Showing posts from 2011

Can music help the writing process?

Some writers work better with the sounds of a bustling cafe around them, others prefer the comfort of silence, but for some writers, the medium of music helps them to write better. There is something about the right background music that magically lights the creative touch paper. Imagine watching a movie without any musical score. Would the emotional, dramatic or action scenes seem right? Would they have any impact? Imagine the opening scenes of Jaws without the clever cello build up of John Williams’ score. Without that creeping sound, the scene loses the sinister feel and it also loses any opportunity to create tension. And what would the vast visual beauty of Lawrence of Arabia be without Maurice Jarre’s romantic swish of strings to rouse the audience? It would be somewhat empty. Music and writing works the same way. The right music can create drama, it can affect the mood and it also stirs the imagination. Of course, every writer is different and it may not work for e

Character separation disorder...moving on from your characters

You’ve created your novel, you’ve devoted months or perhaps years to writing it, but then the daunting task of sitting down and starting your next big creation begins, yet somehow you just can’t get into it. Sometimes writers become so entwined with their characters when writing with them for such a prolonged period that it’s difficult to move on and think about new characters and new stories. Months or years spent sheltering in the skin of their protagonists and antagonists can force a wedge between the writer and their creativity. But this isn’t unusual for writers. We grow to understand and love our characters, and sometimes it’s hard to move on from them. Character separation disorder simply means that the bond we have with our well-drawn heroes and villains is sometimes hard to break. When we need to create new characters for new stories and themes, we first have to let go of our first set of characters in order to gain and understanding for the new set of characters. Of

How being subtle can improve your descriptions

The art of good description is sometimes about intentionally holding back from your reader. Have you ever watched horror movies where the monster or creature is never revealed until the very end? You only get hints or shadows or brief glimpses. But if you compare them to movies where you see the monster from the outset, while they might be entertaining, you get two very different results. The reason that not seeing the monster works so well is that, psychologically, it deprives the visual part of your brain from what is, so consequently, your brain has to fill in the gaps, it has to build up a picture of what the monster looks like. It also helps focus tension and atmosphere, precisely because you don’t know who or what it is. Imagine the same technique in fiction. By not revealing too much to the reader, you not only create a sense of tension and atmosphere, but you also keep them guessing. And by doing that you keep them reading, because physiologically, they have to fil

Narrative Oppositions

Firstly, what are narrative oppositions? These are certain words – they can be nouns, adjectives etc - that crop up within descriptive passages, but are actually opposite it their meaning. In other words, the writer is trying to describe a scene and inadvertently ends up using pairs of words that mean opposite things. This is not uncommon because many writers misunderstand the meaning of some words and therefore group them together. For instance, ‘foreboding’ and ‘forbidding’ mean different things but are often wrongly used together when trying to create tension and atmosphere within a scene. For instance: The house had a cold, foreboding appearance, forbidding in the dark...’ Forbidding means ‘repellent, stern’. Foreboding means bad omen, an expectation’ of trouble or evil.’ Another often seen example is sob and wail . ‘She sobbed into her hands, wailed into the silence...’ To sob means to cry quietly. To wail means to cry very loudly or bitterly, therefore you can’t

Action/Reaction & Dialogue sentence order

Continuing the theme of strengthening sentences, one of the things that I see a lot of in MSS is the order in which the characters do and say things. This may not seem too important, and it’s one of those things we don’t necessarily pay much attention to, however when it comes to clarity, being able to put the action or reaction or dialogue in the right order makes for tighter, polished and better sentences. And they make more sense, of course. The aim is to write actions and their reactions in chronological order. Not only does it create clarity but it also keeps the flow of the sentence, without interruption, and it reduces ambiguity. It makes life so much easier for your reader, and by putting the action before the dialogue, it increases the effectiveness of the sentence. Here’s a simple example: He grabbed the phone, startled by it. Essentially this sentence isn’t actually grammatically incorrect, but it does read as though he grabbed the phone first, then he was startl

Strengthening sentences with some weeding

The great thing about the editing process is that it’s a chance for writers to weed out the superfluous, the structural errors and all those grammatically incorrect words and sentences.  A writer should always aim for better constructed sentences. That means weeding out things like adverbs and adjectives, passive sentences, gerunds and making sure the tenses are correct etc. There are other constructions that creep into our writing without us noticing and that is the use of phrasal verbs or prepositional words. We write these kind of phrases and words without thinking too much about them, which is why they can end up becoming prevalent in our work.  For the most part, if you want tightly constructed, concise and well thought out sentences, you take need to weed them out. How many times have your characters decided to do something, or they have begun to or started to do something, or they are going to do something? If you read back through your work, I’m willing to bet a f

Creating Sibilance

Ever wondered how you can create poetic resonance within your narrative, or you’ve read what you have written and you’ve discovered it has strong characteristic sounds? The descriptive language somehow appeals to your senses to create an extra dimension to the narrative. This is known as sibilance. Sibilance is a literary device which writers can use to create certain sounds within their narrative, usually a hissing sound with ‘s’ or ‘z’ or ‘sh’ and sometimes a soft ‘c,’ and it is most often found in poetry. These words resonate with the reader, it visualises sound and if done properly, it can bring the description to life. Sibilance can either appear within narrative or you can use it in dialogue, but as with all writing, it’s about knowing how and it works and where the sibilance should be placed that counts. It’s an effective tool to create multi layers to what might be flat, uninspiring narrative. Besides, effective use of language is what writing is all about and writers s

Part 3 - Modifiers, Intensifiers and Qualifiers

Continuing on from Part 1 and Part 2 - modifiers and intensifiers - in this last part we’ll look at Qualifiers. Writers should familiarise themselves with the different types of modifiers so that when it comes to editing, the process is easier. Qualifiers are a type of modifier; they modify words in a sentence or phrase in a certain way, they qualify adjectives and verbs and provide readers with specific details. In other words, they change how absolute or generalised a sentence can be. For instance, ‘this sum is very large’ or ‘this sum is a great deal bigger than I expected’, where the words ‘very’ and ‘great deal’ are the qualifiers. Or ‘he came across it almost by accident’ or ‘he came across it pretty much by accident’, where ‘almost’ and ‘pretty much’ are the qualifiers. To varying degrees, each of these has modified the sentence. Often, qualifiers provide unnecessary padding to your narrative. We use qualifiers in our speech all the time, but when it comes to fic

Modifiers, Intensifiers and Qualifiers - Part 2

Unlike modifiers, which modify words or phrases, an Intensifier is a term for a modifier that amplifies the meaning of the word it modifies. An intensifier is used exclusively to modify adverbs and adjectives and is placed  before the word it is meant to modify.  In simple terms, the intensifier emphasises adverbs and adjectives - it makes them more intense . The word is derived from Latin, meaning to “intend or stretch”. In grammatical terms, the intensifier lends no weight to the meaning of a sentence other than to give it an additional emotional nuance to the word it is modifying, however, since they modify adverbs and adjectives, they should be treated in the same way adverbs adjectives – used little and sparingly wherever possible within your writing. This is where learning to spot them will benefit your quality of writing. Intensifiers are attributive and serve only to fill space, so unless there is a valid reason to intensify the meaning and emotion of sentences, such

Modifiers, Intensifiers and Qualifiers

Most people won’t have heard about modifiers, intensifiers or qualifiers, but each one has a distinct meaning within writing and the use of each one affects the quality of writing in different ways. In Part 1 we’ll look at Modifiers; while in Part 2, we we’ll look at Intensifiers and in Part 3 we’ll look at Qualifiers. A modifier is self-explanatory; it modifies words or phrases and makes the meaning more specific within a sentence. If used carefully, well-placed modifiers will allow a writer to be a little more descriptive. Badly constructed modifiers, however, will make sentences ambiguous and unintentionally amusing and will also weaken sentence structures. There two types of modifiers that writers need to understand - adjectives and adverbs.  Adjectives modify (or describe) nouns or pronouns, and adverbs modify (or describe) verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. When constructing sentences, the general principle is that you should place modifiers as close as possible to t

How to Make Description Sparkle

Firstly, there’s description, then there’s description. Description is one of those wonderful writing elements that you can bend and shape and mould and make it what you want it to be. It’s not fixed and it’s not governed by absolute rules. If a story were a canvas, the description is the colour; layers and layers of it to make the picture a whole. So how do you go about transforming dull, boring description into something a little more lavish or evocative? It all comes down to that old adage: show, don’t tell. Show the reader, involve them, but don’t tell them. The descriptive element of any narrative is there to assist the reader, who cannot see the world your characters live in unless you paint it for them. The reader, in effect, is without any sensory detail, unless you provide it. It allows the reader to see this descriptive world, not just read about it. That descriptive detail is the difference between someone reading your work and enjoying it or not reading it at al

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

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,

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 certai

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: Tension The idea is to make your charac

How to Drive a Story Forward

Every story has to proceed to its logical end. How a writer reaches that end is an important process.  When we refer to ‘driving the story forward’ , we mean that the story must have momentum and structure to engage the reader right to the end, but it must also impart necessary information without everything stalling part way through. It’s a constant within fiction writing – the story needs to move on without dawdling on unimportant, boring stuff. If that happens, your reader will either fall asleep or give up. As Elmore Leonard once advised, cut out the parts that readers skip. In other words, get rid of the boring stuff to allow the story to move on. Readers don’t want to know what your main character had for breakfast, whether he made tea or coffee and what he decided to do with his day while he watered the plants – they want to get right to the heart of the action. There are several ways to drive a story forward – Use of dialogue, character motivation, conflict, plot t

Making the reader care about your characters and themes

The themes that run through your novel are the drivers that create the emotion behind the plot.  Themes like love, hate, rebellion, revenge etc, are all emotive; they have the ability to move us on many different levels. This happens because we recognise and understand those themes – we’ve dealt with some of them first hand and we’ve experienced many of those emotions. You can have many themes running through your story, not just one. And of course, without the characters to drive those themes, a reader would have nothing to care about. Getting the reader to care about your characters is important, and empathy is key. A reader needs to recognise qualities in your characters that are inherent within themselves. Without empathy, the characters won’t connect with the reader. Writers need the reader to care what happens to their characters, to read to the very end of the novel, because doing that will help a reader care about the entire story. What makes us care? The situa

The Importance of the Opening Chapter

To continue the theme of the previous article about how to tease your reader, one of the most important devices for luring the reader is the opening chapter of your novel. Why should you write a compelling opening chapter? Because it is your chance to first grab the editor’s attention, then hopefully it will grab your reader's attention. Your potential reader is discerning. They take only a few seconds to read the first few lines before they decide to buy your book. Those first few lines will be the difference between getting the reader to carry on reading, or being left on the shelf with other unread novels. Think of it like fishing. You have to hook the reader first with your bait – the opening chapter. Then you reel them in bit by bit with the rest of the story, until the final chapter, when you can finally let them go. How can a writer do that? There are many ways to do it, but you should aim to seize the reader’s attention and curiosity from the very first words.