May 31, 2010

Good writing is...? - Saying things with less.

I want to try to update this blog more often, PhD and personal projects be damned! I want to examine what I believe constitutes good writing.  This is merely a matter of opinion, but by exploring what I believe to be good, and the act of writing it down is a method to process what I personally want to achieve in my writing. Good writing is a subjective thing and what one person considers good another might not (says Cpt. Obvious). Some might think good writing is over descriptive and writerly, full of complex words you would never hear of unless you had a love affair with a thesaurus. Others value simplicity, the short and well punctuated sentences of Hemingway. This is about what I like in writing. So that's the end of my disclaimer.

One thing I've become aware of while writing short stories, as well as reading them, is that a lot can be said with a single sentence. The thing with short stories is that you want it tight and compact, you need to pack all the relevant information into the story in 3000 words or less. I read an interesting article called "Hunting down the Pleonasms" by Allen Guthrie which has been an invaluable resource to me. The idea is eliminate irrelevant words which add nothing such as "just, that and actually", and stresses the importance converting the "adverb + verb" to a stronger verb instead.

Clarity in language, using the best words in a sentence to convey exactly what the author intends requires talent and/or a lot of experience. It's easier said than done, especially when one is self-conscious in their writing; I tend to waffle on using as many words as possible to say what I want to say for fear of not being understood. The same goes for excessive repetition I need to keep in check. Compact and tight prose may also be a byproduct of today's "here and now" world, where you're led to believe the average person suffers from a severe case of ADD and we have no time for Proustly prose. Or is it that literature has evolved? Has the style of literature changed to fit the culture around it, history would say yes. Another belief of mine is that a writer needs to either write for their time, or be ahead of their time, not behind. This is a pet hate of mine when I read someone who writes like a nineteenth century writer in the modern era; this is excusable in historical fiction but otherwise I don't see any valid reason to do this.  But this is an entirely different rant I will try not to go into.

I think being able to master the craft of saying more with less is a step in the direction to being an effective communicator and a good writer. It's something I hope that I will be able to do some point in the future.

May 29, 2010

Write with all the senses

Unless something is written from an omnipresent point of view, one way or another we are experiencing the story through the eyes of a character (or characters if we're dealing with a novel that changes POV between chapters) and somehow we need to forge a connection with them in order to empathise and retain interest in what is happening. What makes writing an effective medium where television and radio fails is that literature can make you experience everything with all the senses. It's not just about seeing and hearing, while these are our primary senses the others shouldn't be neglected too.

Out in real life though we also feel, taste and smell and these can also effect our emotions, define what we feel and trigger old memories. Until all the senses can be provoked I think there will always be a wall between the reader/viewer/listener; TV never manages to feel real.

But a good book or story can hit my emotional centre for precisely this lack of sensory limitation. Someone who manages to not only engage imagery inside my head and what things sound like but also tells me what the character tastes, the smell of a place or a person and the physical sensations they go through be it internal body responses or external stimuli really gives the reader a full-on pull into that world and brings it to life. No longer is it just letters on a page but it becomes a whole reality.

I always try to think beyond what we hear and see in the stories I write. It's not enough to say "he was frightened" when you could show this by the clenched muscles in his stomach, the sweat on the base of his neck, the persistent shaking of his hands. Telling emotions fail to take effect, saying "I felt considerable emotion" is probably the least emotional thing you could write. What are the physical sensations of feelings and experiences? What makes something so real and so sensual? Smell, taste and touch play a large roll in turning writing into something that is technicolor as opposed to black and white. We can see and watch from the outside with the most obvious senses but something will be missing without the others.

May 28, 2010

The importance of the short story

When it comes to writing, I identify more with being a novelist rather than a short story writer. I've written first drafts of about 5 terrible novels since my teens. I mostly wrote for myself so once the first draft was completed I forgot about them until my ex-flatmate handed me a CD-rom of embarrassingly awful prose. I still kept writing though, I've always had some book project on even if I've had a lot of work on the side; I may not have written every day but I still tried to write regularly. 

Six months ago I wanted to take my fiction to another level, to stop being an amateur dabbler and get serious. My main problem was I knew Jack about editing a novel. I invested in books on editing and writing your bestselling novel (yes, shut up) which take up a shelf on my bookshelf. But editing a 75,000 word novel was not a task I relished in and wondered if maybe I should set my standards lower and write something shorter and manageable. I decided that even though I don't see myself as a short story writer it would:

a) Give me something small enough to manage in order to learn how to edit.
b) Learn how to right, how to plot and how to get relevant information in a compact space instead
of waffling on in dragging out prose. 
c) If I can get something published that would give me some valid writing credentials, giving me something 
to work towards that means that my writing has to achieve a certain standard. 

Short story writing is not easy. When I plot, I tend to create really complicated scenarios that need a minimum of 50,000 words to explore them, fitting something down into less than 3000 words was a huge challenge in itself. It requires a great deal of skill to say so much in such little space and hence would go on to make us better writers. I've also noticed the manageability of short stories makes it easier for other people to critique; you'll find far more people want to read 5 pages rather than 300 pages of something you've written. While the craft of the novel and the short story have different challenges, both can teach the writer a lot. I think that it does an aspiring writer the world of good to think small and build up, or run small and big project togethers. I know from short stories alone there has been a vast improvement in my writing. 

May 14, 2010

Using non-fiction to inspire fiction

Often when writers are encouraged to read more, it is often taken for granted that reading will most likely be fiction. Novels and short-stories are great to see what works both from a storytelling perspective and from a technical literary perspective, it is also useful to see what doesn't work either, but to write something original and interesting one needs inspiration. The phrase heard over and over again is "write what you know", but this limits us to write only about first hand experiences. Doing research in a topic you don't know about or even just dipping your toe in intellectually via reading non-fiction can open the doors to other areas to explore.

Currently I am doing a lot of background reading on Schizophrenia for the novel I am working on, and it's been highly inspiring. One of the issues I have is I don't want to trivialise the topic or write about clichés or misconceptions so research is a necessary evil (or good, depending on whether you enjoy it or not). It's been interesting for me to read about it because I have learned a lot, but also I've had to rethink certain aspects of the novel because certain things I wrote contradicted scientific and psychiatric evidence. Someone told me to go ahead and write without researching too much, but maybe it's my inner scientist in me that's screaming at me to work hard as possible. However the final yield of this research has helped me grow so much and has highlighted part of the problem I've had with the initial first draft and guided me in a direction that not only works from a plot engineering perspective but brings in some realism and credibility. Sometimes utter, unbridled freedom can make a writer spin and turn and realise that every direction in the desert looks the same, well for me anyway. Research gives me the boundaries and highlights a path to follow, marking areas for me with neon signs saying "this is off limits" because it is factually incorrect as well as opening doors also to areas that did not occur to me before.

Research doesn't have to be constricting either, I think aspects can influence ideas and facts for a work of fiction you can bend and distort, and while it may not work in reality or be scientifically correct, it could seem plausible because there is a factual basis for it. I read an interesting blog post which addresses this better than I possibly could: , even fantasy writers who don't necessarily need to do background research could benefit from some extra background reading.

May 13, 2010

Figuring out how to edit a novel: begin again

A lot of things bother me about the 1st draft of my novel: the narrative, the structure, awkward subplots, too much rambling and not enough showing and the list can go on and on like Jacob's Ladder. Still, I love a challenge and I like the idea of what the novel could become, so time for action. I've spent the last month when I've not been doing physics, procrastinating, bleeding on paninis and drinking, thinking about the novel, making notes on the themes I am interested in incorporating, doing research into topics that require background knowledge and character sketches and it has left me with a myriad of ideas! But everything, the conclusions yielded from my research and my exploration of themes in addition to simple, technical things all directed me to the same plan of attack: re-write the whole novel from scratch using the 1st draft as a very basic story board. 

I wondered about whether this is a good idea or not. Most writing books I've read talk about editing like a cosmetic process of tightening up plot holes and correcting technical errors. When I wrote the first draft was an inexperienced writer - I didn't realise then that you can shift POV in 3rd person; I never thought about clichés or adverbs. Now that I am conscious of at least the basics of writing, I feel I can write a better first draft than I could before. I've decided to sit down and plan the novel, working on each chapter at the time thinking about what questions do the make you ask and what incentive do they leave for you to carry on. It's not enough to write pretty prose - the prose needs to go somewhere. You need to give the reader a reason to care and the curiosity to read on. 

Writing is re-writing, and it's a phrase I've heard many times and never thought about what it means. Sometimes it means beginning a certain part again from scratch, and others it could refer to the whole thing. This is not a decision I have taken lightly, and it's not been easy to say "this version is no good - back to square one," but it's an executive decision I feel is worthwhile pursuing, a literary investment I suppose.