06 February, 2012

Flabby writing

The best writing is tight and spare.

This doesn't mean it can't be evocative and descriptive.  Don't confuse descriptions, scene setting or any of the slower paced parts of your story with flabby writing or blubbery sentences.

What is flabby writing?

This can include unnecessary adverbs or adjectives, jargon or cliche, saying the same thing in different ways, or just simply overwriting - giving the reader too much information.

A few slimming tips

Reduce the number of adverbs by choosing more appropriate verbs.  Adverb-laden writing is often lazy writing.

Get rid of adjectives that seem more like subjective opinion than objective description (unless you are writing in first person or close third person and are using these to tell us about the narrator's attitudes).

Some adjectives are meaningless fillers.  What is the difference between exact same and same?  Previously done and done?

Watch out for adverbs that are not providing information:  very, really, totally, completely, extremely, decidedly.

What about sentence components such as "the fact that" or "as follows" or "one of the aspects"?  Are they earning their keep?

What other ways can you think of for cutting back on flab.

Readers everywhere will be grateful

15 January, 2012

Is first the best?

A first person narrator tells the story in the voice of one of the characters. The voice must reflect the character's age, background, ethnicity, culture, gender and attitudes.

It can be a useful way of getting this sort of background information across to the reader and making them closely identify with the character, but there are also disadvantages:

  • The narrator has to be present at all the key scenes.  This has implications for the story structure.
  • Experiencing the whole story from the close perspective of one person can be claustrophobic.
  • Does the narrator need a reason to be relating the story?  Does the story need a frame? This is less an issue for stories written in the present tense.
  • If the story is told in past tense, the narrator is an older version of the character and is remembering the events in the story.  This introduces temporal distance - it feels less immediate. 
  • The reader is also aware that the narrator knows how the story ends and that the narrator character cannot die in the story.
These are challenges even for an experienced writer.  But what happens in less experienced hands?  Sadly the first person voice can end up either distant or exaggerated.  To be really effective, the narrator must have attitude and the narration must reveal character.  

First person narration is difficult.  

11 December, 2011

Whose Point of View?

Third person Point of View (POV) has advantages over first person - it is less claustrophobic and more flexible.  And we also have additional choices:

  • Do we show the story through the eyes of several characters or just one?  
  • Or should we even use a character's perspective at all - so-called omniscient third person, where there is an all-seeing neutral narrator?
  • How much narrative distance do we use? In other words, how deeply to penetrate the viewpoint character's mind. 
There are pros and cons to the above choices.  

In omniscient third person, the narrator can appear to float over the story landscape, moving from place to place at will.  The reader can be shown any character's thoughts, dreams or memories.  The omniscient narrator can be like a separate prescence in the story - he may occasionally offer comments on what is taking place. 

Omniscient third person was commonly used in the nineteenth century - think Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, but is much less common today. It has the disadvantage of creating a gulf between the reader and the characters, and this results in less emotional involvment.  It can still work well for humourous novels or long sagas.

If, on the other hand, we decide to write the story from the POV of one or more characters, and we choose close third person POV, the result is very similar to first person.  We experience scenes as if we see them through the viewpoint characters eyes.  Their choice of words and phrases give the reader information about their personality, mood and attitudes.  

At the opposite end of the narrative distance spectrum is when the character is viewed from the outside with neutral narration.  It is less emotional and more formal, but can be useful for unlikeable viewpoint characters who readers won't want to closely identify with.

In reality, narrative distance is a continuum, and many novels are written from so-called middle distance.  This is the most flexible position as the writer can move in closer (into the character's head) or back off into a neutral distant position.  Middle distance is often useful for multiple POV novels.  

 A key decision is the viewpoint character for the climax as this will have a major impact on the story.

Choose your POV carefully


13 November, 2011

Be subtle, and say more

Beginner writers are always being told "Show not Tell".

As we know, "Showing" is more effective in bringing the reader into the moment or the scene.   But we can really enhance our "showing" skills further if we know how to use the full impact of skillfully crafted sentences to:

  •  create a visual image in the reader's mind
  •  evoke a particular emotional response
  • engage the readers deductive reasoning powers
You can do this by planting clues in the reader's mind, but not provide all the information.  Under-write.  Be manipulative.  The reader's mind will provide the missing information, which will be all the more vivid or powerful as a result.

Here are some examples:

Jane turned to the estate agent.   "It's not really what I'm looking for.  It is far more than I want to pay, and the wallpaper in the lounge is too bright."  

In the above example, it is clear that Jane doesn't want to buy the house.  It is also clear that she is not giving all the real reasons.  The reader will have to work out what is really going on here in the story (although in this example, we don't have sufficient information yet).

Tom ambled down the sunken lane towards the church, through the soft dusk of a late autumn afternoon.  The earthy scent of damp leaves burning on bonfires drifted on the wind.   At the lychgate, he hesitated.  The grave was still too recent.

Mrs Jones had Bill's army photos framed and hung up in his old room.  His bed was made and his clothes put away in the wardrobe, all ready for his return.   The room was kept spotless.

Can you use subtle writing in your current piece? 

03 November, 2011

Beware of "ing" and "Iy" words

By "ing" words, I mean words that have a verb as the root with an "ing" added on.  Examples are walking, running, reading, writing, spelling, looking.  You get the idea.

These "ing" words can be gerund nouns (eg The writing was on the wall.) or they can be adjectives (eg the running man.).  I'm concerned here with "ing" words used as present participles (eg Walking to the door, he turned the handle.)

So what is actually wrong with:  "Walking to the door, he turned the handle"?   Simply that it implies he is doing both at the same time.  In reality he has to walk to the door before he can turn the handle.

What if the actions really are simultaneous?  For example, "Walking to the door, he put on his scarf."  Then this use would be correct, but it still may not be the best way of constructing the sentence.  It is often better to use the active form of the verb.  "He walked to the door and put on his scarf."

The active verb form is stronger and is less tiring for the reader as the sentence just flows in a sequential order.  The subject is just before the verb which keeps everything simple and clear.

Using the present participle, the reader has to keep the first part of the sentence in his mind while he reads the remainder of the sentence.

Use the search feature to look for all examples of  "ing" words in your writing.  Identify which are used as present participles, and then re-write the sentence unless you have a good reason for wanting to retain it.

"ly" words are adverbs.  What is wrong with adverbs?  Nothing really, except that they are often overused by lazy and flabby writers (and I'm not talking about BMI here).  Writing can be made more concise and therefore tighter simply by using better verbs instead of verb-adverb combinations.  So again use the search  tool on the "ly" words, and try to find alternatives for some of them

These two searches can really help you root out weak or over-used prose.  Happy editing!

24 October, 2011

Find your Voice

All of us have different patterns of speech, and choices of words that we use in different situations:  at home, at work, with our children, with our partner, or with strangers.  You may not even think about it when you slip into a different voice - it can just happen subconsciously.

When writing a story, you have even more choices in the voice you adopt; this time it is a conscious   choice.  Voice is not so much what you say as how you say it.  Voice includes aspects of diction, choice of words, cadence, complexity of sentences, rhythm and attitude.  It gives the reader a window into your character's soul.

A writing voice includes:

  • accent/dialect/ethnicity  (gives local colour, and is also useful for showing characters from specific regions, ethnic groups)
  • attitude(s) (cynical, innocent, curious, hard-hearted, laid-back, rigid, deferential, rebellious)
  • type (slang, authorial, informal/formal, precise, verbose, casual)
  • old/young/middle-aged
  • modern/old-fashioned
  • educated/uneducated (range and nature of vocabulary)
If the story is written in the first-person, the voice should be that of the character narrator and this can be a really powerful tool to show us much about this character.  To some extent this is also true for third-person limited POV stories.  In third person omniscient POV there is usually an authorial voice.

Trying to find the right voice for your character(s) may require time and effort.  Do the research.  Observe and listen to  the type of  person your character is based on.  What words to do they use?  What mannerisms do they have?

Like many things in fiction, less is more though.  Don't over-do the voice.  Suggest ethnicity or accent with a few phrases or different word order, but don't ham up the "dialect" otherwise it becomes irritating and difficult to read.

Some authors have a particular voice that can be "heard" in all their works, while others are very adept at changing their voice to suit the requirements of the story.

The message from publishers today is what they are most looking for in new writers is interesting and strong voices.  

Have you got the voice that publishers and readers want to hear?

19 October, 2011

What makes a really good villain

Stories need conflict, tension, danger.  This usually means opposition, often but not always, in the form of villain characters.

Getting your readers to really detest a character isn't difficult - it is actually easier than getting them to love a character.  If the character does nasty things, the readers will detest them.  However, the best evil characters are not simple collections of terrible deeds.  Show their emotion even if it is malevolent - perhaps they use verbal violence as well as, or instead of, physical violence.  Bullies make good villains.

Some the best villains are not shadowy figures or cardboard cut-outs, although there are examples in genres such as horror and SF.  If the reader develops some insights in the motivation and psychology of the bad character he/she becomes more credible, and therefore more terrifying.

Some of the classic villain types are:

  • Sadist/Bully (deliberately sets out to cause mental or physical suffering), 
  • Assassin (kills innocent people for selfish reasons), 
  • Usurper (claims position/role to which they are not entitled), 
  • Superior type/Snob (puts others down), 
  • Self-deluded/Crackpot (acts out dangerous beliefs)

Some traits you may wish to consider for your villains:

  • Humour (may be warped or cruel, or simply sardonic)
  • Self-Importance/egotism
  • Cruelty 
  • Vanity
  • Charm/sophistication (perhaps a thin veneer which later starts to crack...)
  • Intelligence (makes the villain more dangerous)

Occasionally the villain can become a partially sympathetic character - they make evoke pity as well as terror.  This can deepen a story.

Bad characters usually end up getting their just deserts by the end of the story; sometimes their character defects lead to their downfall.  Rarely, a villain may be redeemed or else found not to be really bad after all.

Put time and effort into creating the right villain(s) for your story, and watch how they behave.