Posts Tagged ‘writing tips’

Stephen King’s On Writing is fifteen years old this year (fifteen! the mind wobbles!), but still an engaging read on its own merits, especially for the overlapping middle section in the Venn diagram of Writers and Stephen King Fans.  It came to mind last night because, you see, I’ve been noticing this trend.

An aspiring writer (or rather, folks who write and aspire to make careers of it) can have a wonderful grasp of characters and how stories flow, a bright and new and incisive way of looking at the world, the best and most creative ideas–but none of it matters, because their grammar and spelling are terrible.

And if someone points out the problem, they respond airily, “That’s what editors are for.”  Whereupon one has no choice but to grind one’s teeth and turn the subject.

Because, guys, I hope you realize that is not what editors are for.

If we must have a toolbox, let it look like this one, please!

If we must have a toolbox, let it look like this one, please!

The middle section of On Writing is called “Toolbox,” and in it King details all the things you’ll need to have with you in order to write successfully.  (I just used an adverb, which he would decry, but you know what? “No adverbs” is less of a rule than a guideline, anyway.)  Vocabulary and grammar go on the top level of the tool box, accesible at need–and guess what? You always need them.

Now, I admit, I’m a bit of a grammar nerd.  I love all of the bits and pieces of English and how they fit together, like the nuts and bolts and cogs and gears and bellows and pumps and little spinny things that make up some wonderful, vast Steampunk machine.  We can debate the merits and uses of the Oxford comma or the split infinitive or God help us the passive voice all day long, and I will not sigh or check my phone nor excuse myself from the discussion, not once.

But you don’t have to be a grammar nerd to recognize that grammar, good grammar, is what carries the freight of your ideas from your brain to the brain of your reader.  If that train of thought is rickety, or ill-constructed, or just plain can’t roll out of the station, the idea transfer will be imperfect at best (and since what happens in the reader’s brain never 100% matches what happened in the writer’s brain, “imperfect” is already the best one can hope for), and at worst, impossible.

Take another metaphor.  My son, the Viking Prince, has decided he wants to be an artist.  I may have mentioned this before.  And he practices, and he tries, and he draws pretty damn well for a four-and-two-thirds-year-old.  Now, a drawing, like a story, is meant to convey an idea, and if the viewer can’t tell what he’s looking at, then the drawing has failed in its purpose.  (Old-fashioned, I know.)  What a four-year-old can convey, with the tools available to him, is going to be different from what a fourteen-year-old, or a forty-year-old, or a four-hundred-year-old (shout-out to all the immortals in the audience) can (or should be able to) convey.

Voltron, reposted with the artist's permission.

Voltron, reposted with the artist’s permission.

But if the grownup spurns the basic, the most basic, fundamental, necessary tools of grammar and spelling, then he is crippling himself.  Because you cannot, you can not convey ideas of any complexity without a proper understanding of how the language works.  You are an adult trying to paint the Sistine Chapel with stick figures.  The four-year-old is doing the best he can.  The forty-year-old must do better.

An editor can’t read your mind, and he can’t tell your story for you.  If the editor wanted to tell that story, he would write it himself.  It is not his job to turn your childish scribbles into the Sistine Chapel.

So please, if you have true aspirations towards being a writer, do not neglect the basics.  (Never neglect the basics, in anything–but that’s a post for another day, maybe.)  You can’t build a glorious cathedral without humble things, boards and stones and chisels and planes.  These things are not beneath your notice; they are necessary.  Fundamentals are called that for a reason; they are the basis, the foundation, for all the wonderful things you can build on top of them.  So fill your toolbox well.


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Before a story (a novel, a movie, a play, a comic book) begins, your main character has lived at least a little, experienced the world, seen and done and felt things that shape who he* is when the action begins. (Unless you want to go the Tristram Shandy route, I suppose, in which case more power to you.) Further, he lives in a world that did not come into being the moment he did (or at least, you have to make the reader believe he does, and that you’re not making it all up as you go along, if making it up as you go is your style), and that world works in a certain way. And you are going to have to convey all of this information to your readers without boring them to tears.


Two much-maligned techniques in fantastic fiction are the prologue and the info-dump, and they’re maligned for good reason: if done badly, they are boring as hell (if hell is boring? But nobody says “boring as Limbo” or “boring as the Greek Underworld”) and make impatient readers** put down your book and move on to something more entertaining. Now, how to make a prologue or an info-dump entertaining might be a good topic for another day (especially as I am not sure how, myself!), but today I’d like to look at a third way, one I don’t see used too often anymore, alas.

Poster-SaranceThe other day I was moved to pick up and reread Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Sarantine Mosaic (an excellent fantasy based on the Byzantine Empire, and one I think everybody should read). Now, this book has a lot of backstory and worldbuilding information that the reader needs quickly, to follow the action of the plot: there’s Imperial politics, chariot racing, religion, a cast of just-about thousands; it truly is epic. Then there’s the main character, Caius Crispus, weighted down with grief and rage springing from recent experiences.

Yet Kay never assaults the reader with the long historical document-style prologue (I think this can work, but you have to be an amazing craftsman to catch both the style of a historical document and the reader’s attention), but cunningly works the needed information into the action of the story. You need to be up to speed on the politics of the Empire? Here, let’s watch a political assassination in progress, and establish the relationship of two main characters while we’re at it. Chariot racing is important, so here’s a young chariot racer observing the fallout of said assassination when all he wants is to be racing. Why is Crispin so angry and sad? How about a conversation with his mentor to establish the facts?

That old saw, “Show, don’t tell,” is key here. Readers’ mileage varies, of course, on how much work they’re willing to put into a story in order to get out needed information; I suppose readers probably exist who would rather just be told, “Crispin is angry and sad because–” But an excellent rule of writing (espoused by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, screenwriters of Pirates of the Caribbean fame) is, “Give your audience 2+2 and make them work out 4 on their own.”

If you are not quite sure how to do that, then you must study! Read books by past masters of their craft and try to puzzle out how they achieved that effect. (Plus reading more books is always good.) It isn’t even necessary, I think, to consciously bend one’s thoughts to the effort; simply absorbing lots and lots of good books may be enough. (I suppose it depends on how analytical a turn of mind you have, or how much you write by instinct and grace.)

What books are good? The books you love, of course. Find them and learn from them.

*Or she, yes, obviously; it’s not misogyny, it’s grammar.

 **Like me. Sorry, guys. Life is too short, and time is too limited, to read boring books.

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So, we’ve all been sick with various permutations of winter crud around here, which means not a lot of sleeping and almost no creating, so in order to warm the drawing hand back up (and get some cool fencing poses for future drawings) I decided to sketch some of the duel from The Princess Bride.  Now, thumbnailing poses from movies is a good exercise anyway, if you can’t get out to a coffee shop or a mall and sketch the people there (which … the people at the mall or coffee shop are very unlikely to be fencing, so there’s also that), but as I drew I found something very interesting.

Unless he has a-studied his Agrippa!  Which I have!

Unless he has a-studied his Agrippa! Which I have!

Now all these drawings represent about ten seconds of the duel between Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black.  At the top of the page, Inigo is on the left and the MIB on the right.  In the middle of the second row, they swap positions … but you can still tell who is who (and not because I scribbled in Inigo’s hair).

Inigo has a wild, squirrelly kind of fencing style; he’s always jumping around, his knees are bent, his arms are loose.  The Man in Black has a much more muscular, solid stance: even when he’s stepping backwards (the first four drawings), his posture is straight up and down, very square, very controlled.  If you’ve seen the Thor: the Dark World outtake with Tom Hiddleston in the Captain America uniform, compare how he kind of flails the shield around, as opposed to Chris Evans’ much more precise shield wielding in the final cut.  This is not to say that one way is better than the other, but the movement displays the difference between their characters.  Something as subtle as posture shows us that the Man in Black is in control of this fight; he’s strong, he’s masculine, and he’s not the slightest bit concerned.  Whereas Inigo joys in battle, and thinks he is playing with his opponent (because this still before the famous “I am not left-handed!”).

What can these differences tell us about the characters, and how can we apply it to our own storytelling?  I admit, it’s easier to show how a character moves in a visual medium like film, but even in a written tale you could use wilder-sounding words for Inigo: slash, fling, bound, etc, while the Man in Black might have a more controlled parry or counter.  In this subtle way, you reveal your characters to the reader–because a reader can only get to know a character through the character’s actions, and how those actions are portrayed.  (A savvy reader will probably not pay much attention to what you tell about the characters; I remember reading a book in which much page-space was wasted with secondary characters telling each other how amazing and awesome the main character was.  The result was that I still wasn’t impressed with the main character, and I thought the secondary characters were idiots too.)

And if you’re interested in the art side, I used a Pentel Sign Pen brush pen for the drawing.  It’s not much good for inking, but it is a great sketching pen, because it forces you to think of gestures instead of fiddly details.  Which probably is also a useful notion to apply to writing, but I leave it to the reader to figure out how.

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The experience of writing Steel Butterfly has been one of brief, intense periods of activity (and progress) followed by long stretches of nothing at all.  My computer tells me that the last time I edited the latest chapter was February of this year: ten months.  More than enough time to bring an infant to term.  (I don’t know if other mothers think of time in this way; certainly I never did, pre-motherhood, but now I find it a useful measure.  If it ain’t long enough to have a baby in, it ain’t that long.  And of course the converse is also true.)  So, you know, a not-insignificant amount of time.  My memory, when consulted, adds the helpful rider that, when I accessed the file this February past, I fiddled around for half an hour or so, played a few hands of solitaire (probably), then felt too tired or sad or disgusted or whatever to continue, and closed the file again.

For when you're stuck...

For when you’re stuck…

I don’t believe in writer’s block per se.  I do believe that 90% or so of story-creation is instinctual and unconscious, and that whatever process governs the writer’s (or at least, my) ability to get words onto paper (screen, wax tablet, whatever) will halt unless the conditions are, like the littlest bear’s porridge, just right.  (You, hypothetical reader, may be different.  You may exert such masterful control over your unconscious processes that you can muscle through these … cessations.  There’s no right way or wrong way, so long as the words are getting written and you, the writer, are pleased with the end result.  But most of my best thinking happens when I’m not paying attention to it.)

So what are some wrong conditions?

1. The writer’s emotional state.  Seems pretty obvious.  If you are distracted by real-world problems–or even real-world joys–you probably will not be able to write effectively.

2. The writer’s physical state.  Ditto.  It doesn’t even have to be pain that distracts you.  When I was pregnant, I was unable to sit comfortably in a chair for the long stretches required to concentrate on writing.  I probably should have found an alternate solution: a standing desk (ugh, with swollen ankles and feet? Maybe not) or dictation or something.

3. The story is wrong.  Either something you’ve already written contradicts where the story wants to be going, or something you’re about to write is not going to work.  It is best not to force the story into the shape you want it to be.  If the problem happened earlier in the story, it is kind of like a dropped stitch in knitting: you will have to tear out everything you’ve done since the mistake, fix the mistake, and then do it all again.  Tedious?  Well, maybe, but presumably you enjoy knitting, or you wouldn’t have started the project in the first place.  If the problem is about to happen … well, unless a future version of yourself appears before you and gasps out, “No–not that plot development!” how can you know?

This is more challenging.  If a 3 corresponds with a 1 or 2, the time necessary to regain your equilibrium may also help to shake loose the right plot development.  If you don’t have that kind of time (maybe you are a published writer with deadlines, and not a dilettante like me), you can always do something else, something physical and repetitive and boring, to help your subconscious produce the right answer.  Taking a walk is good, or a shower.  Washing dishes, or folding laundry, or some other tedious, necessary chore, can also help.

4. You just don’t have the right words.  Everything else is fine.  You feel okay (or you are writing to purge those feelings of not-okay-ness), you have had adequate sleep and/or are adequately caffeinated, you know what happens next … and still nothing.  You sit and stare at a sterile white screen with a blinking cursor mocking you.

What do you do?  You have no idea how to go on.

Sometimes … you can just say so.

In Voyage to Ruin, I got stuck in just such a way.  Fortunately, I was writing with an omniscient narrator who liked, now and then, to interject his own opinions into the goings-on, so I wrote:

I must pause here and confess, dear readers, that I am puzzled as to how I should continue.  In fact, a part of me wishes I did not have to continue at all.  I would much prefer to leave you here, with the charming image of Captain Flynn at the helm of his beloved ship: a man in the prime of his life, rather good-looking, made handsomer still by his evident happiness—a man, it must be admitted, of no particular virtue, but in whom a certain dash and ebullience of spirit might almost have obviated the need for virtue.  I would like that of all things, because the events to come are unpleasant in the extreme, and will no doubt be as disagreeable for you to read as they are for me to relate.  However, to leave you with the impression that Captain Flynn’s story ends here would be iniquitous, vile, false.  We must remember that the service of truth sometimes requires the endurance of suffering, and if things become too frightening, we will hold each other’s hands for comfort, like children lost in a dark wood.

Wow.  That narrator had one heck of an orotund style.  But however over-the-top the words, the idea was straight-up truth.  I was puzzled as to how to continue.  I didn’t want to keep writing.  The narrator expressed them, but those were my thoughts and feelings.  And, expressing them in the story’s style helped unstick my brain and get the words flowing.

What about a story with a more limited POV? I hear you asking, assuming there is a you and I am not just yapping into a void.  After all, omniscient POV is really not popular right now.

It can still work!

In fact, the reason I am writing this now is because I used this technique, or trick, this morning, to get Steel Butterfly unstuck.  Now, Steel Butterfly is told in third-person limited with no narratorial intrusions, so instead of describing how I felt, I had to describe what the POV character was feeling.  (To make picking up the story more difficult, I had stopped right before what I thought was going to be an action sequence with a particular plot development, only to realize that the story needed a different, much more emotionally-charged development.  So I had to dive in to that without having a chance to warm up on some dialogue or scenery description or something easier.)  So I chose to describe the tension I felt, that I couldn’t just make the story get on with it already!

The moment stretched on and on and on.  Move, Aine thought at it.  Break.  End.  But it did not move, and it did not break, and it did not end.

Not a lot to it, but that little paragraph helped get the story going again.

And a little bonus tip: learn and use rhetorical devices to make your prose stronger.  The technique in the final sentence is Anaphora, the repetition of words or phrases.  It is helpful for emphasis, and also for slowing down the pace, making the moment seem even longer.

I don’t know if this technique would work for everybody, but it works for me every time.  If it works for you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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