Posts Tagged find your writing voice

Three steps to a smoother writing style

317528561_6f008366a3_zThis week Joanna Penn invited me to her podcast to talk about writing style and voice, which you can see in a few weeks’ time. We got so involved in the subject that we didn’t finish her question list and this point didn’t make the cut. So I thought it would make a useful post.

Joanna asked me to pinpoint a few easy style fixes – so here they are.

1 Ditch the filler words

Look at this:

Paul had told me on the phone during our initial contact that he had been swindled several years before by a man who he had considered to be a friend.

Quite a mouthful for such a simple point. Give me my red pen.

What worries me here is the number of syllables. They slow the sentence in the reader’s mind. Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes those syllables are unnecessary speed bumps. Here goes.

Paul had [told me] said

Yes, there’s a difference between ‘told me’ and ‘said’. But is it important here? I don’t think it is, and I want to get to the main meat about the swindling friend. ‘Said’ will do that faster.

[during] at

No need to say ‘during’. ‘At’ is fine. One syllable saved.

our [initial] first contact

Wow, three syllables in ‘initial’. ‘First’ is just one. But ‘initial’ might fit better with the personality of the writer, character or narrative, so that’s an optional change.

 that [he had] he’d been swindled several years before

Your high school English teacher probably told you contractions had no place in printable English. Ignore her.

by a man [who] he had considered [to be] a friend.

Two more little words that didn’t have to be there.

2 Prune unnecessary detail

[on the phone]

Does it matter whether the statement was made on the phone or in person? Probably not. In any case, this detail is not really noticed when handled like this. If it’s important that the conversation was on the phone, I’d make the point in a separate sentence. So I’m stripping it out of here.

And so we have:

Paul had said at our first contact that he’d been swindled several years before by a man he had considered a friend.

What didn’t I get rid of? The first ‘had’ – as the tense might be relevant. And the ‘that’. Although you can often remove a ‘that’, sometimes they are necessary for the sense. As this one is.

Paul had said at our first contact that he’d been swindled several years before by a man he had considered a friend.

See how much smoother it is? Now you can see the important stuff – about Paul being swindled.

Step 3 –jazz up your verbs

Verbs are your propellant. I was coaching a thriller writer and his main style problem was slow sentences. I showed him this passage from one of his favourite writers, Stephen White. This is from Kill Me. (I’ve emphasised the verbs):

He was leaning forward and gazing over the westbound lanes, his elbows resting on a fence, his right hand pressing a mobile phone to his ear….

Slick verbs can make a long sentence effortless…

I downshifted into third as I zoomed past him and shot toward the upcoming climb with a fresh boost of torque and enough raw power and confidence to soar past anybody or anything that might be blocking my way on the curving ascent ahead.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? Many writers think a fast style comes from short sentences. But long sentences can read speedily too. The verbs drive it.

Notice also that there aren’t any adverbs in these passages. Adverbs aren’t forbidden, but there’s usually a slicker way. If you use an adverb, you add a second step to the thought. Sometimes you want that emphasis, but usually you’re better finding a dynamite verb.

Those 3 steps in summary

1 Cut the unnecessary syllables. Listen to the beat of the sentence. Make every syllable count.

2 Remove unnecessary detail so the point of the sentence can shine.

3 Rock your verbs.

Thanks for the pic, Nicholas A Tonelli on Flickr

Anything to add? Are there any style ‘rules’ you think are useful and any you think are questionable? Are there any you’ve had to ‘unlearn’?

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Is your main character you? How to tell – and how to widen your character repertoire

Portrait of Oscar Wilde with Cane

As Oscar Wilde didn’t say: ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken’. (No really, he didn’t.)

In our early novels, we’re more likely to see our main characters as proxies for ourselves. But there comes a stage where we learn more versatility, and to create new hearts, souls and minds to carry our stories. This was one of the interesting findings of a project organised by a team of researchers at Durham University and reported here in The Guardian.

Authors who took part in the survey were asked how they experience their main characters while writing. Those with many books reported that in their early work they saw the main character as a proxy for themselves. Sometimes it was simply wish fulfilment. Sometimes it was a deeper working, perhaps of a problem they couldn’t express in the real world, or an issue they had left undone. It was only in later books that they were aware they were creating individuals who had their own distinct hopes, dreams, values and reactions.

Does it matter?

Interesting though this is, does it matter? It depends. When editing, I’ve certainly seen where it goes wrong. There might be a sense that the main character’s viewpoint is never challenged, or nobody else in the book is as vivid, or all the other characters victimise, worship or pander to the narrator. It can look like the book lacks any perspective that would engage an outsider.

If you’re writing from your own trauma or sense of injustice, no matter how wronged you feel you still have to win the reader round. Indeed Anne R Allen has written hilariously about protagonists who turn readers off – usually because the writer has put themselves too literally into the story.

Here are some of the problems I’ve noticed.

Passive main characters

In a writer’s early books, the main character is often passive. They do very little on their own initiative; they merely react to what is going on. In real life, writing often appeals to people who are observers and analysers. And even if we aren’t, most of us would prefer trouble to go away. But readers find it exasperating if characters don’t at some point take charge or counter-attack. The passive default is generally one of the first reactions a novice writer must unlearn.

Unwillingness to alter events

Sometimes our emotional investment in the book can cloud our critical faculties. At the writing group I used to go to, I remember one lady who read from her novel, which was about a divorce. When we started to question events that seemed far-fetched, she snapped angrily: ‘but that’s what really happened’. Discussions went downhill from there.

Events need to matter more

Drawing on our own experience might produce tunnel vision. It might also stop us taking an idea as far as it could go.

I remember a very early attempt I made to write a story about my experiences with repetitive strain injury when I was a journalist. It was strangely flat. Although I managed to entertain with the strange medical tests, mystery and uncertainty, it was at best lightweight because the stakes weren’t significant. The worst that could happen was that the proxy me might have to get a different job, but that wasn’t a major challenge to my soul that would hook a reader with its urgency. This made me unhappy, because I wanted to write the crisis of somebody’s life…

Then ghostwriting taught me how real life is just material – and material that needs a snappy tailor. (Lots more here about ghostwriting if you’re curious.)

Fast forward.

I had a use for my RSI scenario. It was time to adjust real life and amplify. The major amplification was the main character. Now, after writing a lot of fiction as other people, my first novel was the chance to write as me. But my narrator couldn’t be me, the real me muddling through with average demons and crises. She needed desperation. What’s more, her desperation, although it had to be particular to her, had to speak for a more fundamental essence of the human condition – in this case, a search for meaning and love. Perhaps that potential was in my mind all along in that early story, but it didn’t become fully potent until I invented the character who needed it.

faint mmIf you’ve read My Memories of a Future Life you’ll be recognising her. Carol has elements of my personality and I certainly felt I was her when I wrote her. She comes from things I understand. But she isn’t me. She is herself, created as the person who needs the journey and healing process of that story.

Paftoo of Lifeform Three isn’t me either, though he started with my love of horses and the things we have lost from the past. I then put that in a situation and personality that would cause the utmost trouble, a fight for his very soul. And for Ever Rest I have four, perhaps five viewpoint characters, all with their own consciousnesses, issues and inclinations. I am not those five people.

How to write a character who isn’t like you

Start with something you relate to – what if you lost something that makes you feel alive? Then mine the deeper level and remove yourself. Every time your character reacts, question it. Ask if that’s your own setting, and if it could be bigger, better or different. Find a key for that new character to sing in. Examine their approach to life, betes noires, responses to stress, desires.

In fact, we all have many characters we could create because we already know how to be different. What are you like with your parents? Is it the same as the way you are with your boss? How about the person you are when talking to a person you want to impress, or the head teacher at your child’s school? You already know how to be different at an instinctive level.

So, to mangle the legacy of Oscar even more (because he still didn’t say ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken): don’t be yourself. Use yourself to invent the people your story needs.

Pic of Oscar by Napoleon Sarony, Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

nyn2 2014 smlThere are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated

What stage are you at? Who are your main characters? If you’ve created people who are proxies for you, was that intentional? Unavoidable? Brilliantly effective? Has that caused problems or interesting feedback from readers and editors? Have you created characters who aren’t like you? If you’ve written many books, have you noticed a shift? Let’s share thoughts!

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