Saturday, 24 September 2011

Why Being Wordy Isn't a Sin

Firstly, the wordiness in question is not really about the long-winded round-about-way in which we write sometimes or the use of too much verbosity, but rather it’s about being wordy in a narrative/descriptive sense.

Being wordy can create awkward sentences, but when carefully crafted, some sentences actually leap from the page because being wordy is what is actually needed.

There is a lot of debate about the use of big, flowery words in literature and how appropriate they may be within the context of the piece, but many critics sometimes forget that writing is all about expression and the freedom of a writer to express him or herself in whichever way they want. That’s what makes every writer unique, after all.

There are no hard and fast rules that state that big or literary words can’t be used in fiction, because they can, as long as they’re not over used and they’re placed within the context of the story. For example, flowery words that most people have never heard of before wouldn’t really sit too well in a dark, gritty action thriller and likewise, the use of raw, street-style descriptive words wouldn’t fit with a romance novel. Words have their place.

They also have effects that have the right moment, too. Their effectiveness depends on what you want to express.

That aside, there is a lot of advice out there says writers shouldn’t use big or flowery words and that modern editors prefer plain English, but the proof of this is, for the most part, unpalatable and depressing - most books on the shelf are all pretty much the same and some contain some really dull, uninteresting description - there is nothing in the voice that resembles anything fresh or powerful. Nothing but sameness is evident because of this trend for simple, straightforward English.

Writers sometimes need those kind of words sprinkled into their narrative, and they need personal expression, because without being wordy to a certain degree, nothing would be written in the first place. Adding the odd big word or two isn’t bad, nor is bringing boring, stilted description alive with a few colourful strokes.

Choice of words is what counts, but it’s also about what you want to say and how you choose to say it that matters.

The idea is to create elegance and colour with descriptions, to wrap the reader in a visual kaleidoscope and let them enjoy all the shades you breathe into your story, instead of losing them in a flourish of fancy words. Fancy words mean nothing if you don’t understand why and how to use them. You can still be clear and concise with what you want to say, but you can do it with colour and flair.

I despair at some of the MSS I receive for critique because so many writers follow this ‘plain English’ mantra and produce lacklustre drivel. Why? Because they haven’t grasped how or when to use the right words, and they haven’t mastered the colours of description.

This is an excerpt from a flash fiction piece called Zero Hour:

A gentle breeze brushed past him, soft and delicate like a butterfly, and he felt invisible, wispy fingers of comfort against his greying skin. He gazed up at the sky; saw the strange, layered clouds, full with moisture and melancholy.

By keeping it plain and simple, you would you have the following:

A gentle breeze brushed past him and he felt invisible fingers of comfort against his greying skin. He gazed up at the sky; saw the strange clouds, full with moisture.

They are both fine, but one creates a deeper, richer picture, one doesn’t. One of these might be considered too wordy, the other is concise. One brings depth to its descriptive framework, one doesn’t. One tells the reader, the other shows.

You decide which one is better.

Here’s another example of how it’s done, with a 100-word flash fiction piece called ‘A Bad Colour’.

Amber slices projected through the trees, the haze of the fire began to swell. The hint of burnt sienna wafted close, scorched a path beneath their noses.

Rope fibres moaned as they became taut, to temper the weight.

Shadows appeared through the smoke, circled him. Milk coloured robes flapped in the breeze, bathed by the fire glow, their faces hidden by hoods.

Red over black; the colour of life slinked down his skin, snaked down the channels they had gouged through his flesh. Open viscera gleamed.

He swung from the tree as the cross burned; the price for being different.

If I had written A Bad Colour in a plain English kind of way, it would be about as interesting as rainwater in a bucket.

Of course, no entire novel is constructed this way, but it shows that being a bit wordy helps the narrative and description in certain places. As the writer, you have to know when it’s needed and what words to use. So, being wordy isn’t a sin. It’s a way of expression. 

  • Choose the right words
  • Ask yourself - what do I want to express?
  • Is it better to be dull and concise, or better to be a little wordy?
  • Is your description dull, or does it bloom with colour?
  • Is your description and narrative lost, or does it rise from the page with added dimension?
No one can argue that excessive long-winded or verbose narrative is good, because it isn’t, but occasionally there will be times when it’s just necessary because it falls into context of the story and it actually brings the narrative to life.

Being wordy isn’t bad, it just means that we can be rebellious every now and then in the face of the literature police and just express ourselves the way we want to, how we want to.

No one would tell Picasso or Rembrandt how to paint, and likewise we don’t tell writers how to write. We can only show them how, with advice, to be better.

Next week: How to make description sparkle.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Part 2 - How many rewrites is too many?

When it comes to rewriting, a writer can only do so much before it’s time to let go.

I mentioned in the previous article that five edits seemed to produce a happy medium – not too few that the work is not yet complete and things are missed, and not too many that the work is spoiled beyond repair and so I’ve used it as a working example.

Five stage editorial drafting process

First Draft – This is the raw material of any novel. This is the bare bones, the jumbled stream of thoughts and tangents that you’ve thrown into a messy mix in order to create your story. 

Second Draft – The read through and first edit helps you look at how the story flows and also pinpoints obvious mistakes like grammar, sentence structures and plot flaws and unnecessary scenes. 

You can start to ‘flesh out’ the story with more narrative, dialogue and description at this stage as well as forming those subplots and themes.

Third Draft – Another full read through to further tighten sentence structures, add more information, more narrative or dialogue and so on, and also fill any gaps with research so that the story isn’t left with gaping holes of made up nonsense and inaccurate information.

You might also cut some scenes or rewrite others to tidy the manuscript and make it tighter.

Fourth draft – You should, by now, have a tight, fluid story devoid of plot flaws and errors; it should read well and make sense and the narrative, dialogue and description should be balanced.

Overall it may only need a minor tweak here or there.

Fifth draft – almost perfection. I say almost because we all know, there is no such thing as perfection (unless you are a perfectionist, which is a completely different story). But this is the final draft, the one you will send to an agent or publisher. This is where THE END really does mean the end.

You have reached the ceiling – any more drafting could potentially spoil the novel, any less and you may not be satisfied with the finished product because some things might still be missing. 

Again, I would point out that we are all different, and because of that, we all need different levels of balance and that means finding our own ‘ceiling’.

The five-draft magic number is one I have used over the last 25 years because personally, I do suffer with perfectionism, that need to attain the highest standard in my eyes, and I fell into the trap of the infinite loop of writing, rewriting and more rewriting in the never ending cycle for perfection. I had to force myself to follow a formula that would stop me redrafting a novel from now until the end of time.

I soon realised that this type of rewriting exercise was counter-productive, and I would have never been published otherwise, because I would never have been satisfied that I had finished.

No one said writing was easy, because it certainly isn’t, but we can help ourselves as writers to lessen the pressure we heap on ourselves in the hunt for ‘perfection’ or ‘complete satisfaction’. We can make our lives easier by maintaining strategies and formulas that work for us rather than against us.

Your personal drafting process might be five edits; six, seven or eight edits etc, whatever feels right for you, but then you have to stick to the formula you’ve created. 

Know at each drafting stage what you need to do with your manuscript and what you want to achieve – just like the five stages above - and make sure you follow it. Setting yourself these targets will help you in the editing process and hopefully stop unwarranted editing that could, potentially, spoil the story.

The truth is, no story will ever be completely finished, because a year or ten years from now, you will look back on your story and figure that you can make it better. It’s the nature of writing, we’re writers, can’t help ourselves – everyone does it. 

Set a target of how many edits you realistically need, and stick to them. That way you edit with confidence, you will know it’s the best it will be and you can send it out into the world and get on with the next project.

Next week: Why being wordy is not a sin.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

How Many Rewrites is Too Many?

Anyone who has ever followed a recipe will know the importance of the measurement of ingredients when cooking. Get the balance of ingredients wrong and you could spoil the outcome. This is also true with rewriting.

The question is, how many edits is too many? Is there a golden number? Can a writer edit a novel
ad infinitum, or is there a danger it will eventually spoil the whole thing?

The answer is as individual as the writer, but it’s all about balance. Every writer knows the importance of redrafting and editing and many worry about how many drafts they should go through before a story is ready for the world, but it’s about finding a balance that works for the individual.

Let’s look at the main problems of re-writing.

Lack of rewrites

On the whole, a lack of novel edits underscores a writer’s inefficiency and lack of experience because not even established writers can write a perfect story in the first draft – they may take several edits, and first time writers certainly won’t achieve acceptable standards under three edits.

Many writers don’t invest time in rewriting and redrafting prior to sending their work to agents or publishers and they don’t always realise that there is still a lot of work needed on their novel. That is one of the many reasons some MSS are rejected immediately without a second glance.

It’s surprising how many writers believe they can write a fantastic, publishable novel in no time at all, and with hardly any re-writing. If they can, they are a genius. And I’ve not yet met one.

Without a doubt, the first two drafts of any novel are unpublishable.

Main problems with too few edits:
  • Potential problem areas – like plot flaws - haven’t been spotted.
  • The story isn’t yet strong enough to be considered completed.
  • The writer hasn’t noticed spelling and grammar errors.
  • The writer hasn’t paid enough attention to the art of novel writing.
  • The writer has rushed the whole thing.
  • Overall, there is a higher chance the novel may be rejected because of all the above. 

Too many rewrites
In complete contrast to too few edits, there is the problem of too many rewrites. Eventually, redrafting will just spoil the novel - there is a danger that the story you set out to write ends up so ‘surgically’ enhanced that it no longer resembles the original story – the intrinsic core of the story has been lost.
This is a particular problem with perfectionists, who draft and re-draft in a constant battle for a near perfect story and continue on an infinite, self-propagating cycle – novels will never be published because nothing will ever be sent out because the writer is never satisfied or not confident that it’s not perfect enough.
It’s not unusual to find these kind of writers on their 8th, 9th or even 10th draft - they’ve been working on the book for many years, decades in some extreme cases. They always say ‘one more draft and it will be complete', but that one more draft turns into another and another...and so on. It never truly ends.
Of course, not every writer is a perfectionist, but it’s worth remembering that re-writing a novel has the potential to become infinite with rewrites, and ultimately unfinished, and only you can break that cycle of rewriting and editing your work in a constant battle for satisfaction.
Another problem is that sometimes it’s easy to become so bogged down with the intricacies of the story – to become so close to it or completely immersed in it - that you no longer see blatant errors. Sometimes it’s hard to stand back from your work and see it in a different light.
The best way to counter this problem is to send your work out to agents for for critique, then you will get the kind of feedback you need in order to progress. It will help you understand where you might need to improve and it might also help you step back from the entire novel and look at it with a fresh perspective.
Main problems with too many edits:
  • Writing ad infinitum in the belief you can make it better – it ends up spoiling the story.
  • The writer loses sight of the importance of the novel because of too many drafts.
  • The novel loses strength after numerous re-writes and becomes weak.
  • The writer is never satisfied with the result, so the self-perpetuating cycle continues – the curse of perfectionism.
  • The writer become too close to the story to notice any errors.
  • The story becomes stagnant beyond repair. 
It’s a balancing act not to rewrite too much, because there is a limit to how much you can improve a story. Eventually, there comes a point when re-writing becomes counter-productive and writers have to learn to understand when that point is, where their own personal ‘ceiling’ lies.
If you have gone past five, six or seven edits or more, try to step back from the story and ask the following questions:
  1. Can I realistically improve the work further?
  2. Have I spoiled the story’s intrinsic core?
  3. Have I become too close to the whole thing that I can’t see the errors?
  4. Can I trust someone to give me thorough, positive feedback to help me establish points 1 and 2?
  5. Am I brave enough to send it out to publishers and agents?
  6. Can I make this the LAST draft? Do I really need to rewrite?
  7. Am I brave enough to accept defeat on this novel, learn from the process and move on?
  8. Can I work to a realistic threshold from now on?
The simple truth is that it’s just not practicable to rewrite for eons. There is a ceiling, a point where you have to stop, and in my experience over the years, I have found that the most productive number of edits is five.
infinitum and spoiled the whole work.
In Part 2, I’ll show how the five stage editorial drafting process works.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

How Character Development can Drive Conflict

A well-developed character is one that a reader can connect with on several levels and one that they will remember long after they’ve read your story.

If you’ve managed to build your character, developed him or her, made them overcome their flaws and weaknesses throughout the story and they have emerged a stronger, better character by the end of it, then you will have engaged the reader not only on an emotional level, but also on a metaphysical level.

All the fears, emotional difficulties, limitations, faults and obstacles the character endures is what your reader will feel, too. Not only are that, but all the conflicts the character has to undergo, are the same ones the reader will share.

How does it Work?

The character is always in a constant state of flux. From beginning to end, there is a constant cycle of conflict, decision making, actions, consequences and development.

There is a simple way to illustrate a character’s path:


The idea is to make your character face almost impossible situations and to test their mettle, to play on those weaknesses or flaws and make them overcome them. This is where tension comes into play, because inner conflicts – the emotional kind especially – drive the character’s development and forces them to change.

Their personal development depends on overcoming those conflicts. If they don’t develop, don’t overcome their flaws or weaknesses, then they will have gained nothing by their experiences and neither will the reader.

Facing their Fears

Another way is to make your main character face his or her deepest fears.

This is a two-fold strategy: the fear is the basis of their conflict – it could be anything, like an object, a person (external conflict) or it could be an emotional or psychological one (inner conflict) – and the development of the character, the strength to rise above and overcome, drives such conflict and therefore they will emerge a changed person at the end of this process.

For instance, I write dark, psychological fiction, I like to explore the human condition, and I’ve easily rendered horror-laden scenes, and yet there is one fear I’ve not yet fully faced – the fear of the dark. Even now, it causes conflict and tension whenever faced with this fear – especially if I don’t have a choice, i.e. a power cut.

One day I may find the strength to overcome it and in so doing it will change me. The same is true of your characters.

Your character’s development depends on your ability to be ruthless; stress them, hurt them through ongoing conflict – emotionally and physically, (remember, the reader is a pillion passenger on this rollercoaster ride) – throw everything you have at them so they grow stronger and better and they work to overcome your fictional onslaught. Remember, characters don’t always make the right decisions so this side of their development also creates conflict and tension, because whatever the choices they make, there will always be a consequence.

The main characters in your story – protagonist and antagonist – both have goals so they are in direct opposition to each other = conflict and tension = consequences. How they reach those goals is up to the writer, of course.

Force their Hand

Another way to drive conflict through characters is to make them do something they would never normally do, something that might conflict with their moral code or their sense of values and personal ethics.

When faced with something that might go against our beliefs, we are faced with a near impossible situation. How do we overcome it? Sometimes we are forced to do something that others might not expect of us.

What of the character had to kill someone in order to protect his or her family? Could they do it, even if it was against their beliefs?

Force them into a corner, force them to make near impossible decisions. This creates conflict and tension, and how the character resolves the situation forms part of his or her personal growth and development.


Some writers make their character fail some of their goals. Even if this happens, the character would have gone through the experience and changed as a person. If there is no change then there is little point to the story.

We’ve all experienced failure – it creates conflict - so how will your character cope? Will they be a stronger person because of it? Is it hard for them to fight back and win the day?

Everything our characters do, the decisions they make, all affect the story pathway and thus it continues to create conflict and tension at every turning point.

Give them problems to solve, make them do things they wouldn’t normally do, force them into corners, force them to make life changing decisions, hurt them, let them develop with these conflicts, but above all make sure their motivation is not lost so that they emerge a different person by the end.

Next week: How many re-writes is too many?