June 23, 2010

Expanding vocabulary and finding the right words

An excellent skill for a writer to develop is how to express with less. Contrary to popular belief, being able to utilise a copious amount of flowery language isn't necessarily the path to good (modern) writing. Some writers can manage wordiness if it fits their style, while others triumph in taking the minimalist approach. Back in the days when I wrote novels about terrible tragic romances with lots of sighing,  I expanded my book with elaborate words because I believed that more is more. My short story writing has reformed my wicked ways, and now instead of excessive padding aiming to compete with Russian doorstoppers, I now condense short stories into 4000 words or less, hence: cutting out the crap. You learn more by reducing your word count; it has made my writing tighter for certain.

Finding the right words is important: such as saying something with one excellent verb or noun as a descriptive replacement for the weak verb + adverb or the weak noun + adjective combinations. I plead guilty to occasional overuse of adjectives, less adverbs though since I caught the adverb cooties from having read too much on writing (I'm looking at you Mr. Stephen King). Sometimes there will be a word, too vague to convey your meaning and you hit the thesaurus for a better one.

But beware of thesauruses, named akin to a species of Dinosaur they should be treated with the same caution! Sometimes a word, even the perfect one found while perusing is a bad choice if no one knows what the word means. None of us, even literary readers want to read a book which has you reaching for the dictionary every five seconds; maybe the most educated Oxford don might be able to follow your prose, but in the lean, mean, fighting machine world of publishing it needs to appeal to the average person. Play it by eye, if the replacement word doesn't have you reaching for the dictionary then it's good to go. Read more and your vocabulary will expand.

Also think of your sentences. While editing this post I've come across many longwinded phrases which could do with a haircut. Eliminating passive voice helps, because instead of I was walking you'd use I walked: Immediately you cut a word - yay! Annihilate verbs when you don't need them and cut out pleonastic words like "just, actually, this" etc. will reduce word count.

The big question is why? Why should one cut out words? Think of it this way, expressing with less impacts more and clarifies more. Too many words and we trip over sentences.

June 16, 2010

On experience: Are writers interesting people to begin with?

I'm getting to a point where someone will invite me to do something, or go somewhere unusual and my first thought is "why not, it'll make a good story"/"It might inspire me". I'm catching myself thinking this more and more, and it's a reason that is slowly creeping up my list of priorities like ivy on a ruined house.

Writers seem to live very passionate, dramatic and interesting existences. Reading the Diaries of Anaïs Nin, the Tropics of Henry Miller or even notes of Hemingway's Parisian days makes me long for such an exotic and bohemian life. I feel it is almost a pre-requisite to be an interesting person if you want to be a writer. At the risk of sounding conceited, I'm not "boring": I grew up in England and Hungary; living the expat lifestyle since turning 20, first in Germany and now Spain. I've done my own share of unusual things from working in various physics laboratories including CERN; to lacing mezzo-sopranos up in corsets backstage at the opera. Saying that, I know a lot of people with far more interesting and glamourous lifestyles than myself, so I don't feel extraordinary.

But I do find myself saying "yes" to more things these days than before. Trying to find inspiration is hard, and there is the big ol' cliché of "Write what you know", which kinda puts a dampener on the aspiring writer with an uneventful life (a stupid cliché, considering the current popularity in fantasy, horror and sci-fi genres).  It's hard to pull a story out of thin air; in my case it's either long and complex with five million subplots or it's been done. For short stories, which are so vital to me  in teaching myself to edit, 90% of what I write about is basically a fictionalised autobiography. Even when I write a story, which is fiction, purely fiction, I find myself drawing from experiences I've had and places I've been to and really, my fiction is just my sub-conscious vomited onto the page in the form of a plot.

Is experience a valid form of research? Certainly it is, you can read about the Acropolis till the cows come home, and you might even be able to write successfully about it. But it doesn't beat going to Athens and walking the steps of the Parthenon, sitting down and feeling that hot marble soften the muscles in your back with the background noise of multilingual tourists and locals, breathing the contaminated air of Athenian pollution. You can get facts from research, but experience gives you all the sensual little details that helps a piece of fiction take life.

Every experience is of value, but sometimes we can pick and choose from the places, people and things in our life and use our imagination to write something fictional. Yet, I feel there is an invisible bank or portfolio where I can put the more interesting things from my life into and draw from them when writing. I want a heavy bank account to draw from so I'm greedy and take everything which comes (within reason...) which I could eventually use. The question is, are writers interesting because they are writers or writers because they are interesting? I think writing injects the curiosity, but it's up to the writer to do the rest.

June 15, 2010

Giving Criticism

Back in November, when I went to my first writers meeting in Madrid I was scared. Not about showing my own work (although I admit, I was a little nervous about being shot down), but for having to criticise others' work. I wasn't sure where to start. Would I hurt people's feelings, and above all did I have the right to criticise because of my lack of writing experience?

At my first writers meeting, I received a handout on a very useful template on how to critique someones work.  Now granted, I personally haven't used this exact structure in my own critiques (I prefer to give verbal feedback because I still don't feel I'm at the level to write on someone's manuscript), but it's very useful tool for giving effective critique. When I receive critiques of my own work with these points addressed it's incredibly helpful:

1. A Summary of the story in a few sentences.
2. What are the Strengths of the Story?
3. What are the Weaknesses? 
4. Suggestions for improvement.

This format is very useful because it highlights what you did well, since no one likes only negative criticism - even when it's constructive, but it also highlights one's strengths. This is good for morale, but also helps to gauge what I'm good at and it helps me to develop my positive traits and become self aware of my writing. Knowing the weaknesses of course are a necessarily evil. There is always going to be something wrong, something that seems awkward, insecure, a continuity error in the story or even just the grammar. We need our weaknesses pointed out so we can actually do something about it. It doesn't need to be disheartening, we all make mistakes - especially a novice writer. We are not born great writers even those with great talent work their butts off writing everyday and learning from mistakes; writing is a craft which needs to be worked on continuously.

My confidence has increased on the criticism front. I know a lot more about writing from my own mistakes and having read a lot of books about writing. The hours spent on redrafts and re-writes I have made on my own work has taught me to be critical, initially with my own work and now I can apply that same critical eye to the writing of others.

One doesn't need to be an expert to give criticism. This is a very important point I learned. We buy books, read magazine articles and recite poetry (ok the latter not so much...you'll find me reciting Monty Python or Black Books before poetry) and you don't have to be an expert writer to know what you like and dislike and what doesn't work. We all have opinions, sometimes that is all one needs to exercise. It's nice getting feedback from someone who knows what they are talking about, but every opinion is valid so why shouldn't your own be?

Giving your own opinion and criticisms not only helps other writers, but also helps you. It teaches you to develop the critical eye you'll need for your own work and gets you actively thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of other writers, who wont write like you do (none of us write like each other - that's the beauty!).

I think it's important to remember though that another writer's style is not yours. This is a point one also needs to bear in mind. When someone sends you their manuscript, unless they're asking you to ghost write,  for heaven's sake don't bloody rewrite it! I know it's tempting to put things in your own voice; I'll look at a sentence and think "hmmm I would have written that differently" and there is nothing wrong with the suggestion, but often there needs to be the ability to distinguish what is general criticism, something which is a universal weakness to a personal preference. It's good to be clear on these things as you are sure to see different people giving different pieces of advice. Your opinion matters and could indeed be useful, but it is subjective.

Critique the work of others and you'll be able to look at your own work objectively as well.

June 9, 2010

Are we a generation of poets?

Last night I got involved in an interesting conversation in my writers groups about "the young people of today", which makes me laugh since I'm 25 and hardly what you would call old but I'm certainly not a teenager. We discussed how the modern teenager lives an open and superficial life; a life defined by facebook, myspace and twitter. Where everything is immediate and short. Where nearly everyone has ADD and cannot bear to look at something which requires an attention span that even a goldfish could cope with. I don't believe this is 100% true; I know 18 year olds who still delight in the works of Proust and Dostoyevsky, whose lives are not defined by the shallowness that facebook and myspace encourage. Although unfortunately this is not the norm, and more and more I see a world emerging that makes me feel old and alien. I am on facebook and twitter (not myspace though, ick!), but I am not part of the facebook generation. I grew up with real friends and real high school drama. I grew up reading Anne Rice (shut up), popular science novels and writing terrible tragic gothic romances while listening to Nirvana. Those were my teenage years. I didn't even have a computer until I went to university, and even then it was a crappy Amstrad with no internet connection, I only got my first desktop when I was 19 and my first laptop when I was 20 and moving to Germany. I didn't have fandoms or an iPod.

But nostalgia aside and back to the conversation, and you are wondering what the hell does the shallowness of modern youth have to do with poetry. Amidst all the 2 minute television and the "here and now" demands of the modern media you would think that one wouldn't bother with books because of the tl;dr stigma. Gabriel García Márquez might have won the nobel prize for literature, but the fact his first chapter opens with a three page sentence doesn't exactly give one the instant gratification the current society demands. I love García Márquez, but I could see why your average teen wouldn't read him.
"You would think in this day and age poetry would be a popular literary medium," one person said. 
It makes perfect sense, most poems (and I'm not talking the Epic of Gilgamesh here) tend to be a paragraph long, perfect for the modern day homosapien with a short attention span. Perfect for the person who travels a few metro stops to work and barely has time to read a chapter in a novel or a short story. Poetry is even accessible on mediums such as Twitter: 7x20 is a literary e-zine that is based on Twitter and publishes some good stuff. Even flash fiction and micro-fiction would be ideal for the current market. Less can be more when you look at the Twitter-based writer VeryShortStory who is indeed an excellent master at the art of micro-fiction. However, in spite all of these factors poetry is not the dominant medium, in fact the market for poetry is poor and pays a lot less than for prose. Is this also a factor that our society turns to literature not for artistic merit but for escapism? To lose oneself in a badly written yet escapist novel like Twilight or Dan Brown, or a better written novel that does the trick rather than read a paragraph of perfectly crafted words which describe something or a feeling? Is it not length that's the problem or the content? The question is why isn't poetry more important in today's society than prose.