Saturday, 27 November 2010

Too much use of the word 'was'

How many of us have used ‘was’ far too much in our narrative? Look back through your stories and you will see that it occurs more often than is necessary, which seems crazy because it seems such an innocuous, inoffensive word, but too much use of it can be detrimental to your narrative. This is because it has a tendency to slow overall sentence rhythm and stutter the flow of writing, making it appear clunky and contrived.

Of course, it must be said, we all do it. It’s a matter of habit, but bad habits can be just as bad as using bad grammar.

So why does this word limit narrative, and why?

To begin with, it acts like a barrier between you and your reader by limiting how you apply yourself descriptively. Your role as writer is to transport the reader into the story through description, dialogue and narrative. How effective these are together is down to you as a writer. Sentence structure plays an important role in linking these three elements. Even more important are the words to choose for each sentence and some of the words we like using the most are ‘was’ and ‘there’.

Rather than it being a case of lazy writing, it is more like the writer doesn’t know an alternative way of communicating something without resorting to writing ‘this was here’ or that was there’ or ‘she was at the door’ or ‘he was standing in the hallway’.

We write sentences like this without even thinking about it. It’s a matter of habit. But why write any differently? Well, the drawback with too much use of ‘was’ is that it tends to lead to a reliance on too much telling and not enough showing, and as all writers know, ‘telling’ can kill any story by making it just too clunky to read.

So how do you know when you use ‘was’ excessively? That’s down to practice, practice, practice. It’s a matter of being thorough when you read through and edit your work. Don’t be afraid to be judicious when it comes to throwing out words, sentences, paragraphs or even whole scenes or chapters that don’t make the story work.

Take a look at these sentences:

1. Jane walked into her office. There was a note on her desk, inviting her curiosity. In the corner, there was a bunch of flowers on the chair. It made her smile.

2. The temperature was cold and it made him shudder. He licked his lips. There was a bitter taste in the air. This was the coldest he’d known.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with these simple sentences, the placement of ‘was’ makes it hard to expand on the action. The word ‘was’ tells us either something happened, or something occupies a place or position and therefore there isn’t much room to go into detail.

Let’s look at one of them in more detail:

Jane walked into the office.

There is nothing actually wrong with this sentence. This is simply informing the reader of a character’s action and doesn’t need adding to because it sets us up for the next sentence.

There was a note on her desk, inviting her curiosity.

This sentence tells us something, but doesn’t actually show us. ‘There’ and ‘was’ act as inhibitors to the sentence to stop further description. If you do expand on it you may end up saying ‘there’ and ‘was’ again.

In the corner, there was a bunch of flowers on the chair. It made her smile.

Again, this sentence is simply telling us there are flowers on the chair and that it makes her smile. There is no expansion in the description.

Overall, these paragraphs lack enough description, interest and sentence structure. They tell us, but they don’t show us.

Now what if you did it like this:

1. Jane walked into her office, spotted a note on her desk. It immediately sparked her curiosity, but then a hint of colour caught her waning attention and she turned to see the bunch of flowers on the chair in the corner. They made her smile.

This second paragraph gives more for the reader to work with. Instead of telling the reader there was a note and a bunch of flowers, it allows to reader to share the curiosity, by showing it instead. Each instance of ‘was’ has been eliminated.

2. The temperature dropped, made him shudder. He licked his lips, tasted the bitter air. This was the coldest he’d known.
Notice that this second set of paragraphs is tighter and reads better. They offer the reader some interest by showing or hinting something more, all by removing the word ‘was’.

You’ll notice that example 2 still contains a necessary ‘was’: This was the coldest he’d known. In this instance, the sentence needs it to convey the character’s inner thoughts.

Let’s look at the re-written first example in more detail so see how it has improved:

Jane walked into her office, spotted a note on her desk.

By removing the words ‘there’ and ‘was’ we can set up a neat following sentence by making the character spot the note rather than simply telling the reader it’s there. This leads into the next sentences:

It immediately sparked her curiosity, but then a hint of colour caught her waning attention and she turned to see the bunch of flowers on the chair in the corner. They made her smile.

We’re informing the reader that the character is curious, and we’re showing how the flowers catch her attention, rather than telling the reader. Now our curiosity is sparked, we’re interested to know who they’re from, and it’s all done without a single ‘there’ or ‘was’.

Of course, knowing which ones to take out and which to keep are down to practice, but by using fewer of them in your narrative you keep your sentences tight and rhythmic. It also allows you to show rather than tell. This is fundamental in your narrative.

Just like most fiction writing, you need to find balance. Using ‘was’ is still important as long as it is used in the right places, it’s a word you simply can’t write without, but because it is a verb used in the past tense, writers rely on it too much, and just like adjectives and adverbs, you should use them sparingly.

‘There’ works in the same way. We still need it, but there are better ways to describe than always referring to ‘There was this’ or ‘there was something’. For example:

There was a light in the doorway.

This description is boring because it tells us, but doesn’t show us. The sentence could be much better, like this:

A faint orange glow flickered from the doorway...

See how different this sentence is?  It shows us there is a light; it adds a little atmosphere and allows the reader to want to know more, all by removing ‘there’ and also ‘was.’

Just remember to take a little time over your sentence structure. Just ask yourself, ‘Am I using ‘was’ and ‘there’ too much? If so, start removing them. You will end up with much tighter sentences, better constructed paragraphs and better choice of words to engage your reader.

Next time: Using the senses.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Finding 'Voice' in Creative Writing

First, what exactly is ‘voice’?

Novice writers sometimes worry about ‘voice’ and what it means. Voice is the word we use to describe a style of writing that is distinct and individual from everyone else. It describes how you write, the descriptions you use, the words you choose to express yourself, the structure and pattern of your sentences and paragraphs, the characterisations and how your characters express themselves, and the overall style of your story that defines your voice.

Think about how you talk. Your voice has pitch, emotion, subtlety, variation, accent, tone and so on. Your writing voice isn’t that different to these elements.

New writers also have a tendency to become frustrated by not having that voice to begin with. They can be impatient, little realising that voice doesn’t appear overnight. That is because they have not yet developed their own style. Writing is like any new skill that we learn. The more you write, the more your style and voice becomes apparent. If you are a new writer, you have to be patient and let your voice come through naturally. Don’t be tempted to force it – the end result could end up resembling something a primary school student would come up with – in other words, you won’t have any voice to speak of.

Also, many writers worry they won’t be ‘original’. There is a preconception that writers have to be original to be successful, mostly because agents and publishers demand ‘originality’, but can you actually define originality? No. They can’t either. The fact that you have a writing style makes you original because what you produce will be unlike any other writer. Every writer is different and therefore naturally original. It’s that simple.

Also, don’t make the mistake of giving your characters your personality – this only starves the style process. In-depth characterisation is what makes your characters distinct, not your ego. Your characters are not you.

Don’t try to write like famous writers either, thinking that by copying them that you’ll be snapped up by an agent or publisher in no time, because you won’t. Writing like someone else means you’re not writing as YOU and you’ll never succeed by doing this.

Your style and voice is what counts and that is what makes your writing distinct.

How do I to develop my writing voice?

When I started writing in my teens I worried about finding voice, how my writing wouldn’t sound the same as any other writers and how I could be distinguished from thousands of others, but I gradually realised as I worked on my stories that a style started to emerge. That didn’t happen until my late twenties, so you can see how long the process took. The key is to be patient.

To start with, write as much as possible. With each story you write, you gain a little more experience of the writing process, you learn about characterisation, building plot, raising obstacles, creating conflict and tension and giving the reader a satisfactory ending. The more writing you do, the more proficient you will become and from this ongoing process, your style of writing will emerge naturally.

Read your drafts. Read several times to understand the depth of what you have written. Also, read them aloud to get an idea how your writing actually ‘sounds.’ You will start to notice the subtle nuances of your writing, the ‘sound’ of your writing. This is the emergence of your writing ‘voice’. It might be you have a flowery or lavish style, or poetic style. You might find that your writing is abrupt and to the point. Whichever it is, this is who you are as a writer and you continue to develop it.

How will I know when I have a writing voice?

Every writer has pondered this. Finding your writing voice or style isn’t a quick process. It can take many years before it starts to emerge. It doesn’t pop out at an opportune moment, but rather develops with you as you write. The way to recognise your style is to always read what you have written, improve your writing and write as much as you can – short stories, flash fiction, poems, novels – the more you do, the more you learn. With each story you write, your style and voice will become more apparent.

What will also become apparent over time is that when you write something that seems such a comfortable process (instead of a torturous slog), then you know your style has bloomed, thus allowing you to write seamlessly and with such passion that you just have to keep going. Your style and voice have matured and you’ve gelled with who you are as a writer. This will happen. Just be patient.

When your writing style or voice does emerge, capitalise on it, affirm it and strengthen your writing with more writing, after all, your writing voice and your style defines who you are as a writer, and in a sense it’s an important aspect of writing. As already stated, don’t worry about trying to be original or different, because your style will do that for you. Just concentrate on as much writing as you can.

I know one up and coming young writer who is only sixteen. She is already published (short stories), and is working on a novel. In a year or two, she will have found a distinct voice and style of her own to tackle such projects with confidence.

So, to summarise:

• Be patient
• Write as much as you can
• Read all your work
• Read it aloud to ‘hear’ how your writing sounds
• Improve and develop your writing
• Never copy other writing styles
• Don’t transplant your personality into your characters. Each one should be individual and different from one another.

Above all, remember that writers are individual, and so is their writing. Finding voice is like learning to ride a bike – it will come to you eventually.

Next time: How to avoid too much use of the word ‘was’ in narrative.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Contemporary fiction v Literary

Which one are you?


Well, first you have to define the genres. Literary is almost always character driven and relies on characters to tell the story rather than the plot doing all the work. Literary is another way of describing ‘high end writing’, the literati. The prose tends to be either archaic, overly beautiful or a mix between the two. Nevertheless, literary stories can be a joy to read. They can be exquisite, poetic, powerfully descriptive, alluring and seductive in their very fabric.

Contemporary novels are mostly plot driven and concentrate on modern day dilemmas. They are usually action-packed and fast paced and have a broad base appeal to almost everyone, coupled with compelling stories to tell. These include many genres like thriller, crime, mystery, science fiction, adventure, westerns and so on. Contemporary novels (or commercial to be more precise) are about how many sales it can generate.  Commercial fictions sells.

Literary fiction could be classed as a genre in its own right. Sometimes people refer to it as style over substance, but while they do have style, they also ask pertinent questions and explore the human condition. Many literary books are very thought provoking. They are beautifully written and very often stop to make us think.

Are you contemporary or literary?

As mentioned in previous posts, writing is as individual as fingerprints. Your style, your voice and how you write is what distinguishes you from other writers. For new writers, finding that style and the voice takes a while, so don’t panic that you feel bereft of any writing individuality. Your style and your voice will come when you have gained experience by writing lots of stories.  (More on that next week).

During this process – which could take years – you start to realise how your style works. You may find it’s fast paced and abrupt, which would fit into commercial fiction, or you may find your style is relaxed and poetic, which may indicate you have a literary tendency towards your writing.

Knowing how you write is very important in recognising the various styles in writing, because this will dictate where you send your finished novels or stories – literary agents or commercial fiction agents/publishers. It’s no good sending a fast-paced action thriller to a publishing house or agent that deals with solely with literary books or stories and vice versa.

A writer knows pretty much what style they want to write. Most of the time this is usually dictated by the work we read. Writers who enjoy reading thrillers tend to write thrillers, those who enjoy reading romance tend to write romantic style stories, those who love horror tend to write horror and so on.

Writers like to write what makes them feel comfortable.

I like to write dark, psychological tales or thrillers because my style has evolved that way and because that’s what I also love to read. I can’t write happy stories, or romance or chick-lit style novels. Why? Because that just isn’t my style and I don’t feel comfortable writing them. I know which genres I am comfortable with, and as a writer, you should know which styles you are comfortable with because any writing you try that is not within your comfort zone will end up convoluted and stilted and not worth reading.

Am I at a disadvantage if I’m literary?

Any well-crafted story which moves the reader, entertains them and makes them believe in the story has neither an advantage nor disadvantage. Commercial fiction has a huge following compared to literary fiction, simply because publishers are prepared to invest money in contemporary novels.

Literary novels suffer from the ‘elitist’ tag – that only clever academics might enjoy - and it may put some people off reading it or may make publishers think twice about promoting it, but that’s not to say commercial or contemporary fiction is better. (There is a lot of commercial fiction on the bookshelves which is woefully dire).

On the whole, literary works are published knowing that they won’t make a lot of money, and therefore they’re often in small print runs.

Compare this with commercial fiction, which is what most people read, which ‘sells’ and can make the publisher some money. If very successful, there may be several print runs and maybe a modicum of success.

But one thing is important, regardless of genre. Good fiction is good fiction. It’s as simple as that, and isn’t it surprising that most ‘literary’ novels tend to take the prizes for fiction? This is because, despite the snobbish view of literary work, publishers and critics still place merit upon it when it comes to doling out the prizes.

So, in essence, you’re not thoroughly disadvantaged if you choose literary style. If that is your style and voice as a writer, don’t change it, because more often than not it won’t work. Develop that voice, because as already stated, agents and publishers are looking for a great story, regardless of being literary or commercial in style. Who knows, you may become the next Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth or Ian McEwen.

And as Salman Rushdie once said, "Literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope to find not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart."

Whatever your style, stick with it, develop it, make it individual.

Next time: Finding voice and style.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Blog Plot v Character driven stories

Writers often ask me which type they should attempt to write, however, I always answer that the approach to writing is always subjective. In other words, it really is up to the writer, but on the whole, it depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell because there is a distinction between the two. One kind may be more suited to the type of genre you are writing for.

New writers may not be aware of such distinctions, and may not know the differences between the two forms.

The most important thing to remember is that neither of these elements is right or wrong. Not all novels are 100% plot driven or 100% character driven. For the most part, they have a mix of both character and plot driven elements. How they balance is entirely up to the writer.

What is a Plot driven story?

A plot driven story concentrates almost entirely on the events or situations within the story and it focuses on how the characters influence those events or situations, usually through action. The story is not solely centered on its characters, but often relies on the unfolding events within its context to drive the story forward and bring it to its conclusion.

In plot driven stories (more suited to crime novels or various thriller/adventure genres), the focus remains on the events within the story, usually a single main event such as a death, a battle, an accident, a kidnap etc. The story, the characters and subplots revolve around this single event to being the story to life.

The characters in a plot-driven novels don’t tend to be as deeply drawn as those in character driven novels (for obvious reasons), since the fast pace of most plot driven novels means there isn’t much time to delve too deeply on an emotional level with your protagonist and antagonist and other characters, but that’s not to say that characters in these types of novels are not three dimensional and believable and make us empathise with them, because they are and they do, however most plot driven stories don’t really have time for deep character reflection. The emphasis is on pace and action.

Novels such as The Da Vinci Code, The Bourne Identity, Jurassic Park, The Hunt for Red October and Golden Compass are examples of plot driven novels.

What is a character driven story?

This really is a case of something doing exactly what it says on the tin. These stories are all about the characters. The emphasis is on character reflection, emotions, desires, motives, and subsequent actions. The story tends to be a secondary element, the plot tends to be somewhere in the background and is not strictly enforced like a plot driven novel. This type of novel also tends to be more reflective and slower in pace. This means that the writer can concentrate solely on characterisation.

You’ll find that most - not all - literary novels tend to be character driven. This is because they focus on the character’s emotions, their desires and their reflections and that means that the development and growth of the characters outweighs the development and growth and the movement of the plot. These stories tend to focus on why characters do what they do, and how they react in certain ways through their actions.

Novels such as Catcher in the Rye, War and Peace, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Shawshank Redemption and The Hours are just some examples of character driven stories.

Can you have both?

The simple answer to that is yes. There are no hard and fast rules that state you must have one or the other. A good writer can incorporate both elements into their work, as in the example above with King’s The Shawshank Redemption, so in theory you can have a fast paced thriller that does have emotional, reflective character driven scenes, and literary-style character driven stories that can have moments of action which propel the plot forward.

The ideal would be to have a balance of both, and this is quite possible as longs as you maintain that balance.  If you do have a plot driven story, don't forget good characterisation, because this is still extremely important in any story.  A great plot is nothing without great characters, and great characters still need a plot to work from.

Most stories do follow a pattern that we all know, and the genre generally dictates the type of novel: thrillers, crime, sci-fi and adventure books tend to be plot driven, while romantic genres, coming of age novels or semi-autobiographical novels tend to be character driven, and as you write your novel it will become apparent where your story fits when it comes to plot driven, character driven or a mix of both.

One thing will be apparent as you begin your writing journey – you need to be clear on the type of novel you want to write. You need to find your ‘voice’, your writing fingerprint that makes you stand out from other writers. Once you have those, then you’ll know the kind of fiction you’ll want to write.

Next time: Contemporary v literary.