronoun is used, then there is no need for apostrophe.

Plural Possession

On the rare occasion that we use an apostrophe with a plural, we use it to show the possession and not the plural.

We went to the Holdsworths’ house for tea.

Note how the apostrophe in this case comes after the ‘s’ for the plural? That’s because the apostrophe shows possession (the house belongs to the Holdsworths) and not the plural.

The Holdsworths came to my house for tea.

Note how, since the possession in this case is singular (my house), the plural in this case (the Holdsworths) has no apostrophe.

We went to Mr. Holdsworth’s house for tea.

Note how the apostrophe in this case comes before the ‘s’? This is because there is possession but we’re only talking about one person – in this case, Mr. Holdsworth.

I think that explains when we should or shouldn’t use an apostrophe but just in case, here’s an example of where we often get it wrong.

There, they’re and their

There = a place:  The book is over there.

Since there is no possession or contraction, there is no apostrophe.

They’re = they are: They’re coming over for tea.

Since it’s a contraction, the apostrophe is used in place of the missing letter ‘a’.

Their = something belongs to them: We gave them back their keys.

Since this is possession but no name is given, no apostrophe is necessary.

So, when trying to decide which is correct, look at the sentence you’re writing and ask yourself whether it’s a place, a contraction or possession (and if it’s possession, whether or not a noun (name) or pronoun is used).

I know, there’s a lot to remember! But I hope this helps a little.

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Let me know in the comments if there are any instances where you’re still not sure whether to use an apostrophe, and I’ll explain from your example.

Hi Honey, I’m home!

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*Pulls light switch*

*Blinks*

“Oh hi! Is this still here?”

“I wonder if it still works?”

*Blows dust off the chair*

*coughs and splutters*

“Oh my, look at that spider’s web.”

*pulls spider web down*

*Spider comes running out with her front legs up in the air, ready to fight*

spidey

Sorry!”

Ahem.

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’m sorry for staying away so long. I’ve been so busy. Where to start?  I’ll tell you what, while I try to decide what I want to blog about, I’ll do a weekly, writing-related A-Z. How does that sound?

Right then, starting with A.

Allusion

We use allusion in our everyday conversation, often without realising, and it’s quite an easy tool to use in writing, as long as it’s not over-done.

So, what is it?

Have you ever known someone who tells a lot of lies, and told them that their nose ought to be a foot long with all the lies they tell?

That’s allusion.

You’re referring to the story of Pinocchio, whose nose grew an inch every time he told a lie. Instead of having to tell the whole story of Pinocchio, you can conjure up an image in their mind with just a few words, because they already know what happens.

pinocchio

When is it useful?

Allusion can be useful when you don’t want to go into a lengthy description of a cameo character. You can write, ‘Jenny’s husband  was a bit of a David Brent,’ and most people will get an immediate picture of the character and his personality.

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Here are a couple more:

“She did a Cathy Earnshaw onto the bed and began sobbing.”

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“She gave him a look that said, ‘bovvered?”

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So, over to you. Give me an allusion you’re fond of using, or one that you can’t stand.