Archive for category Rewriting
Here are some terms we must stop using. ‘Grammar Nazi.’ ‘Punctuation police.’ ‘Spelling snob.’
When did we start forgiving sloppiness and sneering at correctness? If you have a genuine love of the writing craft, isn’t it a point of pride to get these things right?
We are writers. Our prose is our instrument. These are not stuffy, irrelevant rules. They are essential technical skills for communication.
When we get them wrong, we trip up the reader. Or we mislead, or undermine ourselves (and here let me metaphorically wave a copy of Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves).
Yes, the reader might be able to guess what we really mean, or mentally correct it for themselves. But we shouldn’t do that to them. And for every reader who shrugs off a wrong apostrophe, there’s another who sees it as slovenly ignorance. (That’s me, by the way. Unnecessary apostrophes make me apoplectic.)
But good grammar, spelling and punctuation go unnoticed. They aid invisibly and discreetly, like an exquisitely trained butler. They let your content speak and breathe for itself. They give your writing poise and control. Doesn’t every writer want that?
I appreciate that if you don’t know about it, it’s daunting. But make it part of your job to find out. If schoolish tomes put you off, there are plenty of more palatable books. If you really struggle, find a beta reader who can salvage your language for you.
To turn to publishing, let’s look at what happens when we don’t take enough care. You may already have seen this post by British writer Anthony Horowitz in the books blog of the Guardian newspaper. Look at the comments. Look at the bile heaped on books with bad grammar, spelling and punctuation (and particularly how the commenters feel this defines self-published books). If you needed proof that writers are judged on these things, look no further.
So please – no more of the N word, the P word or the S word.
Its and it’s are confused
Its means ‘belonging to it’.
It’s is short for ‘it is’.
If you’re still confused, ask yourself if you mean ‘it is’. If you don’t, it’s probably the other one. See how easy it’s?
There and their
If what you mean is ‘where’, the word you want is ‘there’. You may also use it without any meaning of its own in a sentence such as ‘if I see this mistake again there will be blood’.
If you mean ‘belonging to them’, you need ‘their’.
Reigns and reins
A horse has reins.
A monarch reigns.
You can have a reign of terror, but on a daily basis I see: ‘so-and-so took over the reigns of power’. This is wrong. They are speaking figuratively of leather straps that steer – and so the correct word is ‘reins’.
I also see ‘we had to reign in our spending’. That refers to an act of braking – which is done with a rein.
Nay, nay, nay.
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My dance instructor is an editor in her more sensible hours, like me. She deals with precision, facts, boiling ideas down to their exactness. How things work and what they are. The world of the literal.
But when she wriggles inside a piece of music to choreograph a routine, she speaks a different language. One of moods, emotions and universal connection. Her style is jazz, a discipline that gathers moves from just about anywhere. Not just the formal steps of ballet, salsa, contemporary or hip-hop. It might be a woman in high heels walking across a room, a covetous glance with the head tilted just so. Simple moves, but when put with the music, they reveal more about it than you ever dreamed was there.
Writers have to do both these things. We construct the literal – who does what and when. What that leads to. Whether everything is logical and how many Tuesdays are in a month. We set up surprises.
It comes in two ways:
- how well we snare the reader in the experience – the moment-by-moment writing
- why it feels so much more important than ‘just a story’
For the first point, so much comes down to how we use our prose. The break of every paragraph, the glint of every verb, the run of every sentence, the open eyes of a word’s vowels or the quirky wink of a letter clash. Like the jazz choreographer, you don’t have to be fancy or formal – walking across a room is just as effective as a formal metaphor, often more so. You can charm the reader with every mark on the page.
Of course every genre has different expectations of its prose, and every individual writer has different sensitivities too. But all stories have a degree of performance and need to put on the right kind of show. When you’re doing a final polish, look beyond the steps and make the story dance.
Which leads me to the second way a story charms a reader. When they finish, the best stories somehow make sense as a metaphor in retrospect – for life, love, the human condition, whatever.
And here the dance comparison is of no use whatsoever.
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What do you do to make a story dance? Share in the comments
Writers often have trouble deciding where they’re going to start their story. The first chapter takes multiple rewrites, mind-changes, tweaks and deletions. Chapter 1 frequently has more scar tissue than any other part of a novel.
There are so many decisions to make about what to squeeze in and what to leave out. Sometimes writers get carried away and I see novels with any or all of:
- an introduction
- a mission statement
- an explanation of themes
- a foreword (which as a tweeter has pointed out is technically written by someone other than the author)
- a prologue
- or sometimes two prologues.
Often these are little more than instructions for how to read what follows. But there are times when a prologue is welcome. Here’s my guide to using prologues responsibly.
Not all bad
Readers relish prologues when:
- they show us something important that is out of the main story’s timeline, for instance something that would otherwise have to be shown in flashbacks or cumbersome exposition
- they show action or characterisation that the reader needs to understand chapter 1, for instance the start of a war or a quest
- they are vivid and entertaining in their own right
Even prologue enthusiasts do not like:
- an info-dump for its own sake – or back story that should be worked into the main text in a more natural way or was simply not needed (writers are prone to include too much back story and resort to prologues to shoehorn it in)
- when a prologue is really just the first chapter, given a fancy name – if you put prologue at the top, it had better be truly separate
- when a prologue is a rehash of a dramatic moment from later in the story, shown out of order because the start of the book does not have enough of a hook.
However, as with everything arty, there’s a fine balance to be struck. You can get away quite nicely with a prologue that comes from a scene near the end of the novel, to make us wonder how the characters got into such a mess.
Genre makes a difference
Some genres are more forgiving of prologues – fantasy and science fiction, for instance. These readers enjoy being plunged into unfamiliar worlds, and so the scene-setting aspect of a prologue is a helpful device.
But the closer the genre is to the everyday world of the reader, the less necessary a prologue is – because these readers want to be whirled in, immediately, to the people and the story they are going to follow, at the point that is most likely to hold their interest. They want you to unravel everything naturally and with your storytelling skill. However, they don’t mind:
- prologues that show a crisis from near the end of the novel – perhaps the main character on their deathbed or in some sort of showdown
- an event from a point of view that we will never revisit.
If you’re doing the latter, does it need to be a prologue? Many thrillers start with a startling event that happens to a character we will most likely never see again – quite often their gruesome demise. But these are usually called chapter 1. Why? Because they are the start of the story. Even though we’re probably not going to hear a squeak from those unfortunate characters again. If your opening could quite happily be called chapter 1, you don’t need to call it a prologue.
The first steps are the hardest
Novels are big. It’s always hard to work out how to introduce an enormous work you know intimately to someone who knows nothing about it – and to do justice to it. You’ll find this with the first chapter. You’ll also find it with the pitch you’ll write for an agent or editor, or the sales blurb, or if you try to answer that beastly question ‘what’s your novel about?’.
Sometimes prologues are useful and welcome. But make sure you really, really need one. And you probably don’t need two.
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In the meantime, share your thoughts on prologues – good and bad – and examples if you have any!
Sometimes it’s good to take a break from our novels – especially at the end of a draft. But those are the breaks we’ve embraced. The purpose is to forget everything we knew about the book. An enforced break? That does the same – right when you don’t want it to.
It’s not that I’m shouting ‘humbug’, but before Christmas I was working through some notes from a publisher and Dave was deep in a first draft. Now, festivities over, we both have to get back into our writing, which isn’t easy. We don’t book many holidays compared with the normally employed, but somehow as departure looms, we grouse more and more about having to stop writing.
To make a good job of a book I need to know its every nuance. I need to understand how every scene and simile will reverberate through the whole thing – the way a note played on a piano is not just one sound, it quivers the strings of the whole instrument from highest tink to lowest rumble. When I come back to my novel after a break, I have to find its harmonics again.
So here’s how I do it.
First of all, I make sure I’ve got a summarised version of the book. This could be
- the scenes on index cards if it’s at the planning stage
- a working synopsis
- a beat sheet, if revising.
(For a full explanation of these, see Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence.) I use these documents as cribsheets to reboot my understanding of the novel from beginning to end. The structure, the character arcs, the tick-tock of the timeline, the threading of the subplots.
You’ll probably have seen from my other blog that I make soundtracks of mood pieces that have inspired major scenes and characters. Whenever a song snakes out of the radio or my headphones and tells me something about the novel I’m working on, I put it on a playlist. When I’m trying to reintroduce myself to my book, I take the soundtrack for a spin.
Trust the process
In a recent comment here on this blog, Fredrica Parlett made a wonderful remark that I’d like to put on a T-shirt – ‘if I can trust the process and not panic…’ Experience of writing’s ups and downs gives you faith. Faith that you have lost the thread before but you can pick it up again. Courage to get through the first day, when you don’t feel like going back to work after the holidays. Yes, that day isn’t easy. But the next one will be a lot better than you think it is going to be. And before you know it, you’ll be back in the swing.
If you’re thinking 2012 is the year you write your novel, you might like this multimedia short course I co-host with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn. More than 4 hours of audio with 86-page transcription and slides. And there’s also my book, Nail Your Novel.
Thank you for the vintage ad pic JBCurio
Do you have any tips for getting to grips with your novel again after a break? Share in the comments
I just read The Fear Index by Robert Harris. Much of the derring-do is in the world of hedge funds. Hedge funds make me feel baffled and not a little cross. Mercifully, Harris is a great storyteller – which means he knows that already.
Instead of baffling us, Harris starts with characters in a situation we can relate to – a man with a mysterious intruder in his house. A good half of the book passes before the reader ever has to grapple with how a hedge fund actually works. When we do it’s a terrific scene – a flashback to how the main characters met, so we want to read it. It’s full of entertaining characterisation – a racy rogue explains to an introverted scientist that it’s like betting on whether the girl at the fridge is wearing black underwear.
If you know about hedge funds, it’s charming enough that you forgive it being explained so basically. If you don’t, you see a bit of character interaction and emerge smugger and wiser.
So many novels derive much of their atmosphere and story from the setting. Whether it’s historical, sci-fi, fantasy, mountaineering, SAS thrillers (or even the world of classical music like My Memories of a Future Life). A lot of the fun of a book like this is the feeling you’ve had an insider view. But it’s easy to overdo the details. Especially if some of your story hinges around something as intricate as how hedge funds work.
I see a lot of novels that judge this wrong. Research-dumps, screeds of stodgy exposition that the writer mistakes for scene-setting. It’s clear that the writer has done admirable amounts of legwork – but they then frogmarch the reader through it too.
This not only holds up the story, it puts the reader on the outside while things are explained to them. In fact, you want them on the inside, immersed in the world as though the distinctive details were a natural part of life.
Wear it lightly
Harris clearly understands that however heavily he has to research, the novel should wear it lightly.
His other thrillers tackle ancient Rome (Imperium, Pompeii, Lustrum), the 1940s wartime code-breaking centre Bletchley Park (Enigma) an alternate 1960s (Fatherland) – to name but a few. They are full of intricate world-building – but he translates them into pressures on characters that generate stories. At the same time, you never feel you’re struggling to understand, or patronised because he’s gone too simple. It’s as if when he sat down to write he tried to say as little as possible about what he knew – and put the story and character first.
In your handling of research you have to be like the definition of a gentleman – a man who knows how to play the banjo but refrains from doing so.
Which authors do you think are gentlemanly with research?
Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one – is available from Amazon. Not too late to nab a Kindle copy if you’re aiming to be a Wrimo!
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
Last week I was interviewed by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, and one of the questions that attracted the most discussion is how to develop our use of language in our novels. It was the hardest question to answer in a short time, so I thought I’d give it more space here.
First of all, what is good language?
I see many writers who seem in thrall to their school English teachers, as if they are on a sponsored exercise to use the thesaurus as often as possible. We’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, and looks self-conscious and overdone – the dreaded purple prose.
But at least these writers have understood there’s an aesthetic involved. And I want to applaud them for trying to unpeel what’s in their hearts. Worse is the writer who goes for tortuous obfuscation (sorry), as if they want to scare the reader into feeling dumb. Just for a giggle, look at The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster, from an English professor:
‘If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’
Now that’s criticism (as far as I can tell), not fiction, but I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of superiority, not communication.
Tip 1: Be clear
Good prose doesn’t try to put up barriers. It might make interesting word choices and deploy an image stylishly, but it wants to be understood – deeply and completely.
So before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. What do we want the reader to feel?
Let’s take an example – describing characters. These are probably some of the most complex descriptions we might attempt as writers. Try these:
‘Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…’ Daphne du Maurier
‘He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man.’ Charles Dickens
There is not a difficult word in either of those descriptions; the effectiveness comes from the writer knowing first what he wants to say.
Tip 2: Develop an ear
Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but easy to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.
’It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’
It’s not a bad concept but the writing is full of tripwires:
- ‘Except at occasional intervals’ destroys the storyteller’s spell by wresting the reader’s attention away and sounding like a news bulletin.
- ‘When it was checked by’ is another leaden construction, and indirect for no good reason.
- ‘Fiercely agitating the scanty….. blah’ – there is too much going on here for me to stay with the thread. ‘Scanty flame of the lamps…’ does it even matter if the flames are scanty, fat or orange (which he forgot to put but I didn’t mind)? And do we need to derail the reader by pointing out that life is hard for the lamps? Only if it adds to the experience, which this doesn’t.
As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the sentence, following the wind and rain through the streets. But the writer’s thinking is cluttered, clogged and complicated.
Tip 3: Suit the material
The language dictates the way a story is experienced. It’s the filter over the lens, the music on the soundtrack, the way the shots linger or race across the screen. For instance, thriller writers would like you to be gripped by a pacy beat.
More than that, the language operates other senses. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume begins with a description of Paris purely through its smells. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is told in its own post-apocalyptic pidgen English to connect you deeply to the narrator’s mind.
Both these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.
Tip 4: Using notebooks
In my interview with Joanna, we discussed how to develop our sense of language and an individual style, especially making notes as we read. One commenter afterwards said he used to feel self-conscious about what he wrote down, but now it’s part of his normal process of reading. Joanna says she’s got heaps of notebooks, which she doubts she’ll look at again. I don’t make physical notes but often find myself trapped by a marvellous phrase and reread it over and over, trying to decode the magic.
Thanks for the pic, StephenMitchell on flickr
How do you develop your literary ear? Do you keep notebooks? Do you ever look at them again? Does that matter? Share in the comments
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and also in print (and Amazon have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
If you read this blog regularly you’ll be familiar with my friend, the writer and editor Victoria Mixon. Her book, The Art & Craft of Fiction – A Practitioner’s Manual, is a favourite of mine. If friends utter the words ‘I think I’ll write a novel’, they soon find themselves armed with a copy because of the way it deftly bridges the gap between good reading and good writing. Victoria is about to release the follow-up, The Art &Craft of Story, and asked me to contribute a blurb. While reading it I came across a stand-out passage that I wanted to make into a post of its own.
It’s the tale of how she and husband Jeff created a logo for their publishing company (as well as an editor, Victoria is also a graphic designer). She wanted to use an icon of her childhood, an antique advertisement which features a young woman in an enormous feathered hat with elegant gloves and a dreamy expression. But when she and her husband scanned it, there was too much shading and detail for it to work as a logo. So they started reworking it in Photoshop.
Here’s the story, in Victoria’s words.
She needed enough big dark elements to be recognizable at a casual glance—even tiny—but she also needed her itsy-bitsy little facial features to show up with their soulful gaze. We blacked in her hat and gloves (although the gloves have wonderful highlighted wrinkles in the soft leather) and exaggerated her eyes and mouth. We erased all of her from chin to gloves and then went back, meticulously re-creating only those lines absolutely necessary to give her definition. She has a lot of ruffles around her face, which looked weird when they disappeared. We had to get just enough of them in to remove the weird without competing with her more important elements.
The pièce de résistance turned out to be not even a part of her, but the shadow her cardboard cut-out cast on the wall when she was photographed. It’s only behind one arm (the light came from an angle), but it’s a lovely calligraphic line that thins and thickens as it goes around the curves of her sleeve. We sharpened it up. Then we looked at her other arm, which has no such line. We paused.
We were going to flip the line and use its opposite on the other side.
But then I remembered a fascinating fact about stylized images: what the eye knows should be there it will see even when it’s not there.
And this is something all writers must remember—what the reader knows should be there they’ll supply even when it’s not.
Not only that, but that simple act of the reader supplying the essential last detail is what engages them, sucks them in, pins them down, makes them part of the story.
When we look at our favorite logos, our eye doesn’t keep going back to them because it’s found every single speck of information it needs. It goes back because there’s something missing, and our eye knows what it is. We feel the satisfaction of supplying the missing piece, the sense of completion, the instant of epiphany.
In the book, Victoria uses this anecdote to delve into the way storytelling works in terms of structure, characterisation and description. But as I was reading I was thinking it could apply just as well to revising a novel.
As you might know from reading Nail Your Novel, I believe in messy first drafts. Pile everything in, then prune. This stage is the work of deep imagination – where I make the story come alive after so long constructing it at a distance with broad strokes. The first draft is where I immerse to let the imaginative juices flow. Description, characters, events, back story – all the detail tumbles out of my head and goes into that draft.
Then I come back to my senses and it’s time to edit. To decide, ruthlessly, what detail isn’t needed and what is. It’s exacting, brutal and transformative.
In particular, I have to take what erupted from the imaginative blunderbuss and make it serve the story. And often that means difficult sacrifices.
Only what’s needed
You’ll see that the picture Victoria started with was lovely in its own right, but now it had to do a job.
This is one of the deepest secrets of good writing – or writing that makes effortless reading, which is the same thing. To take something that is good in its own right – a rich scene or a description or a character – and be able to see what part of it your book needs.
Like Victoria with her cherished but too-detailed lady, I examine whether the ruffles are telling details or discardable darlings. Whether the sensually rippled leather gloves are too distracting. And what I need to make each adapted part fit seamlessly together. If you do this stage of the editing right, every letter of your prose works as hard as it can.
The power of suggestion
Although novels build their worlds though telling details, there is only so much a reader can absorb. Too much and you have a muddle; too little and the reader isn’t immersed. While real life is a broadband activity, reading is like dial-up – we can handle only limited input at once, so writers have to be selective about what we focus on.
This applies not just to descriptions of physical objects, people or scenes, but to emotional states, reactions, textual resonances. Sophisticated writers develop a feel for what they can show and what they can suggest.
When you do it right, you invite the reader to fill in the rest.
And, as Victoria says, that makes them feel very good. It’s as if the book is having a conversation with the reader. It creates fiction that feels profound and resonant; stories that linger in the mind and the heart long after the book is closed.
(Excerpt from The Art & Craft of Story used with permission)
Anyway, this has deviated a little from Victoria’s original argument, and that’s definitely worth a read. You can find it in her book, available on Amazon from September 30
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and is now also available in glorious, doormat-thumping, cat-scaring print. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.