Sunday, April 29, 2012

Week 18 - The Title

29 Apr - 5 May

"There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts." Charles Dickens

Hmm, that's not very encouraging....  Then again, perhaps Dickens was referring to those books that have really excellent and outstanding titles on their covers?

  1. What is a title?
  2. What purpose does it serve?
  3. How do I find a good one?
These are the questions I asked myself before beginning this post, and these are the answers I came up with:
  1. A title is a brief representation of a story; it can be a key phrase, an idea, an appropriate quote or an image.  It can be a name, a place, a colour, a number, or a combination of these things.  In other words, a title can be pretty much anything.  But it does need to be short enough to fit on the cover.
  2. It is intended to interest an agent or editor, as well as attract the reader in a bookshop or library (or online), and remain in the reader's mind after the story is read.  It can be a hint at what the book is about, or it can be what the book is about, as is generally the case in non-fiction, or novels with character titles.
  3. Common sources of titles include; the Bible, Shakespeare, classic poetry, songs, adverbs, nursery rhymes and folk stories, a dictionary or thesaurus, or a significant phrase from the body of the story.  Tools that can be used to reach an effective title include; brainstorming, word association, mixing and matching words on index cards, or inviting friends and family to contribute ideas.

The Novel Writing Help website contains some good ideas about titles:  It suggests considering;
  • the main character, e.g. Rebecca;
  • the main character with a descriptor, e.g. The Great Gatsby;
  • a description of the main character, e.g. The Tourist;
  • the main setting, e.g. Tyringham Hall;
  • an action that is or represents the plot, e.g. Coming Up For Air; 
  • the theme, e.g. Pride and Prejudice;
  • quotations, e.g. For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Note that these ideas focus on the basic notion of formulating a title, whether it be a working title or one that is marketable.  The influence of a publisher on a final title is another story, I'm sure.

Right, I'm off to write down and shuffle around some cool words for titles (or perhaps I'll just skim through the bible Hemingway-like).

Exercise 35.  Think of three titles for novels you’d like to write.  Briefly describe the main character and the main source of conflict that you’d employ (either internal or external).  Write a story based on the title and the characters you've created.

Exercise 36.  Make a list of book titles that appeal to you and think about why they are memorable.  Go back through your stories and think of alternative titles, using the resources mentioned above as additional inspiration. 

For the blog or article writer (i.e., me), go back through your posts and include creative sub-headings.  Continue doing this in the future.   

In Week 19, I will look at Vocabulary.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Week 17 - Setting the Scene

22 Apr - 28 Apr: Where Are We?  More Importantly, What Are We Doing There?

Setting the scene is vital for placing characters and plot in context, but, regardless of how spectacular the Arc de Triomphe is, the story is about the weary traveller at its base.  If a reader is interested in Paris, she will consult a National Geographic.

Keep the description brief, but meaningful.  There is a fine line between too little and too much detail as discussed in the following two Writer's Digest articles:
Tip of the Day - Mistakes: Not Setting the Scene
Tip of the Day - Don't Overdue Your Descriptions

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott speaks about describing detail as if you are looking at a polaroid (remember them?), and I think that this is a good approach to describing setting.  Think of a family gathering, or a shot of a hiker in the hills, or a scene in a restaurant.  The characters are 'doing something' and as the polaroid sharpens, the details of the surroundings become clearer and clearer.

It is up to the writer to decide what deserves description and to describe it in detail.  Is there a contrast between the character and the surroundings that are worth mentioning, e.g. the background is tropical, yet the man wears a heavy coat?  Do the characters' expressions or body language raise questions, such as if two people appear to be arguing at a dinner party?  Or perhaps the character is staring at something that is significant to the story?  In all of these cases, the setting is helping to draw the characters and advance the story.

Combining this idea with point-of-view can enhance the effects of describing a setting, and greatly add to tone and mood within a scene or across the whole story.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner advocates the use of images and repetition to add meaning to characters and events. He provides the example of a character introduced in a graveyard; when the character appears later in the story, the reader will automatically associate him or her with a graveyard setting.  We can relate to this in our own lives; a person we see every day at the library (or swimming pool, or bar, or whatever), is not so easily recognised when we bump into them at the supermarket.

So what about weather?  This can be mood inducing, of course, as evident in all those horror movies where the haunted house is lit up by lightning during a wild thunder storm, or it can be seen as a basic necessity for setting the scene.  Ernest Hemingway, for example was a big fan of mentioning weather and apparently used whatever weather it happened to be on the day he was writing.  When he got tired of subjecting his characters to hot, humid days, he would retreat to an air-conditioned room to provide relief to his characters.

The following exercises have been taken from John Gardner's, The Art of Fiction.

Exercise 33.  Write at least 500 words using the elements of setting (objects, landscape, weather etc), to enhance the reader's understanding of two characters and their relationship.  Try different points of view to see how setting can further intensify the characters.

Exercise 34. Describe a setting from the perspective of a bird, without mentioning the bird.

In Week 18, I will take a look at Titles.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Week 16 - Dialogue

15 Apr - 21 Apr: Talking the Talk

"The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause." Mark Twain

In, So You Want to Write, Rosier-Jones relates to dialogue in terms of the three R's.  That is, it must be;
1. Realistic - without being real;
2. Relevant - it should serve a purpose; and,
3. Revealing - about the characters and how they handle different situations.

In This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley expands further.  He advises that, through dialogue, a character should be;
1. Telling us something about themselves;
2. Conveying information that advances the plot;
3. Adding to the mood of the scene or story;
4. Providing a different point-of-view; or
5. Giving the novel a pedestrian feel

Here is a list of common recommendations, gleaned from my reading so far:
  • Read dialogue aloud to see if the voices of each character are unique;
  • Don't use stammers such as, "W..w..where are you going?" or um's and ah's in the dialogue, instead, say, '"Where are you going?" he stammered;'
  • Use contractions, eg. can't, don't, because that's how people talk;
  • Drop words and vary punctuation to suit the characters, eg. 'Can't do it.'
  • Beware of phonetic spelling to indicate dialect.  It can detract from the piece if inaccurate and is distracting if overdone;
  • Avoid descriptive tags, eg. 'he expressed,' 'she declared,' in favour of 'he said,' 'she said;'
  • Avoid descriptive tags with adverbs, eg. 'he exclaimed vehemently.'  (Using elegant variation that results in a pun is called a Tom Swifty, after the author Tom Swift, eg. '"I'm dying," Bill croaked.')
  • Avoid tags altogether if the reader can easily identify the speaker.
  • Unless they serve a particular purpose, speeches and monologues are boring;
  • Drop the small talk;
  • Introduce or allude to conflict.

With respect to layout and punctuation, Rosier-Jones provides some concise advice:
  • Single or double quotation marks are both acceptable, but be consistent.  Use the alternative for a quote within a quote, or for proper nouns that would usually have quotation marks;
  • Quotation marks (speech marks or inverted commas) enclose the punctuation;
  • A comma within the speech marks, comes before the tag;
  • Each change in speaker has an indented paragraph;
  • Each new speech begins with a capital letter, even if it is in the middle of the sentence, eg. 'He called to her, "Don't go."'
  • A sentence of speech can be broken by action, in which case, the second part of the speech begins with the lower case.
  • Action can replace tags. eg. '"Leave me alone." He turned away;'
  • Thoughts do not generally have quotation marks.
Note that these are general ideas and recommendations, and individual preferences and styles vary. I have noticed some authors, for example, using quotation marks for thoughts, and others that insist on avoiding the word 'said' wherever possible.

And remember that describing body language can compliment, provide important contrast, or act as a substitute for dialogue.  Those moments of silence, too, can be a powerful component of dialogue.

Exercise 31.  Write a piece of dialogue between a wife who is having an affair and a devoted husband who owes money as a result of a secret gambling addiction.  Make the topic of conversation relevant to their secrets (eg. the wife wants to spend a weekend at an exclusive resort because she knows her lover will be there, but the husband knows they can’t afford it).

Exercise 32.  Write a short piece of dialogue between (your perception of) any of the following: a) Sigmund Freud and Hannibal Lecter, b) David Beckham and Marie Curie, c) Zsa Zsa Gabor and Albert Einstein.  Don’t worry about inaccuracies or time discrepancies (unless it is relevant to the conversation), make the exchange plausible, try it without using tags, and ensure that the conversation has a point.

Week 17 will look at Setting the Scene.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Week 15 - Common Mistakes

8 Apr - 14 Apr: To Err is Human... just try to improve, okay?

"Mistakes are the portal of discovery."  James Joyce

This week was supposed to be the start of Toolbox topics, starting with dialogue, but I've decided to inject a quick list of Common Mistakes as suggested by the experts, just because I can (and because I like to think about these points often).

So here they are (so far):

John Gardner - The Art of Fiction:
  • Being snapped out of the dream, that is, the reader is distracted by clumsy writing such as incorrect syntax.  The reader should not have to reread a sentence to find out what it says;
  • Inappropriate or excessive use of the passive voice;
  • Mixed diction levels.  A piece should be consistent in its use of colloquial, formal or poetic language; regular shifts in diction are distracting for the reader;
  • Excessive explanation. A writer need not explain how his or her characters are feeling, this is what dialogue and action are for;
  • Lack of sentence and paragraph variety;
  • Overloading a sentence, and not having a single focus;
  • Awkward insertions of detail;
  • Abstract language and insufficient detail, eg. two snakes were fighting, is more effective as, two snakes whipped and lashed;
  • Distracting imitations of speech, eg. er, um, stammers.
  • Inappropriate introductory phrases, eg. Carrying the duck in his left hand, Henry.....
  • Getting events in an action out of order;
  • Jarring or excessive rhythm; too much rhythm is unrealistic, too little becomes difficult to read;
  • Accidental rhyme;
  • Inappropriate shifts in psychic distance, eg a short story or novel is generally intimate; a 'tale' is more distant;
  • Sentimentality, ie. emotion conjured through melodrama;
  • Frigidity, ie. staying aloof from the main characters.  

Various Contributors, Writer's Digest - 2012 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market:
  • Cliched language;
  • Shock openers, blatant cleverness and open endings.  A writer should not rely on crafty devices and tricks, but should invest effort in developing good plots and characters.

Lisa Rojany-Buccieri and Peter Economy - Writing Children's Books for Dummies:
  • Indefinite prose, eg. she wasn't sure that school made sense, packs more punch as, school was a total waste of time;
  • Speeches or monologues;
  • Excessive adjectives and adverbs;
  • Phonetic spellings of dialogue; eg ya mon;
  • Over-describing location or setting;
  • Flashbacks that interrupt the flow of the story.

Roy Peter Clark - 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer
  • Too many -ings, ie. words sometimes start to sound the same, eg. the retreat offers camping, boating, fishing and hiking.

Most of these points I will explore further in the following weeks, as I look at dialogue, sentence structure, vocabulary, and a bunch of other stuff.  (Blogs, especially this one, are exempt from these mistakes, by the way).  Strunk and White's views on common mistakes in The Elements of Style, also warrant a separate mention in a future post.

Exercise 29. Check out the stories posted for the weekly prompts on the Writer's Digest Website.  Look for some of the points raised above, and think about whether or not the writer could have presented his or her ideas more effectively.  Provide a truthful and constructive comment if you think it might help the person improve.  (Remember, these Common Mistakes are not rules, they are just ideas).

Exercise 30. Recover a story you wrote some time ago and read through it with the aim of identifying some of the points above.  Now, see if edits or a rewrite improve the flow.

I promise to start on the Toolbox during Week 16, commencing with my definite weak-spot, dialogue.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Week 14 - The Middle Bit

1 Apr - 7 Apr: Maintaining Momentum

Okay, so the beginning hooks the reader with a brilliant opening scene, and we have a wowie-kazowie, I-bet-you-didn't-see-that-coming climax and ending, so what do we do with the bit in between?

In 50 Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark suggests writing the story around a key question -  Who dunnit?  Who will win her heart?  Will he win? etc. - and this question serves as the engine that drives the story forward using interesting and believable players.

Of course, it is suspense, borne of this key question that drives the reader forward, and different kinds of stories use different kinds of suspense; adventure stories largely use action suspense; character-driven stories may rely more on the moral implications of decisions.  (I will explore suspense further in the coming weeks when I move into the 'Toolbox').

So, between our rivetting opening and closing scenes, we know that we must incorporate mini-cliffhangers into our plot to maintain suspense.  These will generally fall at the end of chapters and keep the reader asking "what happens next?"

But what about all the other stuff?  Settings need to be described to place the story and its people in context, characters need to be developed through actions and dialogue, and, perhaps the most mundane part of all, those less interesting bits that keep the story flowing and logical, need to be written (eg. "he got out of bed, staggered to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and then it happened....."). 

The writer needs to be selective about which scenes to expand on, and which to keep brief if both writer and reader are to maintain an interest in the story.  Clark suggests incorporating a small number of 'gold coins' - dramatic or comic high points within a scene - throughout the middle section of a long piece to reward the reader (and the writer, too, perhaps), for sticking with it.

Personally, I think it is easy to become disillusioned when writing The Middle Bit; the thrill of the opening and closing scenes is gone and the hard slog of 'telling the story' is all that's left (but I'll leave the 'discipline of writing' to another day). 

For me, I try to keep in mind Gardner's insistence that a written story should read like a dream, and perhaps if I just keep writing what I see in my head, regardless of how tedious it might seem at the time, then eventually, after a bit of work, I'll produce something that reads like a dream.

Exercise 27List ten, suspenseful plot points that could be used as chapter endings for a) a romance novel, b) a thriller/suspense, and/or c) an adventure novel.

Exercise 28.  Write a simple short story as follows:  put a man up a tree, throw rocks at him, get him down.  (Taken from a Creative Writing course I completed in 2011).

Week 15 is the start of the fun stuff, that is, the Writer's Toolbox, starting with Dialogue.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Week 13 - The Ending

25 Mar - 31 Mar: Happily Ever After...?
(Yes, I've changed the dates to make it easier for me to track).

There are two obvious questions on endings: what should happen (the idea), and how should it be presented (the technique)?  How the writer handles each will, to a large degree, determine the level of satisfaction the reader will be left with (and whether they'll pick up another book by the same author, in the future).

As far as the idea is concerned, this can only originate from within the writer's head (with or without a source of inspiration).

With respect to technique, a writer might know exactly how a story will end before laying fingertip on the keyboard, or he or she might arrive at the ending seemingly by accident.  Alternatively, a writer might experiment with a number of possible endings and decide on the most effective long after the body of the first draft is completed.  A story can even be written backwards from the ending to the beginning, if one so wishes.

Regardless of how one arrives at an ending (which is an achievement in itself), here are a few basic tips I've picked up from others, and from my own observations:
1. Just end it!  Endings don't need to drag on.  One suggestion I read was to place a hand over the last sentence or paragraph and see if the story still ends effectively.  Keep working up the page until you reach the natural ending.
2. Tie it all together.  Loose ends are frustrating.  I laughed when I read a quote Stephen King included in his book; when a fellow writer was asked, What happened to the driver? he replied, Oh him.  I forgot about him.
3. Avoid melodrama. As a reader, I am disappointed when a writer overdoes an ending with unnecessary sentimentality.  I feel a bit cheated, actually.  I would like an ending to inspire a feeling within me, without being told what it should be through oversympathy with one character or another.
4. Be logical.  Every scene is written for a reason, and must lead to the finale.  It's not fair to the reader to withhold key information until the last sentence or to introduce new elements late in a story that play no part in the lead-up.  Nor does it make sense for characters to suddenly do or say something that contradicts what the reader anticipates.
5. Respect the reader's intelligence.  Actions or dialogue or images can speak for themselves.

In 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark provides an  excellent description of techniques for writing endings.  They are summarized below:

1. Closing the Circle - the reader is reminded of the beginning, by returning to a place or being reconnected with a particular character;
2. The Tieback - the ending is tied to an unusual element in the body of the story;
3. The Timeframe - the story concludes at the end of a specific timeline;
4. The Spaceframe - the story ends at a specific destination;
5. The Payoff - the mystery is solved or a secret is revealed;
6. The Epilogue - the reader is provided with a snapshot of what happens after;
7. Problem and Solution - the central obstacle is overcome;
8. The Apt Quote - the character has the final word;
9. Looking to the Future - the ending considers the consequences of the events;
10. Mobilizing the Reader - the ending contains a message to the reader, eg. plant trees, read etc.

Clark makes the important note that other elements of a story have endings too, and sentence endings, paragraph endings and chapter endings need to complement the overall finale.

The Middle Bit, will be next week's topic.  In the meantime, the following exercises aim to explore ideas and techniques in developing an ending.

Exercise 25.  Write a short happy story and make it ‘sad’ (tragic, shocking etc) in the very last sentence or write a sad story and make it ‘happy’ (inspirational, heart-warming etc) in the final sentence.  Be sure to plant the seeds of the ending in the lead-up.

Exercise 26. From the story above (or another of your choice), end it with:
1. A line of description;
2. A line of dialogue;
3. A character's action;
4. A character's internal thought.
(This exercise is adapted from the article The Perfect Ending Writing Exercise, as it appears on Writer's Digest.)