I sometimes surprise myself when I come across great advice from the most unlikely of sources. Case in point, while watching one of my favorite video game reviewers, Zero Punctuation, I came across this little gem of writing advice.
“Is this the most interesting period of your character’s life and if not why aren’t you showing us that?”
Now let that sink in a little bit and if you have heard it before kudos for you. I had never heard it, but now that I have I feel silly that I hadn’t come upon it in my own way. I know as a writer I can get bogged down in trying to convey to my reader all the machinations that went on in my heard to get my characters to this point. This information can be useful, even necessary at some times but it should not come at the expense of keeping the readers’ interest meter in the red. The good news is as the writer if these periods aren’t the most interesting I can certainly make them that way. Details are not interesting. Characters and events are. A simple rule and a helpful one to keep on an index card by your computer monitor.
This also leads me to the use of prologues. A couple of my novels (currently shelved ones if that says anything) do make use of prologues, but I find myself drifting away from them. Think of it like this. How would you feel if your significant other came home from work one day and said? “I have the most interesting story about something that happened at work today, but before that, let me tell you how I got the job in the first place.” Kind of a buzz kill ain’t it. Before the comments section fills with angry protests on the right to prologue existence there are times when the prologue can be a very effective tool and fundamental part of the work, but it must be interesting. That is after all the message of that little gem of advice above.
While strolling across the blogosphere I came on Heather Squires’s website that had an interesting graphic. Said is dead. The graphic is a handy tool for alternatives to using , “said.” While I agree in principle that no reader wants to stare down a whole page of, “he said, she said, he said.” Equally taxing would be a page of, “he stated, she replied, he mumbled, she questioned.” There is no need to raid the thesaurus every time you want to write some dialog. Like anything else in life a little bit will do you.
The goal of writing good dialog is keeping the reader on track as to who is saying what. Throw in some thoughts and this can become quite a challenge for even the best writers. I find it most effective to blend in actions. To break up the dialog and cue the reader in to who is speaking without relying on a said or any other word. For example…
“Do you know where the scissors are,” Dad asked.
“No,” Kim replied.
“Of course. Nothing is ever where it’s supposed to be,” Dad mumbled angrily.
Let’s try that same exchange but with a little bit of action.
“Do you know where the scissors are,” Dad asked.
Kim looked up from her book, “No.” Then went right back to reading.
“Of course. Nothing is ever where it’s supposed to be.” Dad mumbled as he stormed out of the room.
Now this is just a simple example and in a longer bit of dialog the writer would mix up actions and expressions along with said, asked and so on. The goal is to keep the reader aware of who is speaking but at that same time giving them something interesting to read. So remember, “said,” may or may not be dead, but to keep your writing off of life support explore the alternatives and mix things up.
One thing I struggled with and that I see pop up in new, and not so new, authors’ works is repeating themselves. It almost reads as though the author second guesses what they wrote and wants to make sure the reader gets the intended idea. For example look at this passage.
Meatloaf again? Why did it have to be meatloaf? Of all the culinary catastrophes Dammon’s wife unleashed on his gastrointestinal tract her meatloaf had to be the worst. Damon really hated meatloaf.
We get the point this character really hates meatloaf in general and his wife’s meatloaf in particular. For the reader, at least me, it slows things down. I get the sense that I really would prefer the author just getting to the point. Couldn’t one of those sentences conveyed that message?
Of all the culinary catastrophes Dammon’s wife unleashed on his gastrointestinal tract, her version of his most hated dish, meatloaf, had to be the worst.
One sentence, message complete, and the writing is much leaner. Granted I am just using this example to show off a worse case but many times our writing can use a good trimming and this kind of repetition is a perfect target. In most cases it is just a matter of good editing. One of the surest ways I have found to spot these things is to read my writing aloud. Good copy editing is also the surest way to catch all these as well. In the heat of writing we will often over write and it is far easier to take away than add. Just remember to watch out for sentences that repeat the same idea just in a different way. Your readers will thank you, and you may save a little on your page or word count.
Or rather why writers are talking about it more. I came across this article Why Writers Are Opening Up About Money (or the Lack Thereof) from a post in my Facebook feed. I’ve approached this topic before in several posts. The best reason is for anyone to make good decisions they have to know the facts. I suspect we will be seeing more articles like this.
For better or worse we seem to be in an age where we are hypersensitive to language that is hurtful, derogatory or just outright mean. This all comes under the banner of political correctness and while rooted in a good idea can also be taken to such extremes that questions of censorship arise. While we have the right to free speech we do not have the right to freedom of speech.
Anyone who knows me, knows I can have a bit of a potty mouth. I curse a lot. However, I rarely swear in my writing. I find it difficult to provide enough context within a story to justify the use of foul language. Now I know in name of realism we have to use language that reflects our subjects. A gritty crime story will have more F-bombs than a cozy cottage romance novel. Still, I think care needs to be taken by the writer to temper the use for no other purpose than to avoid diluting power of the words when they are needed. When the moment in the story comes for the character to really show their anger or amazement at a situation your best tool would be colorful language. Unfortunately that tool becomes weaker the more you use so it. Don’t get in a spot where by the time you really need your character to blow his or her top and drop some F-bombs you’ll want them to have impact.
That brings me to the words that have become so stigmatized that even their utterance sends ripples across the internet. You know the ones I am talking about. Racial slurs and derogatory comments that are the bane of anyone with a public image. One slip of the tongue and anything short of a tearful apology sets their career back several years. I bet they miss the days of Sean Penn when you would just clock the person in the face. These words cannot be taken lightly, they are ugly and hateful, but should they never be uttered? Are we as writers to blame if one of our characters likes to use racial slurs? We know people like that exist. Are we doing good or ill by perpetuating that behavior in our works? Basically my question is how far do we take realism? Or do we just need to be smart and follow the adage, do no harm?
The other day my mind was wondering and I started thinking on how I would answer the question, what does a writer do that allows him or her to create such interesting works. I had to think about this a bit. All people have imaginations. All people grew up playing with action figures or dolls, imagining what it is like to walk across the moon or the concert stage. Even as adults people imagine what it would be like to get a bonus at work or hit the power-ball. The guy in the club imagines what he would say to the attractive girl across the bar. The woman at the bar imagines what she would say to the handsome guy should he come over. All this imagining, all these creative lines of thought are not too dissimilar from what writers do.
That is not to make writing sound easy. It isn’t. A writer just invest time and energy exploring thier craft. What I mean by craft is the act of putting words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs and paragraphs to pages. The rules aren’t so much rights or wrongs but goods and betters. I don’t think there isn’t a writer alive who at one point wished it was as simple as right and wrong. What the writer must concern himself or herself with is the way one word flows to the next. It is more than just relaying the story to the reader. You have to get the story into the reader’s mind despite the words. Attention to the craft of writing is what makes this possible. A successful writer is so comfortable in thier craft the writing never gets in the way of the story. That is the goal and that is what writers do.
You heard about coloring in the lines. How about writing in the lines? Members of the West Valley Writers Group know about our two minute drills and monthly assignments. Both of these have prompts that ask the writer to continue a story or create something within a certain set of conditions. Anthologies often work this way. For example, you may come across a call for stories 2,500 words or less set in the Pacific North and featuring a beloved pet. Go. Do you get the sweats? Do you ask yourself how will I ever come up with a story like this? The challenge of writing for anthologies is conforming to the theme of the work.
Following the fickle machinations of our muse is one way to get our stories done and results in some interesting works but the moment you hand that muse some guidelines the wall goes up. Is there some magic bullet way to get past this? Sadly, no, in these instances each writer is tested in a unique way as the object is to take these elements and work them into a compelling story. The risk here is readers are not dumb. They can and will pick up an details that are forced or do not feel right for the story or characters.
Rather than thinking of these criteria as constraints on your muse think of them as elements in a garden. You placed them there for your muse to wander through, climb on or hide behind. I know, but just go with me on this. This kind of visualization early into the story creation can really help your writing move past whatever is blocking it. Before a story is written all the elements don’t exist. They are like some bizarre Schrodinger’s Cat experiment, there but not there. So don’t sweat the details, just let your muse wander about them in the garden and soon a story will emerge. I know I have used this technique many times to create works for different needs and even research assignments. Try it you may find your muse enjoys his or her new garden.
Work continues on editing the short stories that will make up my collection, The Hole in Your Mind. I am finding that, unlike a novel, editing short stories is a bit more involving. Each word has to carry the story along and each sentence needs to reach it’s desired effect. So far I have seven stories out of the intended seventeen edited. I am also looking for readers to make sure the editing is having the effect I want. I will also be bringing more of them to my Sunday critique group. Yes, fellow writers more weird fiction from me. Still I feel I am on track to have the book out this year. Although originally i had planned for a summer release. You just cannot rush good editing.
First I must send a shout over to my friend Michael Bradley over at Michael Bradley — Time Traveler from whose website I first spotted this sage advice. I have been asked from time to time is writing Science Fiction difficult. My answer is, “why, should it be? You can make your story as difficult to tell as you want.” By this point the person asking is usually clarifying, “no I mean the science part.” There again if all your story has to offer is accurate science you are missing a whole lot.
So head over to i09.com for the full list.
Glut is an interesting word, it even feels funny on the tongue. Some would think a glut of something as vital as information would be a good thing. As a librarian I used to think that. Now I’m not so sure. We have so democratized information that facts have become open for debate. Pick any major issue and you will find articles, reports, studies all refuting and supporting at the same time. The only difference are the bodies behind and responsible for them. In science empirical evidence, (empirical anything actually), is that which is observable. One would gather that if you see, hear and feel it no further argument is necessary. That’s all cotton candy and rainbows for things you can see feel and touch but what about the rest? No amount of information is necessary for the believer and no amount of information can convince the skeptic. So instead we drown in a sea of information. Where once information was the weapon against ignorance it is now the tool of the ignorant.
Enough proselytizing. Where does this fit in with writing? When you are writing a scene, you have at your disposal a whole host of information to convey to the reader. Is the floor carpeted, hard wood with a scratch where a piano used to sit? Are the walls covered in a peeling flowery wallpaper or a bland utilitarian beige? Is there a lean man sitting in a chair smoking a pipe, or holding a teddy bear? All of this information can either help or hinder the reader. We want to help the reader. That detail about the wood flooring and the piano while interesting may not be relevant unless said piano is crucial to the story. The color and fabric of the drapes, while nice word padding, is about as useful as a shovel in a swimming pool unless it causes your character to reminisce about something important to the plot. Writers have to balance the amount of information they reveal to further the story and set the scene against inundating the reader with useless facts. Information can make or break an argument, well it used to anyway. Do not let that fact cloud your writing with unnecessary or contradicting information.