Category Archives: Learning To Write

Not Too Many Details, Please

When I first started out writing it was impressed upon me how important detail was in my narrative.
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I want to feel the flowers I want to smell the flowers I want to breath through your pages.

I can’t deny narrative is powerful stuff. Many a novel is saved by the sharp voice of the narrator alone – the whimsical flights of fancy that really has nothing to do with the story being told, but is charming nevertheless. But I cry out whenever I read a story with too much insignificant detail, each action of each character lovingly described until it becomes unbearably stilted.

It’s extremely hard to demonstrate in a post, but let me try my best:

She got up from bed and stared at the unfamiliar room. It was old and grey and smelt of talcum powder. With a rush she realized it reminded her of her childhood.

She decided to go downstairs and make herself a cup of coffee. As she descended the grime on the windows by the staircases caught her eye. I’ll have to clean that up after I complete my paperwork, she told herself, and then she swept into the kitchen.

The kitchen was purple and tiled, and smelt of yesterday’s coffee. She wondered if coffee was all it was ever going to smell of. She flipped a switch and the humming of the coffee maker filled the room, mechanical and annoying.

She wondered how much of this house was of use to her. The cracked purple tile of the kitchen was charming when she first bought the house, but it was now starting to bore her. Her appliances were last decade, but the kitchen was last century. It was mismatched, and not in a good way. She filed away at her fingernails, watching the skin flake away. Must be the detergent I’m using, she thought, I’ll have to switch brands soon.

Okay. I admit there’s nothing wrong about the above extract, but there’s nothing unbelievably great about it either. It doesn’t hook you, it doesn’t give you an insight to how a character works – you can’t possibly tell if ‘she’ is the type of woman to kill her husband in cold blood, or leave her boyfriend in a ditch after poisoning him. Scenes like this are unnecessary, not contributing to the plot of a romance or a thriller or a horror novel. In fact, this scene contributes nothing, and I hate it when an author fills up 5 chapters with this kind of dross. In a novel it’d be inane; in a blook unforgiveable.

Saturday, 5 May, 2007

A Reason To Write Badly: The Watcher At The Gate

watcherOn January 9 1977, Gail Godwin published a fascinating article in the New York Times entitled ‘The Watcher At The Gate‘. It was well written, to the point, and absolutely eye opening for me.

The Watcher at the Gate is your inner critic – the one who speaks up as you start to get an influx of ideas, who forces you to go back and revise what you’ve just written a paragraph ago and make little changes … or even rip the entire page out. I do this all the time, especially when I’ve been rusty and haven’t worked on a manuscript in ages.

Are my characters properly expressed? Are the actions snappy enough? Is the pace too slow? Too fast? What is the name of that Scandivanian flower that is so integral to my plot? I can’t possibly continue writing without first finding that out!

Gail talks about how important it is to silence the Watcher and let the words pour out of the Gate in one messy, convoluted pile. Only then should we unleash our Watchers, picking through the debris and correcting this detail here, that detail there …

Put simply: we should write badly. The correction and polishing should be done only after we’ve spat out that furball of ideas and dialogue and themes, to prevent us from limiting our creativity. Need to verify a fact? Do that after you finish the chapter/section/book.

plastic angelsIt’s a lot easier to implement this for manuscripts hidden under stacks of books and bottles of ink, only to be sent off to an agent in a year (or four). But how about blooking? I found myself constantly making corrections as I typed out each chapter of Janus, reading through at least once before hitting the publish button. But I still don’t feel comfortable with the work – most books headed for a traditional publishing house took a year to edit to acheive such a sheen.

So what is the answer?

It depends on the focus of your blook. If you intend to use blooks as a method of writing your next novel it’ll give you the best of both worlds – you silence your Watcher by setting deadlines and posting up chapters in weekly time frames (Shut up, you! There’s no time left!). Editing only comes when you’re about to submit to an agent, which is really wonderful – even if it takes you up to a year to be positively happy with it.

However, if you’re intending to publish a high quality blook for readers to savour things might start to get a tad tricky. You’ll need a buffer of a few chapters in order to do proper editing, and this can be a tough balancing act.

It’ll be interesting, though. A real adventure. Who knows what ‘sunspots’ will pop up in your prose? What weird directions your blook will float into?

And that is, to me, the beauty of this medium.

Friday, 13 April, 2007

Why Adverbs Suck

Dog LeashI’ve been coming across a lot of stylistic guides over the past few days … perhaps due to hththt‘s posts on 9Rules about great writing tutorials online. A lot of them are good, and a lot of them talk about the horror of adverbs.

What are adverbs?

Adverbs are words that are used in writing to answer questions such as how?, when?, where? … and so on. (Wikipedia link)

A few examples: “I love you,” she said tenderly.

He threw the ball expertly; the crowd cheered as it arced through the air.

“Kill her.” He said coldly, “And then leave the body here to rot.”

So? What seems to be the problem? These sentences seem perfectly alright on their own. But allow me rewrite them, and let’s see what happens:

“I love you,” she said, her hands tracing the outline of his face.

He threw the ball in a single fluid motion; the crowd cheered as it arced through the air.

“Kill her.” He said, eyes cold and distant, “And then leave the body here to rot.”

Replacing the adverb in all three cases strengthens the impact of the sentence and adds a degree of depth: in the first example, you knew she said it tenderly – but the rewritten version tells you how exactly the tenderness was expressed.

In a sentence: If used incorrectly, adverbs can blunt the impact and power of a verb.

This brings us to our next problem: How can you tell if an adverb is used correctly?

The solution is actually pretty simple. Reread your writing and take note of the adverbs used (typically ending with -ly). Ask yourself this question: “Is this adverb absolutely necessary?

An example of a necessary adverb:

Ceri got to his feet slowly, a mild headache throbbing between his temples.

The use of slowly cannot be replaced or expanded upon, and is in fact necessary to convey the pain Ceri is experiencing and the effect it has on his movements. Another example:

Yuki calmly blocked a forward blow; Bishop’s palm streaked upwards and a corresponding streak of falling bricks and disintegrating mortar appeared in the side of the hall.

The calmly here can actually be expanded upon, but there is no way of doing so without muddling up the sentence. This is due to the fact that in long sentences it is absolutely vital to keep both subject (Yuki) and verb (blocked) at the very front … anything between will just confuse the reader.

Let’s end with the bad use of an adverb:

Suddenly, there was an eruption of searing white light.

And how can we improve that without changing the meaning of the sentence? Simple:

There was a sudden eruption of searing white light.

It’s pretty amazing what proper adverb usage can do for your writing. The next time you’re flipping through a magazine or a newspaper grab a pencil and watch out for them. Good writers use them sparingly. Do the same.

Tuesday, 3 April, 2007

Are First Lines That Important?

The following are first lines – from some of my most loved novels:

Call me Ishmael.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.

All day, the colours had been that of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths.

“Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.”

Can you recognize any of the above? (Don’t you go and Google them … I’ll put up the answers at the end of the post).

Are first lines that important? I usually read at least half a novel before developing an opinion about it (a possible exception is online fiction, or something that I know is from the slush pile) – and even then I don’t judge something by its first line alone. I read at least two pages of rubbish before I decide to call it rubbish.
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But I’m not spokesperson for the world at large. Nor are novels what we usually read online.

So should you give thought to the first line in your writing?

The answer? It depends on the medium. Novels can get by with absolutely pathetic first lines, though writing overall still has to be good, vigorous and well structured. You wouldn’t have thought that To Kill A Mockingbird – one of the greatest novels ever written – started with an extremely unimpressive first line now, would you?

Once we take it online, however, the first lines of posts, episodes and chapters become absolutely vital. Which of the following would you rather continue reading?

I’m so tired to blog today because a lot of bad things happened to me while I was coming back from school and it was so horrible to be stuck between this woman that stunk like a fish market and a man who looked like he came straight out of The Departed – it nearly made me puke after the heavy meal Kristin made me eat during lunch break as well as the breakfast Mum forced down my throat.

Or:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Alright, so the second example was borrowed off Dickens. He wrote sharp and beautifully, and that first line from A Tale Of Two Cities still sticks with me today. Unfortunately for me, he peppered the rest of the first paragraph with variations of the first line, making me rush through to get to the meat of the story as soon as possible.

The first line in online writing should be concise, to the point, and attractive enough to draw the reader in. You’re not going to get anywhere with:

Hello, my name’s Kevin – but that’s not important.

Friday, 30 March, 2007

Top 10 ways to write an Anticlimax

An anticlimax is personally one of my most feared nightmares – it means you have to revise a major part of the novel, or at least put the climax on hold until you can figure out a way to make it bigger, better, more twisted and more shocking than anything you’ve thrown at the reader so far. Here’s my top 10 list of successfully writing an Anticlimax – found mostly through trial and error.

1. Never plan ahead. While writing your novel take care to never plan more than 2 chapters ahead – that way you get to make sure incongruous details pop up at the last minute, and ensure that your pacing is like that of jerky Chevy.

2. Introduce a new plotline at the last minute. There’s nothing more satisfying than knowing you’ve thrown your reader off the buildup to your climax. One of the best ways to do so is to have your protagonist killed, brought back to life, get a new love interest, before finishing off the antagonist/challenge poised. This works well especially if it’s way off course.

3. Have plenty of explosions. Place them strategically all over the novel, at various scenes in the build-up to the climax. Then have the smallest explosion ever at your climax, simply because you’ve run out of fuel. In other words: make sure your build-up is more exciting than your climax.

4. Make sure the final confrontation/culmination is very short. Half a chapter is good. No, wait – 50 words is better. In case of a mystery, use the following paragraph (exactly 50 words):

Detective walks up to killer. “You’re under arrest for the murder of Victim A, B and C. Put your hands in the air.”

Killer: “Gee. You’re one smart guy. Must’ve been all the forensic evidence I left lying around. When do I get out so you can catch me again?”

5. Drag your final confrontation to half the book. The idea here is to make bring the reader to the edge of his seat – and keep him there for as long as it takes to get him bored.