Category Archives: Writing Style

My Addiction for ‘How-to-write’ Books

Recently, I’ve bought quite a few books about writing. I’ve always been a collector of writing-related books. One of my very first purchases with some Christmas money was a thesaurus I bought at age twelve. Yep. The word bug had bitten, and bitten deep.

I’ve still got a problem.

A selection of the reference books I’ve purchased in the past two months.

It’s not that I don’t have confidence in my ability to write. I just sincerely believe that there is always something new to learn. In particular, what gold can I glean from writers I admire and wish to emulate, hence the books by Alan Baxter, Sean Williams, Peter Ball, and Isaac Asimov. I do believe I’ve mentioned and recommended the Brain Jar Press book by Angela Slatter: You Are Not Your Writing. Of these books, the two that resonate the most with me is Ball’s and Slatter’s books. However, How Not To Write A Novel gets an honourable mention for being both funny and seriously informative.

I would recommend all these books to serious writers.

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Filed under Alan Baxter, Angela Slatter, Australian Author, Book Review, Books & reading, Brain Jar Press, Genre, Peter M Ball, Sean Williams, Writing Career, Writing Style

Writing for an Audience of Ten Year Olds

I am currently writing books aimed at middle-grade readers around ten years of age. Ten is an interesting age. Before a child is eight, they are still in the ‘dreamtime’ of their youth where fantasy concepts can seem as true as reality. Many younger children are either completely fearless or very fearful, depending on their nature, because everything is still ‘unknown’. A ten year old is still much smaller than an adult, but the world is no longer unknown territory. A ten year old has a pretty good grasp of the rules of the world.

Then puberty hits and messes up the world view again. But that’s another issue.

This makes writing for this audience tricky. They can tell if you’re talking down to them. They can certain sense insincerity. And they can most definitely tell if the writing and story telling is bad. So, it means you have to write with your heart as well as your mind; which is how we should write all the time, really.

I’m lucky. I still like many of the same things I liked as a ten year old: animals, comics, cartoons, fairy tales. It makes writing for this age group easier, because I can remember how it felt to be ten.

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Filed under Farm Book, Story, Structure, The Summer Brook Farm Books, The Writing Life, Writing Career, Writing Style

Reviving a Dead Darling

So, what do you so with those dead darlings? If you’re like me, you tend to put them into ‘edited out of the WiP’ folders. Sometimes they languish and die, unloved, unforgotten. However, as I am a lazy individual at heart, I tend to try and recycle EVERYTHING. Failed ideas. The dozens of rejected stories from DailySF and Furious Fiction and the like.

Sometimes they get completely rewritten until they are unrecognisable; sometimes a bunch of stuff will get mashed together. Sometimes the attempt fails and that story is stuffed into an ‘Edited until I killed it’ folder.
Except, sometimes it works. I make something new and shiny. It gets accepted by another market.

If there is one thing I’ve learnt, it is that you should NEVER give up … on an idea, on writing, on a dead darling. I’m a necromancer, making the dead live again! I’m the new Doctor Frankenstein, and my monsters LIVE! Watch me turn a dead darling into a zombie story …

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Filed under The Writing Life, writing, Writing Career, Writing Style

What Do You Do With Your Ideas?

A flash of inspiration has struck you! What do you do now?

If you’re me, you’ll write it down before you forget it. I have a huge collection of notebooks for that very reason. I have let too many ideas disappear because I was confident I’d remember them later.

So, now I have an idea. SHINY! I tend to let them ‘rest’ a day or longer, because my enthusiasm will be at manageable levels and I will be able to assess the idea with some confidence. However, if it is a ‘whole story just dropped into my head’ situation, I’ll write that down without pause. They have turned out to be some of my better stories.

This creates a file of story ideas, which I often dip into it when I suffer from writer’s block. Most ideas don’t get to sit in the file for long … because even after a ‘rest’, I’m still white hot to write that story.

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Filed under Inspiration, Writer's Block, Writing Style

Where Do you Get Your Ideas?

That is a sentence I’ve heard many times, and I know every other writer gets the same query: Where do you get your ideas?

I’m going to give you an answer. However, this is just one answer to a process that has a multitude of answers, all of them correct. Every writer will have their own process, and if they are anything like me, they will have more that one way of getting a writing idea.

Inspiration: Inspiration can come from anywhere: a dream, a news article, song lyrics, something you read in a book that set off a new train of thought (another reason for reading widely). Let’s assume that the shiny pretty distracting you from your writing is just that, a snippet, and not of those lucky instances of a story dropping into your head fully formed. So, you have a glimpse of a story idea.

I always study a new idea, turning it this way and that to see how it holds up. If it seems like a solid concept and not a cliche, I will write it down. For me, the process of writing it down will start my muse working on fleshing out the story. I always have a notebook with me, or I will make a note of it in my computer files.

First Thoughts: First thoughts are the magic beginning to happen. I may have had other ideas that relate to this new one. I look them up, and list them under my previous notes. I might fall down the rabbit hole of research online. I never make any judgement calls at this point, because I never know when two trains of thought might smash together and form art. The goal is make a big pile of ideas – what Neil Gaiman calls compost. I think of it more as a bouquet of random flowers, and I pick my blossoms with enthusiasm.

Working It: This stage is when I will start working on the plot, and cull the unnecessary ‘flowers’. This will result in a very simple and rough plot. Generally, I am a ‘Plot First, Characters Second’ Planner. However, once I’ve developed my characters past the two-dimensional stage, the plot will flip over and start evolving around them. The characters will drive the plot along and not the other way around. Settings will start to present themselves for consideration. I rarely am inspired by a character popping into my head, which is probs why I am a genre writer and not a literary writer.

At this point, I might let an idea ‘rest’. After all, I was working on other projects when the new shiny distracted me. It doesn’t hurt to give your muse a chance to mull the idea over. I’ve got a current short story I’m working on that was much improved by the sudden realisation that the dead woman was the protagonist and not the victim of the narrative. I think the story has gained ‘legs’ with this realisation. If I had rushed to write the story as I first conceived of it, it would have lost this deepening of character and plot.

In Summary: I leave myself open to any kind of inspiration, and then I work the shiny concept up into an idea. Ideas don’t down sleet down from above; they take work. Sorry to disappoint those who thought there was some sort of secret to getting good ideas.

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Filed under Inspiration, Plot, writing, Writing Career, Writing Style

Learning Curve

Just to shake things up a bit, I’ve decided to do a masterclass online with Neil Gaiman. He is a writer I admire, with a lush writing style. And I’ve saved a bit of money by not going anywhere…

If you’re snoozing, you’re losing. I don’t think a writer can ever say there is nothing new to learn. I’ll report back on what I’m learning … without giving away Mr Gaiman’s hard work. My favourite gold nugget for getting a story started: “Let me tell you what happened to me.” It’s immediate, and already you’ve made a connection with the reader. The answer will be different for every storyteller.

MAGIC!

This image may contain Furniture Shelf Bookcase Human Person Room and Indoors

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Filed under Craft, Education, Inspiration, Neil Gaiman, Writing Career, Writing Style

Writing with my Eyes

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I tend to write with my eyes. What this means is that – when I started out – I tended to see my characters and see the action. I didn’t hear their voices, or smell the air and feel the textures. It took years of training to learn to ‘hear’ and ‘touch’, smell and ‘taste’. Other beginner writers have problems visualizing a scene, but can write dynamite dialogue.

This sensuous writing might seem like a basic tool in the writing kit, but it is surprising how many people forget that writing – like all skills – is a mixture of training, talent, and practice. Lots and lots of practice. Teaching yourself to notice details. Trying to think of unique ways to describe an experience. Getting out and having experiences so you can describe them!

So, next time your a reading a descriptive passage, don’t dismiss as ‘purple prose’. Some hard-working person has put some thought and effort into that paragraph!

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Filed under writing, Writing Career, Writing Style

The Pouting Pen … an article I wrote ten years ago.

 

The Pouting Pen

Think of me as “Dear Abby”, except I only give advice on your relationship with your pen, typewriter, word processor, or computer.  Are you suffering from writer’s block?  Uncertain of the definition of a writing term?  I’m here for you.  If I don’t know the answer, I will point you in the right direction.

I won’t be giving advice on anything to do with university assignments…if you are having difficulties with those, see your tutor or Student Services.

 

 

Dear Pouting Pen,

I am having trouble with finding a title for my novel.  Where do I look for and find a good title?

Signed,

Tongue-tied with Titles.

 

Dear TTT,

 

There are fashions in titles, just like everything else.

The classic book title takes the pattern of ‘(The) **** of (the) ****’. I can look over to my bookcase and see four such titles in that style: ‘The Dolphins of Pern’, ‘The Wheel of Time’, ‘The Mystery of the Ruby Glasses’, & ‘The Sword of Shanarra’. This could mean that this style is overdone, but it just means that it is a classic form. It works, so don’t knock it. Oh, and the ‘of’ may be an ‘and’ in some titles of this type, like ‘The Power and the Passion’.

Then there is the clean and simple use of a one word title. Gregory Maguire favours this type: ‘Lost’, ‘Wicked’. So do many other authors. It has the advantage that you can use words that have multiple meanings, and you don’t give away anything major of the plot. A single word title is strong and powerful. The addition of a ‘The’ in front of a single word doesn’t weaken the effect, like in ‘The Awakening’ or ‘The Bribe’. Next level is adding a modifier, like an adjective, e.g. ‘The Little Country’ or ‘The King’s Buccaneer’.

Quotes are often a good source of titles. ‘Band of Brothers’ is from Shakespeare…you can’t go wrong with Shakespeare as he covered everything about the human condition in his body of work. Personally, I like to use bits from old sayings: ‘Rosemary for Remembrance’, ‘Stuff and Nonsense’. You can use lyrics from songs, anything that gives your title meaning. You can also twist a saying, particularly if your book is a parody…’Wyrd Sisters’ by Terry Pratchett is an example. The cleverer the twist, and the more appropriate to your novel, can make this style of title a zinger.

Lately, there has been a flourish of longer titles. ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ is an excellent example of this type. I avoid this style myself, but when it works it works well. The Victorians loved long titles, and they also liked to add a comment under the title. If you are writing Steam Punk or historical novels, this style is very suitable.

What a writer wants from a title is a cluster of words that are memorable; something that encompasses the theme of the work, without giving too much away. Some people like to put titles on their chapter headings (guilty). Titles are important, as a weak title can drive away readers before they even get to read the main text.

Some writers have a natural knack at picking a good title. If you know someone like this, cultivate their friendship. (Joke, joke.) However, you can work at your title to improve it, just like anything else. Make a huge list of titles, and cull down to the one you like. Use a working title, and then change it when something more appropriate takes your fancy. Buy book of quotations, or start looking up lyrics on the internet.

If you are getting too frustrated with finding a title, just leave it for a while. Come back when you are calm and relaxed. Reread your piece. Sometimes, the title will be hidden in the very words in your story.

 

 

Dear Pouting Pen,

 

I am unsure of the genre of my short story – in fact, I am unsure what genre really is.  Can you help me, please?

 

Yours in confusion,

Genre Geronimo

 

Dear Gerry,

Genre is how various categories of writing are recognised. Genre is a marketing tool, and a useful method for hunting down books you might enjoy, and it is used in judging books for awards. When you go into a book shop, usually the books are separated by genre: Cook Books, Humour, Reference Books, etc. These are very basic categories, often covering an enormous variation in the types of books lumped together. This is often why very original books, like Shaun Tan’s ‘The Arrival’, may end up in the children’s fiction area of a bookshop. No one knows what genre it should go into, because it covers so many genres.

Genre can be broad…Fantasy. Or it can get very specific, like Victorian-era, London-set, Steampunk fantasy aimed at a twelve year old audience. Every genre has its own rules and traditions, such as sword and sorcery genre books should have swordmen/swordwomen and wild magic as basic plot elements. Does that sound straight forward? It isn’t, as many genres overlap, and new genres are forming all the time.

For a writer, genre can be both restrictive and wonderful. Big Picture: I write Fantasy, and I dabble in horror and Science Fiction. I don’t think I will ever write a war-based novel or a Western. However, my fantasies tend to be adult fairytales in an urban setting. Little Picture: You might call it Urban Fantasy, or Magic Realism, or Feminist Fairytales. I wouldn’t.

I don’t like to be pigeonholed, as it restricts what I can or can’t do. However, if I was going to market such a book to a publisher, I would pick one of those genres so that the publisher has some idea of my style. And booksellers will know to put it in the Fantasy bookcases in their stores.

But what if I wanted to write a science fact book, when I am known as a fantasy author? If I am a popular fantasy writer, publishers may reject this out-of-genre book, as my fan base might be unhappy. Ditto if I write young adult, and then I write a book aimed at an older audience. Of course, I can change to another pen name…but why should any author be so restricted creatively?

There are any number of good books that can help with an understanding of genre. This note is just a starting point, to get you thinking.

 

Dear Pouting Pen,

 

Who the heck is an unreliable narrator?

 

Yours Sincerely,

This is not for an assignment, honest.

 

 

Dear Honest,

Erm.  Instead of giving you an outright definition of an unreliable narrator, I will share with you my personal views on unreliable narration.  You can then make up your own mind who or what an unreliable narrator is.

There is a perception in our society that some texts are reliable, and some texts are not. I would argue that no text can be constructed as completely reliable, as it is human nature to pick and choose what facts will be represented. The presentation of the facts, what order they are in, what has been left out, are all constructs of the author of a text.

The news story reported by a respected journalist; the critique of a historical event by an academic; and the article presented by a scientist; all these texts are just as unreliable as the authors. Each individual has chosen their topic, which means they have ignored other topics. They have decided how to represent the topic, highlighting some issues and ignoring others. No matter how unbiased the text may appear, there will be gaps and ambiguities – because the authors are not omniscient and are only human.

As well, truth can not be set in stone. What is consider only right and normal in one time and place, will be seen as strange or criminal somewhere and somewhen else. The truth itself may change. This means that a reader should never passively accept a text on face value. The reader should remain alert and question the text. She should look for gaps in the meaning, for what is left out is often as telling as what has been included in the text. What is the context? What was the author of the text trying to achieve? What constraints are their on the author and the text?

Of course, the author of a text may be deliberately setting out to misinform or mislead the reader. However, most authors of a text have attempted to supply the text in good faith. It is up to the reader to stay open-minded, and try to avoid accepting any text as the complete and utter truth of the matter.

Sorry, Honest.  I’m aware that I haven’t given you a straight forward answer…so am I a reliable narrator?  Or not?

 

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Filed under The Writing Life, Uncategorized, Writing Career, Writing Experiment, Writing Style

Adverb Liberation Front

I don’t know why, but the ‘don’t use adverbs’ rule irritates me. Abverbs are just another thingamajig in a writer’s toolkit. Yes – they can be overused. Yes -they should be replaced by strong verbs when the strong verb is more appropiate. But adverbs can be just as useful as any other word family of our modern syntax.

adverbs

I suspect the real reason why adverbs are viewed with suspicion is that they are usually crutch words. Everyone knows to avoid ‘very’ and ‘really’. ‘Actually’ is one of my crutch words, and is an offender for a lot of other people. I now run ‘actually’ through my word search function when I complete a story; even though I am aware of the problem, it still turns up.

crutch word cloud

Crutch words – the usual suspects

Some people work on the rule ‘one adverb a page’ Some writers refuse to use adverbs at all. It is time to change this outdated way of thinking! So I have formed the ADVERB LIBERATION FRONT. Writers should be able to use any word they want! With confidence! Lovingly.

The only time a writer should avoid adverbs is when a writer is feeling lazy and using them to do all the heavy lifting in their prose. Think of adverbs as a condiment; a few adds to the flavour, but too many ruins the dish.

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Filed under The Writing Life, Uncategorized, Writing Career, Writing Style

Dialogue Insights

 

Good dialogue comes down to six factors:

1. First and foremost, it advances the plot. Indeed … I know this goes without saying, but if I didn’t mention it I would be letting the team down.

2. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. However, when it comes to characterization, dialogue is one of the best methods for adding depth to a character. How they say what they mean is just as important as what they are saying.

3. It should seem natural, without actually being natural. Real conversation is full of ums, ers, and broken sentences. Unless you are writing ‘slice of life’, written dialoque should skip ninety percent of this ‘filler’ waffle.

4. Make it snappy and witty. Memorable. Channel Oscar Wilde or Terry Pratchett. Don’t bore your readers.

5. Dialogue should do more than just be about talking heads. It should also be adding to the underlying theme of your narrative. What are the underlying implications of your dialogue?

6. Alice might think a book without conversations is dull, but remember that your narrative should be more than just dialogue. If you want to have a masterclass, read Isaac Asimov to see how a dialogue can move a story along, and still be full of action.

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Filed under Dialogue, The Writing Life, Uncategorized, writing, Writing Style