Saturday, 29 March 2014

How to Avoid Bad Writing – Part 2

We continue our look at the kind of things that cause bad writing, and ways to avoid them so that they never crop up again. As with most things, once you learn to recognise them, you’ll be better equipped to deal with them when editing.
In Part 1, we looked at sequence of actions and separating character actions in order to achieve better sentence structures and avoid some of the flaws which are commonplace in fiction writing.
This week we’ll take a detailed look at a couple of more bad writing examples, and ways to eliminate them from your narrative.
Unnecessary Speech Attribution
There is one thing that many writers still do when it comes to writing dialogue; they continue to get sentence structure incorrect by attributing speech tags when they are not actually necessary.  
In laymen’s terms speech tags, or attributions, are a way of identifying the speaker.
For agents or publishers it can be especially infuriating when writers do this, because dialogue structure really isn’t difficult to do, and for writers seeking a foot in the door to being published, it can be the difference between rejection and acceptance.
Here’s a simple example which is very similar to the type I see all the time, especially in self-published stories, where the writer hasn’t taken the time to learn the craft of writing, nor understood the process of editing:
John pointed and smiled.  ‘Ha ha,’ he tittered.
This is a classic mistake. Firstly, the writer has denoted who is speaking – John – by placing the action ahead of the dialogue. There is no further need for speech attribution and therefore “he tittered” is not required because we already know that John is speaking.
In this example, the attribution becomes superfluous and the writing suffers because of it. The correct structure is as follows:-
John pointed and smiled.  ‘Ha ha.’
This is clear and concise. The action before the dialogue tells the reader who is about to speak, and because it’s clear who is speaking, there is no need to add speech tags.
Here’s another example:
‘Another time perhaps, and I would have paid more attention,’ John said. He shrugged. ‘But I guess I was just too busy concentrating on other things,’ he added.
You can see that the writer has made it clear that John is speaking by the ‘John said’ attribution. Then after the action, the writer has made the mistake of adding a further attribution of ‘he added’ which is surplus to requirements and should not be placed in the sentence. This shows the writer’s lack of skill in dialogue structure and the result is bad writing.
The correct structure should be:-
‘Another time perhaps, and I would have paid more attention,’ John said. He shrugged. ‘But I guess I was just too busy concentrating on other things.’
If you have already denoted who is speaking, you don’t have to put ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ etc. Speech attributions are just that, they tell the reader who is speaking.
Any instance of this kind of error is a sign of bad writing. Make sure that you fully understand action versus dialogue structure. It’s imperative that something as basic and as fundamental as this is presented correctly when submitting your work to agents and publishers, otherwise you will fail to impress them.
Shifting Point of View
Another common faux pas, and a sure sign of bad writing, is the ever changing POV.
This is another common error by writers who have not studied how POV works. The result is that scenes swap viewpoint from character to character and therefore have no cohesion.
POV is fixed for whichever character you are concentrating on in any running scene or chapter.  If you start a chapter with one character, you should stick to that character’s point of view until you have a chance to swap viewpoint with a new scene or a new chapter.
Never switch viewpoints during a scene.  In other words, don’t start off the scene with Character A’s viewpoint and then swap to Character B’s viewpoint halfway through. It causes untold confusion for the reader trying to follow the story, the characters and the plot points etc., and they don’t want the task made more difficult with ever changing POVs. It also makes the story disjointed, which means the reader will find it hard to empathise or connect to any characters.
The other real danger, of course, is that you may well end up inadvertently letting another character take over the story completely.
Writers who are not careful sometimes find that secondary characters take over the story, leaving the main character – whose story you are telling – out in the cold. Or they might find that during the reading stage, another character seems to have more scenes or chapters than the main character.
When this happens, it means the writer has lost the story pathway. It also means they have also lost focus.
There are so many good reasons for keeping a tight rein on POV. It improves story cohesion by allowing the reader to follow the main character’s journey, it helps your reader keep track of your characters, it helps them connect with those characters and above all, it ensures your main character remains the dominant character throughout.
Remember, bad writing can mean the difference between published and unpublished.

Next week: How to avoid bad writing – Part 3

Saturday, 22 March 2014

How to Avoid Bad Writing – Part 1

We’ve all been guilty of bad writing at some point during our writing careers, more so at the start of our writing journey, when it’s all new and daunting and we lack the experience. In fact, bad writing is all part of that journey. We all have to write badly in order to improve and become better writers.

That said, there are many aspects of storytelling that writers still haven’t got to grips with, the kind of things that are easily rectified, but more importantly, are easily avoidable. Unfortunately, many writers just can’t be bothered to correct bad writing or, worse still, they ignorantly think it’s okay. 

Bad writing may be okay for an oblivious writer, but not for a discerning agent or publisher.

And because there are so many misdemeanours where bad writing is concerned, I’ve collated together some that I have come across from time to time while critiquing.

Sequence of Actions

Writers constantly ask me about this. It seems to foil a number of beginners, which is understandable, but more experienced writers fall foul, too. 

Once you understand the principals behind correct sentence structuring, however, the mistakes become avoidable. There are no excuses for getting this wrong.
Firstly, writers should be aware of and recognise that the fictional world differs from the real world in many different ways. One such way is the way we portray actions.
In the real world, we do several things at once – we pick up a phone to make a call while eating or moving things around a desk, while at the same time chatting to someone nearby…all done without even consciously thinking about it. These are multiple actions carried out unconsciously.
In the fictional world these multiple actions can’t take place.  I know this doesn’t make much sense, but there is a good reason why: it’s because of the way fiction is written. The structure and order of actions needs to be clear for the reader to follow, and more importantly, it needs to be sequential, rather than a jumble of actions, and especially so if they are reading about several characters in one scene, all doing various actions.
Clarity is always key to writing, and so sequence of actions are important to maintain that clarity.
The reason we don’t have characters doing a dozen things at once is to avoid lack of clarity, ambiguity, reader confusion and ultimately, bad writing, for example:
John heard the doorbell and walked over to the door and answered it with the toast halfway out of his mouth, which he was chewing, and he gestured to the woman on the front doorstep to enter, licking the butter off his fingers and moving aside to let her in...
The character is doing too much for the scene, which means the writer can’t relate these actions clearly, (not without adding a few extra paragraphs of exposition). It becomes too busy, disjointed and confusing. It’s also ambiguous.
Now compare it with a version that leaves out the nonsense and concentrates on sequential actions.
John heard the doorbell. He finished the last mouthful of toast walked over to the door and answered it. He gestured to the woman on the front doorstep to enter and moved aside to let her in…
This version is much better. It’s clear and ordered and doesn’t carry any confusion or ambiguity in the character’s actions.  His actions happen in a specific order. That’s precisely why characters should really only do one thing at a time in fiction.
Separate Your Character Actions
Another example of sentence muddling is where writers unwittingly create ambiguity with multiple actions, where actions are not clearly defined for the character. Writers must remember that characters should not do two things at once in fiction. This goes against what we do in real life and doesn’t make sense, but as already pointed out; character actions must be sequential or ordered.
For example:
Liz knew time was of the essence. She called the ambulance and drove to the hospital.
Liz managed to do two things simultaneously. She called the ambulance and drove to the hospital. While in our minds we can logically make sense of this – we understand she called the ambulance and then she drove to the hospital – but the way it is written causes confusion and ambiguity for the reader.
To avoid this, the sentence might be better structured as follows:
Liz knew time was of the essence. She called the ambulance. Afterwards, she drove to the hospital.
Here’s another example of what I see all the time.
She kissed him and raced to the door.
Again, we know she kissed him and then raced to the door, but it doesn’t read well because of the way the sentence is structured. But improving the structure brings clarity.
She kissed him. Excited, she then raced to the door.
There is one common denominator at work here – the word ‘and’. This is what causes the actions to become simultaneous. Remove the ‘and’ and rearrange the structure of a sentence and you will find the simultaneous actions will disappear, as the examples above show. By removing ‘and’ from both examples, they become clearer.
Wherever possible try to avoid simultaneous character actions, and think carefully about the sequence of character actions if you want to eliminate bad writing and improve sentence structuring.
They really are simple errors and yet so many writers still write like this.
In Parts 2 and 3 we’ll look at a few more examples of the kinds of things that lend to bad writing and ways to avoid them.

Next week: How to avoid bad writing – Part 2

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Literary devices – Improve your narrative - Part 2

In part 1, we looked at the most common literary devices; the kind that most of us have used regularly perhaps, things like symbolism, metaphor or foreshadowing.
There are less well known ones too, ones we may have heard of but probably don’t know too much about. But knowing about them and how they can enliven your narrative is a positive thing, after all, the more knowledge the writer has, the better the writing in general. Therefore, an overall knowledge of as many literary devices as possible is a good thing.
So, which are the less common ones, and what do they do?

  • Euphony
  • Connotation
  • Allusion
  • Assonance
  • Motif
Euphony refers to pleasant sounds created, particularly with soft vowels and soft consonants. It derives from the Greek word “euphonos”, which loosely means sweet-voiced. In other words, it’s about words or phrases that are noted for their charm, harmony or melody in the sounds that they create.

It is often found in literary novels or poetry and writers use it to make the narrative melodious and lovely so that the words in the sentence really do roll off the tongue when you read them. For example, a couple of lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Lotos-Eaters’:

‘In which it seemed always afternoon.
All round the coast the languid air did swoon…’

Of course, you don’t have to be a literary author to encompass euphony. Whatever the genre, euphony will definitely make your narrative sound more melodious and pleasant.

You may have heard of connotation, but exactly does it mean? Connotation is the association people make with words that are in addition to its literal definition. Those associations could be emotional and cultural, personal or universal, good or bad.

For example, take the word ‘kill’.  Everyone knows what it means. But it has other connotations. ‘Oh my god that joke killed me!’ or ‘the pain is killing me’. What about ‘I could kill for a drink…’ or ‘You’re so funny, you just kill me.’

Think of the connotations of other words; they are not necessarily what you think they mean. Blue isn’t just a colour. It’s a mood, a state of emotional being, too. Animal can mean different things; a creature, or it can symbolise a negative, primitive human trait.

As writers we don’t always see these connections when writing, but if you want to give your reader something more to think about, there is no reason why you shouldn’t use connotations – readers will use their own personal emotions in association with certain words to interpret those meanings.

Allusion means the author is making a reference to a subject matter such as a place, event or person in order to make a point or get a message across. It can be a reference to pretty much anything; it can be inferred or direct and it is interesting way to engage the reader.

For example, by comparing a character to Mother Teresa, whether through description of dialogue, the allusion is that the character in question is someone who is morally sound and good. If you compared somewhere to looking like the desolate sands of a desert, then the reader would sense somewhere that is barren and lifeless.

Read any book and it will be sprinkled with allusions. Some are subtle, some are quite obvious, but they are a way for writers to make a point, ones that readers will remember.

Assonance is another literary device you may have heard of, but probably don’t realise the role it can play in creative narrative. It refers to the repetition of certain sounds produced by vowels within neighbouring words in a sentence or phrase.

Although it is very similar to alliteration, assonance is about the repetition of vowels in words and is particularly attractive to poetic or literary writers, who spend a great deal of time and effort giving their narrative such flourishes.

Here’s a simple example: ‘Waves pushed against the bow, to crush the sound to a simpering hush’.  Here the vowel ‘u’ is repeated in neighbouring words, giving the sentence a slight harmony.

The thing about assonance is that is it about ‘sound’ and the way we want the narrative to sound to the reader. It is yet another creative way to add those lovely brushstrokes to otherwise flat story-telling.

What is a motif?  Playwrights and literature graduates should be familiar with this particular literary device, because it appears a lot in plays and literary works. A ‘motif’ is any subject, object, action or sound that is present throughout the story. Writers use it to establish a mood or a developing theme, something that will resonate with the reader.

Motifs are not to be confused with symbolism, because symbols should appear only a few times in the story to evoke imagery and emotion; however a motif is a recurring element within the story.

They can be anything, as long as they appear as a constant throughout the story, so for instance a full moon could be a motif. Or a painting could. Maybe the ocean is the motif, or even a colour or sound. Just make sure that the motif is part of the story and therefore helps develop the main theme or characters.

A sprinkling of these different literary flourishes only enhances and enriches your narrative.  Some happen quite naturally during the course of writing, others need some thought, but however you do it, they add a fresh dimension to the story, themes and the characters.

Next week: How to avoid bad writing

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Literary devices – Improve your narrative - Part 1

When we talk about literary devices, it is referring to the kind of elements that writers employ to enrich and improve the narrative in order to give greater depth and meaning to a story. In other words, they help the reader ‘read between the lines’.
Some literary devices are obvious - metaphor, symbolism or foreshadowing.  But there are plenty of other literary devices available that are less well known, and sometimes less commonly used, but they still emphasise and bring strength to the narrative; things like assonance, euphony, connotation and allusion etc.
Literary devices are numerous, and writers don’t have to use every one in existence or use them on every page. They only need use a few dotted throughout a novel to enhance the story and give it deeper meaning for the reader.
In effect, they are there to benefit the writing as much as the writer and reader, if writers are willing to use them.
Most writers rarely think about anything deeper than the basic structure and flow of the story. How many of us consciously think about metaphor or symbolism? How many of us ponder the assonance of sentences? How many of us muse about making analogies, or foreshadowing? 
The answer is not many.
But should we? The thing for writers to remember is that writing isn’t just about stringing a story together.  So much more is involved.  While we can’t always consciously remember everything there is to know about the craft, we can try to remember as much as possible when it comes to adding those flourishes at editing stage to give the story more substance.
They are there, after all, there to make the story so much more than just mere words on a white background. If the opportunity arises to create a metaphor, do so.  If you can create assonance, then do so.  If you have the chance to foreshadow, then go for it.
The literary devices that you will probably be familiar with are as follows:-
  • Metaphor
  • Analogy
  • Foreshadowing
  • Simile
  • Symbolism
  • Characterisation
  • Alliteration
Let’s look at them in more detail.
Almost all writers will have heard what metaphor is, even if they don’t always understand it.
Metaphors are a great way to add colourful brushstrokes to the narrative, ways to engage the reader beyond the words they read. They are used by writers to make a comparison between people, things, animals, or places and they range from the simple to complex, but some famous examples are ‘life is a box of chocolates’, ‘all the world's a stage…’ and ‘a light in the sea of darkness.’
Each one of these examples has a deeper meaning if you look beyond the surface.
Analogy is also a common device used by writers. They are used whenever they want to show comparisons between two different things to show a similarity. For instance, ‘like a fish out of water’ is a well-known analogy.  In other words, being in a situation that is alien or uncomfortable make you literally like a fish out of water.
Foreshadowing is a famous literary device, and one of my favourite ways to show the reader the things that might happen later in the story. It’s not just about telling the story outright; it’s about bringing every layer of the story to life for the reader. Foreshadowing as a literary device is a great way to allow the reader to dig beneath the different layers and discover stuff for themselves.
The simplest example is the use of dark clouds approaching. This could foreshadow bad things to happen later in the story.  The use of a raven is commonplace; death always follows. Or perhaps you can use it in dialogue between characters who may hint at something.
Simile is similar to metaphor, but works slightly differently, because it is a figure of speech that compares two things or people, but which are not similar. For instance, ‘bright as a button’ is a figure of speech, and we generally understand its meaning despite the two aspects ‘bright’ and ‘button’ being completely dissimilar.
You don’t have to use simile, but if the opportunity is there, then add it.
Another favourite of mine is symbolism. I use this a lot in my fiction. It allows the writer to hint at certain themes without being too obvious, by veiling deeper meanings in the narrative and making the reader delve deeper into the text.
Writers do this by using colour, sounds, objects, weather and so on.  For instance, I find the use of colour to be quite revealing, so I use this to symbolise different themes in a story, particularly the colours red and black, because of their associations with life, death or mortality.
Characterisation is something every writer will know all about. You probably think characterisation doesn’t count as a literary device, but it does, because it is vital to any story.
Good characters drive your story, so make them stand out, make them memorable, make them different. Make the reader care about them. The better your characterisation, the better the story you create.
Alliteration is a great literary device, and not always used to potential. Words that start with the same sound and are used close together in a phrase or sentence is alliteration. For example, ‘the sky seemed to sigh, soft against the breeze’. The ‘s’ sound makes the sentence come alive; it creates imagery for the reader.  Or what about ‘clean, cold and clinical’ or ‘beneath barbed bushes, he waited...’
The use of alliteration gives a poetic feel to sentences.
With the exception of characterisation, which is a constant throughout the story, you can use any of these devices, but don’t overload the narrative.
There are, of course, less known literary devices available to writers, and are not used as much, but they’re effective nonetheless:-
  • Euphony
  • Connotation
  • Allusion
  • Assonance
  • Motif
In part 2 we’ll take a closer look at these less known literary devices, and how they can affect the narrative in a positive way.
Next week: Literary devices – Improve your narrative - Part 2

Saturday, 1 March 2014

How to Avoid Author Intrusion

I’ve written about this subject in the past, but I keep getting asked about it, so it’s worth another visit, especially if you are new to writing and you want to understand what author intrusion is, and more importantly, how to avoid it.
New writers, in particular, sometimes have a tendency to intrude the narrative.  It’s not their fault – it is sometimes done without realising, and that’s because many new writers aren’t armed with a wealth of knowledge and experience to always know these things.
That’s where the beauty of editing comes in. We can spot the anomalies and correct them. Not only that, but all writers have done it at some stage in their writing careers, so it is quite a common occurrence.
What does Authorial Intrusion mean?
In basic terms, author intrusion happens when the author loses sight of the story and speaks directly to the reader through the narrative or characters. They inadvertently project their own beliefs, opinions or ideas into the story.  In other words, any social, political or religious beliefs should come from your characters, in context with the story, and not from you directly.
It also means that sometimes authors unintentionally project themselves into the narrative. The author becomes the star of the show, not the characters.  New writers do this a lot because the only true character they know is themselves, rather than creating a multidimensional character from scratch. Again, this is not uncommon.
How do I identify it?
The best way to look for author intrusion is to first finish writing your story/novel and then put it aside for a while, perhaps a week or two. You can then come back to it with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective, and treat the story like an editor would. You will soon notice any unwarranted intrusion.
Sometimes such intrusions are subtle and not always overt. They may consist of certain words or axioms that seem out of place within the context of the story. In other words, they just don’t fit within the story, and certainly don’t fit with your character – perhaps because they may not be words or phrases your character would ever use.  Learn to spot these.
Other times, as mentioned, the author might drift into automatic mode and describe the things they personally enjoy, projecting their own likes, pastimes or hobbies into the narrative and characters, when in fact the main character they have created may actually be diametrically opposite.
You might find your characters going on and on about a particular subject throughout the story that has nothing to do with the actual story or themes, particularly in a judgemental way. That’s intrusion because you are using your characters as a mouthpiece for your own personal viewpoint.
Here’s a simple example. I personally have no religious belief.  As an atheist I do not identify with religion; however that doesn’t mean I don’t like it. I respect those who do have beliefs, because we are all different. That means I should not have every single character that I create be a religious hater or someone who constantly rejects religion. We create characters with different beliefs and opinions to our own, because they should be as individual as we are. Therefore, if I have my characters going on about how much they are hate religion, then I would be guilty of author intrusion.
Author intrusion might also occur if your character has knowledge he or she wouldn’t normally possess in ordinary day to day life (unless it really is part of the character’s makeup and they just happen to be superhuman, extraordinary people). For instance, a lowly salesman in a story about greed and success won’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the latest military weapons or will know how to break into a high security facility armed with only a safety pin.
That kind of thing should stick out. It means the author has projected unrealistic knowledge and research onto the character and therefore compromised the structure and context of the story.
In real life we all have limited knowledge - we know a bit about a lot of things. We may learn about certain subjects that interest us, so we gain more knowledge.  I know a lot about fiction writing, literature, art and the sciences, but I know nothing about car engines, engineering or how to carry out heart surgery.
Be particularly careful in historical fiction. Don’t let your modern views creep into the era you are writing about. It just doesn’t fit.
And one thing writers should never do is interrupt the narrative and address the reader directly within the story. This was once acceptable in literature, but over the last 80 years, literature has changed, and this kind of intrusion is no longer acceptable.
Learn to recognise these anomalies in your narrative, hunt them down and weed them out.
How do I avoid author intrusion?
One thing should always be clear from the outset when writing your story – it belongs to your characters, not you as a writer. That means your personal beliefs, opinions or ideas should never appear.  For that reason, writers must never use fiction as a personal soapbox or crusade against something they oppose or don’t like.
In real life you may not like the way your government is running your country. You may not agree with war and conflict; however you must put aside these opinions when dealing with your characters and plot. Your main character shouldn’t hate one particular political party because you don’t like them, nor should they be a pacifist against war when it’s not in your character’s nature and they might have to engage in fight scenes as part of the story.
Writers should treat the narrative objectively and dispassionately. Your character’s opinions matter, not yours. Their beliefs relate to the story, not yours.
This might seem strange, considering that the omniscient narrator will know everything within the story, but it should not sound like the narrator is preaching a sermon to the reader. The narrator is simply relaying the story - objectively.
With experience you will learn to stand back from your fictional world and let your characters speak for themselves and to form their own views and opinions as part of the ongoing story – it’s a natural progression.
Your fictional story should never be about your personal agenda; otherwise your story will fail. Editors will easily spot it and reject on that basis, because it is a sign of bad writing.
Be thorough when you edit your work and learn to spot author intrusion.

Next week: Literary devices – Improve your narrative