writing September 01, 2016

On worldbuilding 

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Although the first draft of my book is now complete, there is a lot of work still to be done to flesh out the world in which the story takes place. I'm not completely satisfied with many of the names I have used (both for the characters and the locations), and some of the descriptions of places -- especially the major city that is the primary focus of most of the action -- are a little vague.

In Brandon Sanderson's lecture series he tackles worldbuilding by separating the process into two parts: the Physical Setting of your world, and the Cultural Setting. The Physical Setting is all of the things that would still be there even if the people didn't exist: the flora and fauna of your world, geography, weather, cosmology, geology, and the laws of physics that apply (or don't apply) in your fictional universe.

On the Cultural side, he provides an exhaustive list of the sort of topics you might want to consider while fleshing out the world in which your story is set, including:

  • Economy
  • Religion
  • Laws
  • Politics/Government
  • Landmarks
  • Caste or class system
  • Customs and philosophies
  • Food and food lore
  • Languages
  • Cursing
  • Music
  • Fashion
  • Folklore
  • Gender roles
  • Weapons and technology
  • Architecture
  • History
  • Human rights
  • Prejudices
  • Education
  • Courtship

He goes on to note that it's not necessary to explore or fully map out all of the above considerations, but that picking a handful that differ from our own world and incorporating them into the plot is an effective way to build your readers' confidence that you know what you are talking about when it comes to your fictional world. He likens it to an iceberg; show them the 10%, and they will trust that you know all about the other 90%, even though it remains hidden from view.

writing August 09, 2016

Children of Earth and Sky: An analysis of character and tense 

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It is a strange thing, to be a writer. It affects your interactions with the world; overlays every place, every conversation, every observation with an unspoken question: “What is their story?”

It affects you in other, more mundane ways too. For example, consuming literature and related art (television, films) takes on a secondary aspect. As soon as you yourself are concerned with the selection and arrangement of words to tell a story, you can’t help but take notice of how others do it (usually in a far, far better way than you could ever manage). It’s not uncommon to read a book twice — once to experience it, and then again to try to work out how that experience was constructed.

On a recent Italian holiday, I read Guy Gavriel Kay’s most recent novel, Children of Earth and Sky. I’ll save the review for another day (and another site), but suffice to say that like all of his previous books it is a weighty low fantasy book that follows the intersecting experiences of a sizeable cast of characters as they become involved in events larger than themselves. Since that description could easily be applied to my own recently finished 100k first draft, and because while reading I had noticed some interesting aspects of Kay’s writing that I wanted to understand, I dived into a deeper analysis of the novel in an attempt to inform my own (re)writing as I prepare to edit.

Chapters and Characters

The book consists of 26 chapters split into four ‘parts’ of six, six, five and nine chapters respectively. Within each chapter, Kay generally presents a mixture of third-person viewpoints (there are two chapters that only follow a single character; the largest number of different POVs in a single chapter is five) and for the most part the characters within each chapter are geographically close — the action rarely jumps between cities or countries within a single chapter. This contrasts with books like George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, where he focuses on a single character in each chapter; that is also the approach I took when writing my first draft, but I might look to break up the focus by intermingling characters within chapters as I edit.

While the majority of the book is taken up in following the primary POV characters — Pero, Danica, Marin, Damaz and Leonora — I found it interesting that Kay occasionally sprinkles in brief sections that tell the story from the point-of-view of a more minor character, sometimes so minor that they not even given a name. These asides are usually short, around a page or two in length, but they serve to remind the reader that there are other people in the world through which the primary characters move, and provide depth by allowing us to see them through the eyes of others.

There are also a handful of secondary characters — Duke Ricci, Drago, Orso, Savko, Hrant — who, while receiving a slightly larger page count, are mostly relegated to one or perhaps two chapters only. They pop up, play their part in the story, and then are never heard from again. Orso and Savko in particular are interesting; they are located in a city that nobody else in the entire book ever visits, and their concerns are mostly unrelated to the main plot. They feature only in Chapters 1 and 13, which begin Parts 1 and 3 of the novel. This symmetry has to be intentional; a way of resetting the narrative and marking the mid-point of the book. Indeed, the chapters immediately following those two, both at the start and in the middle, feature the same characters in the same order, almost as if they are being reintroduced to the reader after the rising action of the first half of the story.

One final point on character choices; although absent for the first eight chapters of the book, an omniscient narrator appears briefly in Chapter 9, and then reappears in almost every chapter thereafter. Its purpose is usually to discuss the larger effects that ripple out from the actions of the characters, sometimes even looking forward to reveal what lies in the characters’ or the world’s future. More often than not, this narrator closes out a chapter.

For me, the key lessons here lie in Kay’s deployment of minor, unimportant characters to illustrate the larger world beyond the narrow confines of the protagonists’ experiences; the other lives they touch, the people that play a part in shaping their shared destiny. I think it could provide an opportunity to look at a character’s decisions with a more impartial eye, rather than trying to explain everything from a major character’s viewpoint.

Past and Present

The aspect of the book that first led me to consider writing this analysis turned out to be the most surprising revelation when I dug deeper.

I noticed during reading that certain sections were written in present tense, while the vast bulk of the novel uses the far more common past tense. I had assumed, wrongly as it turns out, that Kay was using present tense during the most exciting passages, to convey a sense of urgency and potential surprise — in past tense, the narrator knows what is about to happen (has already happened), but in present tense they live the excitement with the reader — but, when I re-read the book more carefully, I discovered that my initial assumption had been incorrect.

In fact, the present tense sections turned out to be all of those in which Marin was the POV character. Every single one of his segments, throughout the entire novel, is written in present tense, and no other section apart from those uses it. And it is far from the case that all of Marin’s sections are full of action — in fact, the first time we meet him he is getting dressed and going for a stroll, which is hardly the most heart-pounding of action sequences.

I have wondered whether, by placing Marin firmly in the present, Kay is commenting on the other characters’ tendencies to live in the past. Certainly, Leonora, Danica and Damaz are all greatly influenced by events that occurred in their past; Pero less so, although one could make an argument for him also. Marin, on the other hand, is primarily a character looking forward and thinking about his future. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the author is merely using tense to delineate one particular character for other reasons (including entirely arbitrary ones), and unless he chooses to comment here and explain himself, it’s likely we’ll never know.

There were a handful of other observations I made, mostly minor (such as Kay’s use of brackets, a technique I’ve always avoided since it feels like editorialising) but this exercise has definitely been a useful one. While it is often said that the best thing you can do as a writer is to read widely, I often feel that if that reading isn’t accompanied by deliberate thought and consideration of how and why things ended up the way they did, you can fail to get the most out of the experience.

And now, I have 100,000 words to rewrite.

writing April 19, 2016

On personal pronouns 

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One of the aspects of writing over which I stumble most frequently is the use of personal pronouns. Given a conversation between two characters, it often feels reductive to rely purely on repetition of their names and "he" or "she" -- but, equally, throwing in more descriptive pronouns like "the taller man" or "the old woman" or "the redhead" feels a little amateurish.

I got to wondering how the professionals do it, so today I pulled down from the shelf a couple of my favourite books to see how the authors handle the thorny issue of pronoun usage. Firstly, from one of my favourite books, I looked at the opening chapter of China Miéville's Perdido Street Station (chosen in part because i was struck by the beauty of his prose when I first read it).

It starts with a short segment featuring an unnamed street seller, that creates atmosphere and colour -- these are the personal pronouns Miéville chooses:

The costermonger, he, he, the food-vendor, he, he, he, he, he, he, he, he.

The rest of the chapter is concerned with the two main characters in the book, Isaac and Lin. Vermishank is Isaac's old boss. First they wake up, Isaac having had a bad dream about work:

Isaac, he, he, Isaac, Vermishank, Isaac, he, Vermishank, he, Isaac, he, he, Lin, Isaac, Lin, she, Isaac, he, he, Isaac, he, Lin, he, her, he, Lin, him, she, her, him, Isaac, he, him, Lin, her, her, she, Isaac, her, his, he, his, he, his, his, Isaac, his, Lin, he, Lin, Lin, her, she, Isaac, her, he, he, Isaac, Lin, Isaac, their, he, her, her, they, Lin, she, him, she, Lin, he, her, Isaac, Lin, her, she, her, she, her, her, her, Isaac, he, her, her, her, she, she, him, he, his, him, his, his, he, her, she, her, him, Isaac, she.

Next they have breakfast and discuss their plans for the day:

Lin, her, she, Isaac, they, Lin, Isaac, he, Lin, her, Isaac, Lin, he, his, Lin, Lin, him, she, her, her, Isaac, Lin, Isaac, Isaac, Lin, they, their, they, they, they, they, Lin, Isaac, her, him, he, his, his, Lin, hers, her, she, her, Lin, her, Isaac, he, his, Lin, he, he, he, he, his, his, Lin, he, he, his, her, her, she, his, he, he, he, he, he, he, he, he, his, his, Vermishank, Isaac, Isaac, he, Vermishank, him, him, his, Isaac, his, his, him, his, his, him, Isaac, he, he, he, he, him, Lin, him, him, he, he, they, him, Lin, she, him, Isaac, she, her.

And finally they fall into bed again:

The lovers, Isaac, Lin, he, his, her, he, she, Isaac, Lin, her, Isaac, his, Lin, she, his, she, she, she, she, Isaac, they, Lin, her, Isaac, her, him, he, her, she, his, she, he, her, her, her, she, she, his, him, them, Isaac, he, her, his, he, her, his, his, her, her, his, he, her, them, the lovers.

That seems pretty conclusive to me. The only descriptions are given to the unnamed food seller at the very beginning of the chapter; after that, any named character is either referred to by name or with a simple "he" or "she" or appropriate variations depending on tense. Out of the 264 words used, proper names account for around 26% of occurrences, so fully three-quarters of pronouns used are she/her/he/him/etc.

Perhaps it's easier to do that when a scene only contains two people of different genders, though. What happens when several people of the same sex are in a scene together?

The following extract is from Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana, taken from a scene (one of my favourites across all of his novels) that is exclusively male:

Alessan, him, him, Devin, he, him, he, his, he, he, he, he, the men, him, his, his, he, Alessan, his, Alessan, him, him, he, the man, Devin, his, Tomasso, him, Devin, the man, he, bar Sandre, Tomasso, he, Devin, their, Scalvaia, his, Devin, Alessan, Alessan, he, he, them, he, Scalvaia, his, Nievole, Devin, Alessan, the others, Alessan, his, he, the man, his, Devin, he, he, Alessan, the man, his, Nievole, his, Nievole, his, Alessan, he, Scalvaia, him, he, Devin, his, him, he, the two lords, their, he, his, he, him, the men, their, Nievole, Alessan, his, he, Devin, large man, his, his, his, he, his, he, the man, Tomasso, his, his, Devin, Alessan, his, Tomasso, Devin, Devin, Tomasso, Alessan, he, he, Tomasso, Devin, Alessan, Tomasso, Tomasso, the yellow-haired man, Alessan, he, his, Devin, he, the five, he, Devin, Baerd, Devin, they, they, his, Devin, the other two men, they, Devin, him, the speaker, Baerd, Devin, Catriana, Alessan, Catriana, Alessan, the man named Baerd, Alessan, he, the four of them.

This time there are a far greater number of proper names -- 56 out of 144 nouns, pronouns or phrases (39%) -- which is as you might expect in a scene where differentiating between many characters is necessary. What is interesting is how the more descriptive noun phrases are used. They are almost exclusively used either to succinctly describe a group of two or more people ("the men", "the two lords", "the five"), or to describe a character that has not yet been named, or with whom the POV character is not yet familiar ("large man", "the yellow-haired man").

The only other descriptive tag employed is "the man," which Kay uses a few times without any qualifying adjective, trusting in context to let the reader knows to whom he is referring.

Of course, different authors will employ very different techniques in their writing, but just from looking at a couple of examples, it seems that the following may be pretty good rules of thumb when it comes to deploying personal pronouns in your own writing:

  • For named characters, stick to character names or the basic personal pronouns (he, she, him, her, they) almost all of the time;
  • Use more descriptive adjectival phrases for less important, unnamed characters;
  • Consider using more description when introducing new named characters to convey the unfamiliarity of your POV character.
writing March 28, 2016

Public Service Announcement 

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It started with an earthquake.

“Oh, that’s great,” said Clem, spreading out her arms as if she could pin down the great tectonic plate below us with a full body slam. We were sitting, the four of us, on the field of grass next to the 101, Crissy Field spread out below us like a blanket. Looking down to the bay, I could make out the small black dots of dog walkers and joggers, standing in frozen shock or crouching next to panicked animals as the earth continued to rumble.

“Look at that,” Mike said, gesturing with his chin. We all followed his gaze in time to see the first cable of the Golden Gate Bridge snap, the bottom half falling impotently down towards the roiling water while the top section of the cable continued to whip about like a dying snake. It clattered silently against its neighbours; the sound reached us a fraction of a second later, denuded by distance. Birds, startled by the sudden awful awakening of their usually safe perch, swooped in and around the bridge’s supports, splattering the suspended traffic in their fear and anger.

“Jesus,” breathed Charlie.

As suddenly as it had started, the quake was over. Tentatively, we stood, brushing ourselves down, congratulating each other as if we had passed through the eye of a hurricane rather than merely sitting on the grass during a minor tremor that most San Franciscans had probably barely noticed. But we were new to the city; we hadn’t yet learned its ways.

We walked back to Clem’s car, a modern Volkswagen Beetle that I’m sure felt like an imposter whenever it drove through the Haight district, ancestral home of the hippy. She had stencilled a daisy on one door, but it served only to accent our out-of-town-ness. I hated it, but in this town anything beat walking.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, Charlie clicked on the radio, flipping quickly through the multitude of channels. Snatches of a song that I really liked were interrupted by fire-and-brimstone preachers; talk radio; breathless news broadcasts:

“… Unprecedented event … an aeroplane … the world serves it’s own needs, brothers and sisters … wire, in a fire … you’re vitriolic, patriotic … the Rapture and the reverent … combat site … step down …”

“What the hell is going on?” asked Mike of no one in particular.


Back home, six o’clock: TV hour. Charlie and Mike had stayed in our apartment all afternoon, as we hungrily listened for news of the quake’s aftermath. Reports had arrived in batches, as if the baffled reporters merely waited to find out who would jump first, and then hung onto their coattails, dutifully repeating any new facts of the hour, all of them petrified of being trumped by some rogue team with actual news to report.

Local news stations stuck to their earthquake script, honed over decades of life in the so-called ‘seismic hazard zone’; experts were trotted out from Stanford and UCB to explain how quakes were caused, residents interviewed about liquefaction insurance, and more than a few references were made to 1906 and “The Big One.” We agreed that local news anchors could probably do this in their sleep.

Further afield, though, the reports became more strange.

Bright lights had been reported across the country, and it was starting to look as if the time of these events all matched our local quake. Every piece of scaffolding in the tristate area had spontaneously collapsed, and they were still pulling out body parts. Army uniforms at a remote combat training facility in the Mojave foothills had burst into flame, burning down the logistics depot and leaving several soldiers with full thickness burns from which they were not expected to recover. Cars across the Midwest had suffered blowouts; helicopter footage depicted interstate pile-ups and burning cars stretching into the distance along the featureless motorways. A weather reporter somewhere in the deep south declared that these events could only herald the Rapture, and began to rend his clothing before the camera swung awkwardly away and the channel swiftly cut to an advertorial.

“I dreamed about this,” said Clem, “the other night. Not exactly this, but there was an earthquake, and then there were mountains, right through the city, dividing it. But they weren’t like proper mountains — they were all in a straight line. It was trippy.”

We looked at her, all of us privately wondering for just a moment whether we were sitting here, watching TV, with the oracle of the end of the world.

“I dreamed about eating cheesecake at a birthday party,” said Mike, and the mood broke and we all laughed.


Government spokespeople came and went. Apparently the head of FEMA, or DEFRA, or whatever acronymic department it is that’s responsible for deciding how we should all react to unpredictable catastrophes, had stepped down from his post.

“Guess we’ll have to save ourselves now,” said Charlie, but the mood in the apartment had darkened with the evening sky and nobody laughed this time. From the windows we could see an orange glow to the north, as if the setting sun had overflowed into the San Pablo Bay. I lit candles and placed them around the room, on the kitchen counter and the windowsills; it didn’t seem appropriate to turn on the harsh overhead lights.

Eventually Charlie and Mike left, and Clem and I sat on the floor in front of the television, the sound turned down, watching the same baffled reporters silently regurgitate the absence of news.

“Have you heard of the Furies?” Clem said suddenly.

I shook my head.

“They were Greek goddesses of vengeance. Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone: eternal, resentful, vengeful destruction. They were born from the castration of Uranus, the sky god.”

I wrapped my arms around my legs and placed my chin on my knees, listening. Clem was studying classical history at San Francisco State, and would often interrupt our conversations to expose the ancient roots of modern stories. The others would sometimes joke about it behind her back, but I always found it fascinating.

“They lived under the earth,” she continued, “and had the job of dealing with anyone that was ungrateful for what they received. They carried whips tipped with brass, that they would use to punish anyone who deserved it. They would whip them until their skin came off and they died, screaming in agony.”

I shivered involuntarily at her description, hugging myself tighter. “Is that us?” I asked. “Do you think we’re being punished for being ungrateful? For having too much?”

She looked at me. The reflected lights from the TV screen coloured her face in sequence, first red, now white, then blue. “I don’t know. Maybe?” She had a sad smile. “I don’t want this to be the end of the world, Dani. This can’t be the end. I feel fine.”

I nodded. Perhaps it was the end, and it simply wasn’t coming in a hurry, but I too felt no fear. I reached across and took her hand. In fact, I felt pretty psyched.

writing March 26, 2016

On finding a writing community 

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One of the pieces of advice that comes up a lot on writing sites, writing forums, and articles with titles like 'The Top 10 Amazing Habits of Successful Writers', is to connect with a like-minded community of fellow writers, hopefully at the same stage in their careers as you are. As well as providing an occasional sounding board and a place to share common frustrations and triumphs, it can also be a helpful resource for learning of opportunities -- competitions or open calls for submissions, that kind of thing -- and getting early notification of new resources.

Today, I decided I should probably look into that.

Twitter

I already follow a few writing-related bits and pieces on Twitter, so I started by moving those into a new list. They were mostly resource-related; podcast hosts like Iain Broome and Mur Lafferty, link curation accounts like @AdviceToWriters and @ToWriteBetter, and a handful of 'proper' writers (I've never really seen the point of following celebrity accounts, yet somehow Stephen King, Douglas Coupland, Guy Gavriel Kay and Rhianna Pratchett had made it onto my Following list over the years).

Next, I added a few other active users of the online word-tracking tool I use, on the assumption that they are probably in a not dissimilar place to me (and ignoring anyone who doesn't appear to actively use Twitter and the lady whose tweets consisted of nothing but daily astrology updates).

Finally, I ran through the list of the other contributing authors to Panel & Frame, a Medium publication I'm listed in, looking for anyone with a vaguely interesting-sounding bio. Thanks to Medium's Twitter integration, it's incredibly easy to connect writers with their Twitter profiles, so a few more names joined the master list ... again, filtered for weirdness or, say, tweeting in Italian about nothing but pro-wrestling.

That brought the list up to 31 members, which seems reasonable for a first pass, although I plan to add other sites, resources or opportunities that I come across, should they have a Twitter account (and, let's be honest, who doesn't these days).

Searching the 100

Freelance writing website The Write Life published the top 100 best websites for writers earlier this year, so next I trawled through that mammoth list looking for useful content. While a lot of it is targeted at those seeking to break into the freelance blogging market (are there still any essayists in the world?) -- there are sections on entrepreneurship, marketing and SEO -- I was hopeful that in such a large list there would be at least one or two hidden gems.

Most of the resources listed -- or at least the ones that sounded interesting enough to me to open the tab -- are sites where authors (or occasionally publishers or editors) talk about craft, often offering podcasts or coaching/courses, but there were also some interesting outliers:

  • Aerogramme Writers' Studio publishes details of open writing competitions, together with the requirements to qualify and topic or theme;
  • Cathy's Comps & Calls is a similar list of open writing competitions;
  • A couple of names that I had constantly been hearing popped up: Jeff Goins and Chuck Wendig are both successful genre authors, and both run successful personal blogs;
  • Plus I joined another Facebook Group, because why not?

So that took me up to 42 names on the list, which my inner Douglas Adams tells me is just right. Time to move on to Tumblr.

Tumblr

A couple of the places where the stuff I write occasionally shows up are hosted on Tumblr, mostly because after ten years in the web development business I've had enough of setting up new websites to last me a lifetime. However, I've never really thought about using Tumblr as an actual social network before now, despite it being one of the top half-a-dozen in the world -- it has more users than either Twitter or Instagram!

Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of writers on Tumblr. The site itself offers a spotlight page, which is sort of a weird mixture of the super-famous and the nonentity, but that's not much help for finding lesser-known or newer writers. There's a kind of live-search thing which is pretty cool, but it looks like entering a community is going to have to be a long-term goal, on this platform at least. One thing I did learn is that I should probably start using hashtags whenever I post anything there, since that seems to be the primary means of discovering anything.

A larger annoyance with Tumblr is that it's apparently impossible to either a) interact with the Tumblr community using anything but your primary blog, and b) switch to use one of your other blogs as the primary blog. Since I originally registered with Tumblr years ago and set up an incredibly rarely-used tumblelog, this is something of an annoyance, since it seems to mean that if I were to start actually using Tumblr, any activity would be flagged as "me-as-web-designer" rather than "me-as-writer." Surely the only solution can't be to just start again with a clean account, can it?

After a little further investigation, it seems that you can at least update the URL of your primary blog, so wiping all the old content and starting again as a continuation of one of the secondary blogs would be an option, although it's far from perfect. Grr.

Introversion and community

They say that networking is one of the key steps to success in most activities, but in creative arenas such as writing it's pretty much an essential part of success. Unfortunately for those of us who would prefer to hide behind a computer screen 24/7, that means we have to kneel on the neck of our social anxiety and engage with other readers, writers, editors and publishers, at least if we ever want our passion to become more than simply a hobby. It's hard, but at least in the modern world -- and thanks to services like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr -- we can engage via the familiar medium of words on a screen, hopefully putting off the need for face-to-face interaction until the absolute last minute possible. :)

writing March 08, 2016

On podcasts for writers 

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With the shuttering of Iain Broome and Donna Sorenson’s Write For Your Life podcast last month (the promised final episode 159 seemingly lost in the ether), I thought I would take the timely opportunity to list a few of the other writing-related podcasts to which I occasionally listen, in the hope that someone else may discover a new distraction or inspiration.

Scriptnotes

First on my list, and probably my favourite of those I listen to regularly, is Scriptnotes, a weekly podcast by screenwriters John August (Big Fish, Go, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and Craig Mazin (The Hangover Parts II & III, Identity Thief). As you might expect, it focuses on the craft of screenwriting rather than writing in general, but there is still plenty of writing advice, particularly relating to plot and structure, that is applicable to any writer, and the occasional detours into topics such as credit arbitration and Writer’s Guild of America politics are still entertaining and informative, thanks to the hosts’ well-polished relationship and knowledgeable banter.

I Should Be Writing

Probably the longest-running podcast on this list, I Should Be Writing is hosted by multi-award winning sci-fi/fantasy writer, Mur Lafferty, a 12-year veteran of the podcasting scene and winner of the 2007 Parsec Award for Best Writing Podcast. What started as “a podcast for wanna-be fiction writers by a wanne-be fiction writer” has evolved into a sporadic and at times rambling series of updates as Mur variously updates her listeners on her own publishing success (her debut novel, The Shambling Guide to New York City, was released in 2013), her thoughts on the craft of writing and the industry that surrounds it, and interviews other genre writers at conventions around the US, as well as answering listeners’ questions from time to time.

Writing Excuses

The Writing Excuses podcast is another group effort, this time with four simultaneous hosts, but is a lot shorter than most. The four writers involved — epic fantasy author Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn, The Wheel of Time), Hugo award-winning sci-fi author Mary Robinette Kowal, horror writer Dan Wells, and webcomic creator Howard Tayler — spend a nominal fifteen minutes each week discussing a specific writing topic, and offering advice to their listeners on how to avoid common pitfalls. Topics range from large (where ideas come from, picking a genre) down to very specific (world building for role-playing games was a recent example), and they close each episode with a writing prompt. The bitesize format makes it very easy to dip into and out of, and the group have been together long enough that they know how to play to one another’s strengths during their often animated discussions.

Typehammer

Finally, this is a newer one for me, so I’ve only listened to a couple of episodes. The three hosts of the Typehammer podcast don’t talk all that much about writing, as far as I can tell; instead, the focus of their show is the technology we use to help us write. Each week they discuss new software or websites that have at least a tangential relationship to writing, in between teasing each other about their lack of actual writing progress. Personally, I’m pretty happy with my writing technology stack (Scrivener, Tumblr, Ghost, and The Magic Spreadsheet), so I don’t know if I’ll keep listening, but I did discover audio focusing website, brain.fm, via a recent episode of Typehammer, and am in fact listening to its “Relaxing” focus music now, which apparently will help me to concentrate on the work at hand more effectively. You can judge for yourself whether the results are worth it.


So, those are my current podcast recommendations. I do plan, at some point, to refresh my list and see what new possibilities are out there; Iain Broome recommended both The Creative Penn and the Tea & Jeopardy podcasts, so I may well have to check those out soon.

If you have any recommendations for alternatives, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

writing February 27, 2016

On sentence structure 

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One of the things that I struggle with most in writing, especially when writing fiction, is sentence structure; specifically, not leaning on the same form over and over again. For me, this often takes the form of a prepositional phrase, followed by a subject/verb/object combo and then several run-on clauses. I catch myself doing it too often, and it always makes me dread reading a piece back, hearing the same repetitive rhythms, again and again.

Subject/verb agreement, dependent clauses and sub-clauses, gerund nouns acting as verbs -- there's no doubt that English is complicated. Aside from the indispensable Strunk & White, another resource that I find very useful is a series of blog posts by British writer Daniel Wallace on his site, incompetentwriter.com. Over the course of eleven essays, he offers specific advice on How To Write Better Sentences.

Since I have often found that writing something down in your own words is an excellent aide memoire -- and also because I have a daily word count to hit -- I have decided to summarise his advice here, both for my own future reference and for your edification.

Put the key word last

The first tip is actually taken from the aforementioned Strunk & White, and it is to “place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.” By rearranging sentences in such a way that the critical piece, the thought that is being elucidated, arrives last of all, it helps it to feel like a foregone and inevitable conclusion to the sentence. It seems to work especially well in run-on sentences like the preceding one, although Wallace notes that it can impart an air of controlled calm which might not work for every scene in a story.

Noun style, verb style

This one is harder to summarise, and Wallace relies a lot on quoted examples, but basically it boils down to 'noun style' being wordier and more formal-sounding, with long abstract openings (common in academia and officialdom), while 'verb style' gets to the point faster by using the usual subject/verb opening, and expressing ideas more simply. The canonical example he gives is:

Verb style: I came. I saw. I conquered.

Noun style: Arrival; Reconnaissance; Victory.

Ultimately it's fine to mix and match both styles of sentence, as long as you're aware of what you're doing and avoid the main problems in your writing that the noun style can introduce.

Parataxis

Into the realm of fancy Greek words. Parataxis is described as "syntactic democracy" -- the sense that each sentence, thought, or clause is equal in value, and unconnected to its surroundings. The opposite is hypotaxis, in which the author explicitly declares cause and effect, primary and secondary, conundrum and explanation. But in paratactical writing, each statement stands alone, and it is left to the reader to infer meaning.

Probably the most famous examples of parataxis come from Hemingway's trademark sparse narrative style, stating only what is and leaving the reader to fill in emotion and interpretation in the gaps that are left. Parataxis, Wallace notes, can also be deployed to deliberately evoke an atmosphere of confusion, wherein things happen without explanation or reason, and it can also impart an almost religious weight to your prose; as Wallace has it, "Parataxis suits the speech of oracles."

Hypotaxis

As mentioned above, hypotaxis is a style wherein thoughts and statements are clearly related together to form a series of connected ideas, and is therefore most common in forms such as essays and factual articles. But, it can still be deployed in narrative prose, in the sort of structure characterised by "if... then... but..." language use. It suits digressions, and can be particularly powerful if used in conjunction with parallelism, the technique of repeating elements of a sentence's structure over and over.

Clauses and kernels

A discussion of the basic building block of the sentence, the clause. A clause contains a subject and a verb; the man walked to work, the woman laughed loudly, the girl cried. Clauses can be linked together by words like and, then, because -- eventually you get into the difference between independent and dependent clauses, which you probably learned about in school.

Wallace cites Virginia Tufte, who ranked different types of clause based on the amount of 'energy' they contain. Clauses with variations on the 'be' verb are weakest (is, are, were, etc.); next come linking verbs (become, seem, resemble, cause); after that are intransitive verbs, those that lack an object, such as 'cried'; and finally, transitive verbs -- those requiring both a subject and an object to function correctly. Tufte says that the more energy you want a passage to have, the higher up the scale you need to go, avoiding the lower energy 'be' verbs unless you want to slow down the action.

Phrases and branching sentences

Here we get into some more technical aspects of grammar, requiring the reader to be at least passingly familiar with the various flavours of word type. First, Wallace rather skips around the thorny issue of defining what a 'phrase' is in English, but does at least helpfully provide examples of different types of phrase, each named for the type of word that begins them.

Prepositional phrases, then, begin with a preposition -- a locating word -- such as "in the garden" or "behind the desk." Adjective phrases start with a describing word, as in "bigger than the last" or "flat on his back." Noun phrases begin with a noun: "my head about to burst with the pain." The gerund form of a verb (one ending in -ing) starts a gerund phrase, for example "wishing she wasn't there." A participle is a noun or verb modifier; present participles often also end in -ing, while past participles may end in -ed (giggled/giggling, helped/helping) although this is not always the case (singing/sung). Participle phrases, therefore, begin with a participle: "interested by the explanation." Finally, the simile phrase draws a parallel between whatever has come before it and its contents, as in "...like a paper swan on a lake."

Clearly all of the examples above are incapable of standing on their own as complete sentences; they require a complete clause, a subject/verb, to modify. But the central point of this piece is that the phrases can be inserted anywhere within a clause. If we take the final example, "like a paper swan across a lake," and combine it with the subject/verb clause "the tugboat sailed away," there are multiple ways to achieve different effects, simply by rearranging the component parts:

The tugboat sailed away like a paper swan across a lake.

Like a paper swan across a lake, the tugboat sailed away.

The tugboat, like a paper swan across a lake, sailed away.

Wallace refers to these as branching right (adding extra phrases after the main clause), branching left (adding information before the clause) or branching in the middle of the clause. Since these different phrase types can be built upon almost infinitely, complex sentences can be built up by branching in different ways around the core clause of the sentence.

Christensen's cumulative sentence

The Christensen referred to here is Francis Christensen, author of Notes Towards a New Rhetoric; a writing theorist who advocated a denser, more layered approach to constructing living sentences. It's basically a summary of the two previous articles, amid further detail on how Christensen considered a sentence should be built up -- modifying the kernel clause by adding phrases before, during or after, in such a way that it directs the reader's attention, forwards or backwards, from sight to insight. Christensen further says that a variety in texture -- now bare and sparse, now denser, more wordy -- is the "road to excellent writing."

Stress and flow

Even to the untutored ear, prose where every sentence is the same length and follows the same structure is uncomfortable to read. Beginning writers are often commonly advised to attempt to vary the length and style of their sentences, but what is less common are tips on how to use patterns of similar sounds to augment the effect of one's prose. Most people are familiar with alliteration and rhyme; fewer may be aware of assonance (similar vowel sounds, as in "Go slow Joe"). Stress is creating similarity in rhythm, and is employed a lot, unsurprisingly, in poetry, but it also has applications in regular writing, which he covers in further detail under the heading...

Iambs and beats

Citing examples from both DH Lawrence and the US Constitution, Wallace discusses the power of using stress in different ways to create parallel sensations to the meaning of the words. The description of a train passing might be expressed in thundering, clattering, powerful language; word stresses that mirror the quickness of the sounds and feelings evoked by an enormous vehicle passing by. This principle works to augment meaning, too, for example similarity between two things may be given extra weight by using the same stresses in the language that describes them.

Iambic pentameter is the rhythm of Shakespeare: five iambs, which are a weak beat followed by a strong one, so that each line has ten syllables:

If music be the food of love, play on.

Aside from when you're writing sonnets, this technique of knowingly applying patterns to prose can impart a subtle rhythm to the work that is attractive to readers. And iambic pentameter is not the only possible rhythm to use; four- or three-beat rhythms can impart a songlike quality, while three-step rhythms, weak-weak-strong, are called anapests. Of course, as with most other 'rules,' variety is key.

Sounds in lonely places

The final essay in the series is little more than an introduction to a far longer piece in Believer Magazine by Gary Lutz: The Sentence is a Lonely Place. It's very detailed and worth reading in full, as it goes into some detail in its analysis of word choice and how certain words work in concert together within the same sentence fragment, even down to the level of how repeated letters function to guide the reader's attention through the subtle rhythms of the language.

Handily for those of us in need of quick and easily-absorbed advice, it ends with some specific words of wisdom:

  • Stressed syllables in a sentence should outnumber the unstressed syllables;
  • End your sentence with the force produced by a stressed syllable;
  • Give more power to your sentences by placing the subject at the very beginning, rather than delaying the subject until after an introductory phrase or a dependent clause;
  • Make use of alliteration, as long as it remains "ungimmicky, unobtrusive, even subliminal";
  • Also take advantage of assonance;
  • Finally, put some play into your phrasing by misusing words -- make nouns into verbs, create new adjectives, or use words in unexpected congregation.

In conclusion

So, to summarise ... writing is hard. Aside from the necessity of inventing a meaningful plot and relatable characters out of thin air, it's not enough to simply possess the vocabulary and talent to get the words in the right order to tell the story. No, we must also be aware of how we use each and every word; how the sounds and letters in that word relate to those before, after, or nearby; and how the cumulative effect of those words, phrases, clauses and sentences combine to create meaning beyond the words on the page.

Re-telling Wallace's advice here has gone a little way to helping me internalise some of the techniques and advice he covers, and I hope that perhaps it has been useful for anyone else who chances to come across it here on my lonely blog. #amwriting

Photo credit: Nic McPhee

writing January 08, 2016

One week and 7,400 words 

So, after the first week of my self-imposed word target, I thought it would be useful to assess how it has been going.

So far this year I have written more than 7,400 words, which is around the same amount as I managed in the entire last six months of 2015. I have hit my word target every day (although every day has been pretty close -- no 5k sessions just yet).

It has been ... tough, thus far. There have only been two days where I hit the target before sundown, and one of those was the initial blog post on this site, which doesn't really count. Every other day has seen me still at the keyboard at eight or nine o'clock at night, which isn't ideal; I can see why Hemingway always recommended writing first thing in the morning. Mind you, he was probably still drunk from the night before.

What has surprised me the most is how much progress I've managed to make with my primary project, a second novel. I had thought that sustaining sufficient inspiration day after day was going to be too much of a stretch -- in fact, I suspected I might neglect it in favour of shorter, newer, more exciting ideas -- but I think I've managed to add a few hundred words to it every day this week.

The rest of the work has been pretty evenly divided between new short story ideas, and a game-related blog I started a while back in order to have somewhere to practice writing and story-telling. I also managed to complete one unsatisfactory review and a couple of pieces of flash fiction. I suspect the reason the game blog has become a common fallback when I run out of inspiration elsewhere is that it is easier to write in an existing universe, with pre-existing lore, names, places and characters. I need to work at the discipline of creating more meaningful work, rather than writing what is essentially fan-fic. It's too easy, and therefore has less value.

As I mentioned in the New Year's blog post, I've also started carrying a notebook again. In the last few weeks of 2015, when I had a clear idea that I was going to try to create more varied things, I seemed to be overflowing with ideas for stories; but, now I actually have need of that inspiration, it appears to have dried up. I've only pulled out the notebook once or twice, which after weeks of thinking "I should write that down" is mildly frustrating. I have, though, found that music is a good idea lubricant; a couple of new ideas have sprung from whatever Spotify shuffle decided to provide that day.

I guess the most important questions are: does it feel like a habit yet, and are you getting any better? The second is obviously a ridiculous question after only a week, and I'd have to give an indecisive "maybe" to the first. Knowing the daily wordcount is there has definitely made a difference to my routine (I haven't even switched on the Playstation this week), but -- as I end yet another evening writing until 9 -- it's not become so ingrained a habit that I don't feel it looming over me throughout the day until it is done. Maybe that will change ... or perhaps that is the point.

I'm looking forward to looking back in a month or so. I hope I don't disappoint my future self.