Category Archives: Writing

Letting A Story Write Itself

Stories sometimes just drop out of the sky. Or do they?There is a paragraph in Stephen King’s On Writing that hit me about the head like a frying pan. In it he talks about his writing process: how he transforms an idea he has for a story into an actual book.

The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured, to begin with – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected. For a suspense novelist, this is a great thing. I am, after all, not just the novel’s creator but its first reader. And if I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.

King makes it seem so easy: why ever should you have to ‘be enslaved to the tyranny of the outline and the notebook filled with “Character Notes”?’ And I must admit, it does make writing sound fun. But after giving it a try and thinking about the possibilities of this technique – I have to say that the differences in story and plot really depend on what kind of writer you are, and what kind of stories you write.

Story

Story is what King advocates: he starts off with an idea, and instead of pulling up his sleeves and pushing characters around, he sits back and just ‘write what happens’. He alleges this is more organic and inspired, and some pretty complex books of his have come out of this style of writing (Doleres Claiborne). To his credit his arguments do make plenty of sense – and he throws in a caveat: “… each of the novels summarized above was smoothed out and detailed by the editorial process, of course, but most of the elements existed to begin with …”

Story works where there is a situational premise (Richard’s Undead Flowers, for instance: what happens if there are the undead and the living live together, side by side, in a village?). And I believe story also works when you’re writing a blook … for the reasons King gave, as well as its suitability to the medium.

Thursday, 15 November, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules For Writing Fiction

I found this through 9rules, and I thought I’ll share it here.

Eight rules for writing fiction:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

- Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.

Tuesday, 21 August, 2007

Writing Long (And Getting Read)

Window in the roof, revealing a striking square of blue skyMost of you who have been following Novelr know what I see as the answer to the “Don’t Read Text Online” conundrum. In a sentence: shorter, bite-sized, standalone posts, with clear, unembellished writing.

I’m beginning to see that I was wrong. I’m beginning to see that Cory Doctorow isn’t completely correct.

Short text is not the only way forward, and I probably had this coming to me: Lee didn’t agree with my point that dreamy prose won’t work online. With good cause, as I now see. What brought about this sudden epiphany, you may ask? The answer may be a little ironic: an article entitled ‘Reviving Anorexic Web Writing‘, from A List Apart Issue 242. A design website for heaven’s sakes! It swept the carpet from under my feet and I suggest that you read it in its entirety before continuing with this post.

Seriously. Go read it now. Reading quotes will just dillute the point Amber Simmon‘s trying to make. Done? Okay …

In The Defense Of Brevity

Much of what I’ve talked about has been proven to work online: bulleted points, lists, (short) length, as well as subheadings. All this works to promote scannability of an article – to direct reader attention to ideas and paragraphs you want them to pay attention to. You see this everywhere you look: the NYT splits long posts into multiple pages; news sites put up subheadings to tell readers which part of the article says what.

In fact, writing like this probably works best in the majority of cases. I cannot imagine reading Faulkner-like prose while browsing Google News, nor can I imagine stinging social commentary while reading a blogging tutorial. My writing on Novelr follows this advice – it produces organized, rant-free posts with enough impact to start a discussion going – which is my ultimate aim.

(At least, I hope it does … most of the time.)

Fiction Is A Different Story

Now here’s the clincher: if online prose is condensed and changed to suit scan-click ADD readers … then doesn’t that sacrifice quality on the altar of readership? Changing the way people write to suit the medium is something Cory Doctorow champions, but Amber Simmons fights against.

She has strong reasons.

… the advice to omit words, chunk content, use bullets, and keep it short remains. This is sometimes, but not universally good advice. I thought I was the only one who felt this way until I read Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think! wherein he writes, “No one is suggesting the articles on Salon.com be shorter.” I cheered inside! Except that people are suggesting this. Because we haven’t yet figured out the difference between content and copy.

She even gives us an example. My Body, by Shelley Jackson, is ‘real writing: beautiful, lucid, captivating.’ The lack of headlines and bullets mattered not, the lack of pictures mattered not.

Saturday, 14 July, 2007

I Will Tell This Story In _ Hours

The concept of a story within a set period of time has always interested me. Readers know how many chapters there are going to be: rather than keeping them guessing on how long before the story is concluded they have a sense of urgency as the events in the story unfold.

Take 24 (the TV series) as an example. The concept is pretty simple to grasp: each episode is 1 hour (of a day), and 24 makes up the entire season. This makes for pretty interesting plotting: you have the end in sight, now what is going to happen within those 24 hours?
24
Another example of this is Life Of Pi. Early on in the novel Yann Martel tells us he would give us Pi’s amazing story in exactly 100 chapters. As the book went on I found myself wanting the book to last longer, and I used the chapters as a yardstick for how much story there was left.

This has an interesting effect. In 24 the characters are plunged into a crisis, and the writers throw complication after complication at them. In writing, set periods coupled with non-stop hurdles prove for very interesting stories. When your characters are in deep, deep trouble readers are probably wondering how you’re going to get them out again … which is very good if you’re writing with a need of holding the reader’s attention.

Like, for instance, the computer screen.

I wonder how far I can push this concept – really short storytelling in … 25 chapters? Should be interesting, don’t you think?

Tuesday, 8 May, 2007

Shut Up And Write

hopeI have writer’s block today.

Took a few minutes to get away from the computer; to smell the flowers in my garden, listen to the birds, watch my dog lolloping around. Then a rogue bee came and chased me back inside the house. The stark whiteness of the computer screen is biting at me now.

The writer’s block won’t go away, dammit.

I’ve been writing since I was 7, and I know the feeling well. You want to write something, anything, and yet your fingers freeze. The paper crinkles in your hands; its blankness a testament to your failure. I check back the archives in this blog: I’ve written about how computers don’t help me in being productive, I’ve also written on what I do to overcome writer’s block.

None of it is working now. The paper is laughing at me on my desk.

Top 5 Things To Do When Your Paper Begins To Laugh At You

1. Make a cup of coffee. I find this helps in the most dire of situations – the caffeine will then either: A) inspire you ; B) make the paper laugh louder. In case of B), prepare a bottle of vodka. If vodka doesn’t inspire you I don’t know what will.

2. Read a good book. One that explores themes relating to suffering, obstacles, sex and murder. Note: all these elements can be found in the Bible. I’ve always found it fascinating how Solomon could describe women:

Oh, you are beautiful, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes behind your veil are like doves. Your hair is like a flock of female goats descending from Mount Gilead.
(Song of Songs 4:1)

Don’t ask.

3. Take a nap. And maybe when you wake up the page will be filled with words. You can hope. Pray. Fervently. Or at least dream about ideas descending Mount Gilead like a flock of female goats …

4. Play Desktop Tower Defense. I mean, seriously. This little game is addictive. And making sure the monsters don’t get through is sure a lot better than stressing over some lousy deadline you’re supposed to be working towards, right? Right?

5. The truth. Somedays you just can’t overcome your Writer’s Block, no matter what creative things you do. And when you get one of those days the best solution would be to force yourself to write – be it for a research paper or a blog or a newspaper article – just close everything down, bite your lip and tackle that topic head on!

There. I’ve completed this blog post as part of Darren Rowse‘s group writing project. And my paper is still empty; it is still in front of me. “What are you going to do with me now?” it taunts.

I take up my pencil.

“I’m going to write.”

Tuesday, 10 April, 2007

Take A Step Away From The Computer

That’s right. Hands in the air. Anything you say can and will be used against you in court.

I’m finding that my computer doesn’t really help the writing process. And that doesn’t make sense – what is so different about writing with a pen and writing with a keyboard?

Everything, as it turns out.

I write best with pencil and paper. Pens won’t do, since I can’t stand crossing out phrases that could be improved upon. Pencils give me the freedom to doodle along the margins and to mind-map all my plot ideas, themes and characters … in cute little bubbles. It’s aesthetically pleasing.

Composing my thoughts on the computer, like in WordPress or in Word is an entirely different thing. I don’t see the empty document window or text box as a canvas on which my art can be crafted and molded on. I see obstacles to my creativity (and my lovely email inbox).

Writing this post has taken me 2 hours. During that time roughly 30 minutes had been spent on actual typing and forming sentences, while the other 1 hour 30 minutes spent on surfing Amazon, checking email, catching up with friends on Skype as well as reading up on the latest reviews over at the NYT.
flower_bee.jpg
In contrast, it takes me roughly 4 hours to write a 3000 word chapter on paper. That means 750 words an hour – a hefty pace, considering I spend a lot of time on rewriting entire pages.

You know what? I should spend more time writing my posts offline. I believe the quality would improve, as well as give me the time to doodle and drink coffee (no fear of a short circuit!) and to smell the flowers and run from the bees.

Take a day away from the computer. It helps.

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.
library.jpg
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.

Wednesday, 28 March, 2007

Why you will never get published (through traditional outlets) today

“Rich people may have finally found the way to heaven: a genetically engineered camel that would fit into the eye of a needle.”

To writers still aspiring to be taken up by one of the traditional publishing houses: our eye to writing heaven has just gotten smaller.

camel.jpgLet’s look at the odds working against authors wanting to publish a first novel:

There are hundreds of competent writing courses out there, which in turn raises the quality for submissions to publishers. Your writing, if beautiful, has to compete with hundreds of others who are more or less as good as, if not better than, yours.

So let’s look at the other factor in getting published: content. Or topic. Or what you write about. If you’re a novelist, the story you present in your first novel must be distinctive, fresh, and easily marketable. It is perhaps this last point that provides us with some worry – more and more marketing campaigns in the publishing industry have huge pictures of good looking authors to use while promoting their fiction – authors are sold next to their books.

Let’s talk about reading habits:

In a survey of 2,000 adults, a third had not bought a new book in the previous 12 months. 34% said they did not read books. (Expanding the Market, Book Marketing Ltd, 2004)

Whether they use the internet or not wasn’t asked, though I believe it should – the internet is primarily a text based medium where reading reigns supreme. Back to the topic at hand: less and less people are reading books, buying books, enjoying literature. There are a myriad of reasons, but let’s just step back and conclude that while book nuts are not shrinking dramatically, they’re not growing exponentially either.

But the number of books, content and writing out there are growing exponentially.

A lot of the above points are discussed and presented poignantly in a Guardian Unlimited article I’ve just finished consuming. The future looks bleak.

Before I became a journalist, I worked as a reader for Jonathan Cape and Chatto & Windus. I learnt that if it is true that everyone has a novel in them, most people would be best advised to keep it there.

Monday, 26 March, 2007

Writing about hanging myself

hangman.jpgMarlon was looking up at me, gaping mouth wide open.

I ignored the frantic gulping that his lips made. Open close open close. How annoying; swimming about in the distorted glass.

I had spent two days making sure everything was ready. A trip to the bank to make sure all my finances were in order. I wouldn’t want the government to slam down on my money just as I was about to pull off the greatest act in my short life, would I?

She would receive my greatest manuscript ever, made great not by the quality of prose – (which she insisted was not on par with ‘The Work I Usually Publish’) – but the tragic beauty my final act would give to it. Just as Van Gough’s story was made beautiful by him sawing off his ear, mine would be defined by the selfless acts I do, or am doing now.

I wonder if Oprah will feature me in her book club?

The belt is there, leather gleaming in the afternoon sun. I test it, pulling it down and letting it snap back up towards the ceiling. Strong. Elastic. Would it break my – nevermind, Marlon was swimming to the other end of his bowl and making annoyed swishes at me. No time to think no time to doubt. Out of sight out of mind.

I step up onto the plastic chair, placed my head into the loop of the belt. The buckle felt cool against my neck. Marlon was swimming back towards me. When he stopped, having reached the edge of the fishbowl, I would …

Ack.

[H]e [the aspiring writer] should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with. (The Paris Review, Spring 1958)

-Ernest Hemingway

Yes, I chose to interpret the quote literally and did it as a writing exercise. Thoughts? It was very fun, considering Hemingway made that remark with tongue stuck firmly in cheek, and with a totally different meaning to it. But if I am to be cut down by fierce literary critics then I should at least write about a fictional hanging … just for the heck of it.

Writing should, after all, be fun.

Friday, 23 March, 2007

‘i’ is a Cardinal Sin

I’ve just received one of the biggest shocks of my (online) life.

Let me clarify a little. I’ve been writing and posting and having exhilarating conversations on the internet for four years. At first it was just forums, discussing writing, theology, and code (I was learning CSS back then). Then I started blogging, writing about things that affected me personally as well as the little gems that make all our lives worth living.

So two days ago I posted a simple 9Rules Note, reading:

I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but lately i’ve been forcing myself to capitalise my ‘i’s while posting in blogs other than my personal one. Do you write with a big I, or do you write like the ‘i’ like I did in my first sentence, where only the ‘i’ at the start of a sentence is capitalised?

Does it even matter online?

Within half a day there were 39 replies from various 9rules network members. It was frightening.

Gnorb said: Always capitalized. Always. Not seeing it capitalized (unless obviously accidental) almost always ensures that I never return to that site. I understand if grammar is not the writer’s strong suit — (s)he may not be a native English speaker — but not capitalizing the “I” is just plain lazy. Right up there with never capitalizing anything or capitalizing everything, all the time.

Phantomdata said: I enjoy people who believe that when posting online, all writing conventions fly out the window. Truly, I do. It provides for me a way to separate the idiots from those who have something worth saying. If you fail to capitalize or like to convert such simple words as “to” into “2″* then your laziness and recent discovery of the internet tell me to ignore you.

So, please continue failing at capitalization. Once the throngs of idiots learn to write, I will have to find a new way to filter them out.

* Outside of satire, of course. lulz.

Of the 39 replies (now 44, actually), only two supported the use of non-capitalized ‘i’s. Reasons given: “…’s pretty“. However, the vast majority relaxed the ‘Capitalise ‘I’. Always’ rule in informal settings such as in IM conversations, or IRC channel chats.

I was … perplexed, to say the least. Why was there such a big storm of opinion about something so seemingly insignificant? Perhaps my background in online writing (forums in the beginning, remember?) and treating my personal blog as an informal medium for my thoughts led to this habit of mine to miss hitting the shift key. On paper I write just the way I was taught: with capitalised ‘I’s and complete, whole words.

The impression I got of ‘Capitalise your ‘I’s, because this is English’ made me think twice. To me reading a non-capitalised ‘i’ online wasn’t as bad a mistake as mixing up ‘affect’ with ‘effect’, or typing ‘thought’ as ‘tot’. Those words make an otherwise professional-sounding article seem amateurish, since readers have to replace the abbreviations mentally while reading and this interrupts the flow of ideas.

Wednesday, 21 March, 2007

Crossfire: All Blooker Prize Winners Are Amateurs

I came across a post two days ago in the blogosphere (specifically, posted in Vox and found here), and it started me thinking as well drafting a response in this blog.

Ed-infinitum’s post is an answer to the question: Do you think that ‘blooker’ prize winners would have won the ‘Booker’ prize? If not, why?

His post is a remarkably well thought out affair, with references to the articles that may or may not have sparked off his reasoning. It took me two days before I started writing this reply, because, well, it requires some thinking.

Ed-infinitum’s post is in essence saying: no, Blooker prize winners cannot win the Booker prize, simply because blooks are part of the Blogosphere – an ‘amateur medium‘. So what the Blooker prize does is to award the best of the amateurs, and creates a category of what he calls ‘professional amateurs’ who do not aspire to be ‘intellectuals’.

“Blooks are the new books, a hybrid literary form at the cutting edge of both literature and technology,” said Bob Young, founder of self-publishing site Lulu which organised and sponsored the prize.

What Bob Young actually means is that ‘blooks’ are ‘a hybrid literary form at the cutting edge of’ non-upper (intellectual) class literature. How, pray tell, can the ‘intimate diary of a prostitute’, or a ‘guide to ’s best greasy spoon cafes’, or ‘misadventures in the kitchen’ be considered to be located on the ‘cutting-edge of literature’? How do they compare with, for instance, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, Ngugi wa thiong’o, Rousseau, Marx, J.S. Mill, Marcuse, and so on?

He sums up by saying that the best kind of awards spurs nominees along a ‘vertical development path’, to make them be the best they can possibly be, and to break past the barrier that separates amateurs and professionals.

Now, what he proposes may be elitist in its stance, but I can’t discount the fact that he is right, and he’s not the only one who has made such an observation. In a ZDnet article entitiled Reflections On The First Decade Of Blogging Dan Farber quotes Andrew Keen’s new book The Cult of the Amateur:

…instead of creating masterpieces, these millions and millions of exuberant monkeys [Internet users]–many with no more talent in the creative arts than our primate cousins–are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity.

Yes, it may sound offending, especially to you and me, mere mortals on the internet.

But there lies my counter argument against Ed-Infinitum’s post. The blogosphere is new, it is raw, and it can be described as The Madding Crowd. Using it as a medium to publish books (blooks) is still very much experimental.

But who is to say that the next Hemingway or the next Faulkner would not have online origins? The internet is ‘social’ and is getting more and more ingrained into our daily lives. I’ll be willing to bet that in a few years most of us will feel like we’ve had a lobotomy the instant we go offline, and that means the most of the next wave of ‘professionals’, no matter how elitist that sounds, will have an online presence of some kind.