Monthly Archives: October 2010

Write Tight

I love contests. Besides reading and critique partners, contests may be the best means by which my writing has improve.

For one thing, most contests give feedback, either through judges’ scoring sheets or through comments from other participants. Then too, contests provide opportunities to experiment—to try out a new premise or dance a little with a new point of view.

However, the most important thing contests have taught me is how to write tight. You see, most contests have some kind of word or page limit. In other words, you have to tell your story in 5000 words, or 1500, or 100.

The latest contest I entered, one at agent Janet Reid’s site, was to write a 100-word story using five specified words. It’s quite the challenge, I can tell you.

My first version was nearly twice as long as the limit. Next came the editing process. What words were unnecessary? What phrase could I replace with a single word? What parts of the story were needed? All this to meet a stringent word count.

It dawned on me, however, that those questions are ones I should ask about my writing whether or not I’m constrained by contest rules.

Eliminating unnecessary words keeps a story or an article moving. Some unnecessaries are fillers that an author falls back on, often without realizing it—words such as just or even. I even decided I would just try it.

Other unnecessaries are built-in redundancies. He stretched, raising up both arms. (Is it possible to raise arms down?) The unopened can slipped from her fingers and fell down on her foot. (Could the can fall up on her foot?)

The next phase of tightening writing is somewhat harder. What phrases can be replaced by single words? Prepositional phrases are good suspects. He touched the screen of his iPad can become He touched his iPad screen.

Hardest of all might be determining the necessary parts of a story or article. Everything needs to be fair game. Is a particular character adding anything new or is he merely taking up space? Is a particular plot point moving the story forward or is it veering away from the desired end? Is an example in an article shedding further light on the subject or is it duplicating the point of a previous illustration?

Writing tight takes work, and clearly readers won’t know how hard an author struggled to hone a story or article. What they will know, however, is that they remained interested from start to finish and their minds never wandered—something I think worth striving for.

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Redundancy: The Path To Boredom

As an editor and a critique partner, I’ve been know to be a repetition hunter. For some reason, I have an ear for words that crop up more than once in a paragraph. Unless it’s intentional, used for emphasis, it grates.

However, until recently I didn’t realize I’m also affected by redundancy. Not in the same way, but affected, and negatively so. Imagine my horror when I discovered that I was guilty of using a good dose of redundancy in my own fiction.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let me build a case against redundancy from my own experience.

I began to think about the subject when I realized a couple blogs I follow were … well, not very interesting. I like the person behind the writing and appreciate their point of view, but after reading the first sentence of most paragraphs, I didn’t want to read the rest. Why?

I concluded it was because the author wasn’t offering anything new. What followed the topic sentence was an example, perhaps, piled on top of an example. Or a restatement of the central point. But I didn’t need those because that which went before was already clear. Consequently, to read the entire post was tedious, at best.

When this realization crystallized, I began to see redundancy in other works—not in ones I found to be compelling, intriguing, or good to the last word. Inevitably, I concluded redundancy is an interest killer, not something any writer wants.

Including novelists. But how does redundancy appear in fiction? One way is in the internal monologue of the point-of-view character. If those thoughts are nothing more than musings about what the reader already knows, they are redundant and therefore boring.

I was good at lots of rehash internal monologue. My character needed to understand what was going on. He needed to analyze and come up with a motive that would explain his next decision. The latter is true, except in many cases his thoughts stated the already stated.

But there was a second method of redundancy in my fiction, closer to repetition. In this instance I was writing dialogue in which I wanted to reflect surprise or disbelief, so I had character number two repeat some part of what character number one had just said.

Such interaction may be true to life, but restatements (“You can’t go.” ¶ “I can’t go? What do you mean, I can’t go?”) don’t tell the reader anything new, becoming … you guessed it, boring.

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Filed under Dialogue, Internal Monologue, Writing Style

Writing Style – The Jonathan Rogers Example

Recently Jonathan Rogers author of the middle grade Christian fantasy, The Wilderking Trilogy and the new release, The Charlatan’s Boy, discussed his writing style in a guest blog post at Speculative Faith.

By way of reminder, style, according to Mort Castle in a Writer’s Digest article earlier this year, is

the summation of “how” a story is presented.

I’d expand that line to say how a story or article is presented because non-fiction writers also have particular styles. Is the writing formal? Folksy? “With it” contemporary? Academic? Imaginative? Analytical? The list of possibilities is long.

Yet too often fiction and non-fiction writers alike give little thought about how they will deliver their content. Not so Dr. Rogers. He revealed in his blog post a refreshing deliberateness to his writing style.

Interestingly, he’s hit upon something that seems quite unique—an American fantasy. As he explains, much of the fantasy genre owes its greatest influence to stories from Europe, with castles and swords and other medieval imagery. What would fantasy be like if, in the telling, it had more in common with Mark Twain than J. R. R. Tolkien?

See for yourself.

The two boys regarded one another. At last the wild boy’s nasally voice broke the silence. “Are we going to tangle or not?”

Aidan stood flabbergasted. It had never occurred to him that this wild child of the river bottoms might speak a recognizable language. The feechie boy placed his hands on his hips and leaned in closer. “You heard me, young civilizer. Let’s tangle.”

Aidan blinked twice, not quite sure he understood. “T-tangle? Do you mean fight? You want to fight?”

“Sure, I reckon!” answered the river boy, bending into a slight crouch and raising his fists in front of him. For the first time a little smile flickered on his muddy face.

Aidan swallowed hard. He wasn’t feeling quite as wild and adventurous as he had a little while earlier. “Wh-why would we want to fight?”

The river boy straightened up and cocked his head. He seemed genuinely perplexed. “You want a reason? For fighting? Hmmm…I reckon I can think of something.”

He scratched his head with one hand, counted his fingers with the other, and after a short pause looked up again. “All right. Here goes. But I ain’t had a chance to polish it up yet, so don’t laugh.” He hummed a little to get his pitch, then sang to the same march tune Aidan had sung a few minutes earlier:

Dobro of the Tam I am
And I could whip you easy.
I’ll make you weep cause you smell like sheep,
And your looks are kind of greasy.

The verse was not up to Aidan’s standards, of course, but Dobro of the Tam seemed proud of it. “See,” he said, “you not the only rhyme-maker on this river.” A self-satisfied smile showed several greenish teeth, as well as three gaps where greenish teeth should have been.

Aidan thought he caught a glimpse of the feechie good humor his grandfather had told him about. The river boy was smiling. That was a good sign, wasn’t it? Perhaps he could escape without getting torn limb from limb. On the surface, Dobro’s song was a challenge and an insult, but for some reason it had put Aidan at ease. It was a funny song, made funnier by Dobro’s ridiculous gap-tooth grin. Being a poet himself, Aidan appreciated the boy’s effort. And considering it was spur-of-the-moment, it wasn’t all that bad.

“Good work,” Aidan laughed. He was starting to like this fellow, in spite of his boorish behavior. “But I’m surprised you’d make fun of my looks. You look like you were fished up from the river mud. And I may smell like sheep, but you smell like a…like a… well, you smell like you brush your teeth with mashed garlic. You smell like you use a rotten catfish for a pillow. Aidan was only warming up. “You smell like you slick your hair with eel slime.”
(Excerpt from The Bark of the Bog Owl, book one of The Wilderking Trilogy

By way of comparison, read the opening pages of The Charlatan’s Boy. I think you’ll quickly see a similar writing style.

One reviewer at Amazon said

If Huck Finn were the hero of a fantasy novel, the result would be The Charlatan’s Boy. The folksy, southern voice is a delight to read, and the setting is a rough-and-tumble frontier rather than fantasy’s usual (and tired) medieval village.

Style—something that can set a writer apart, and just maybe something we should create with a little more intention.

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New Chicago Rules – Capitalization

A month ago I went over some of the punctuation rule changes listed in the latest edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, the preferred guide for fiction and for much commercial non-fiction.

There are some notable capitalization changes too.

1. Rather than capitalizing “web” Chicago now prefers the use of the lowercase for web, website, web page, and so on. However, World Wide Web is still capitalized, as is Internet.

2. Southern California has long been recognized as a particular region, requiring a capital S. In this new edition of Chicago, Northern California is now recognized in the same way, and therefore needs a capital N.

3. In proper nouns which include a general noun (Washington Blvd., Colorado River, the Rocky Mountains), the general noun is also capitalized. However, in the fifteenth edition of Chicago, that changed if the general noun was plural. No more. Now in the sixteenth edition, even general nouns that are plural are capitalized. For example, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (rather than Atlantic and Pacific oceans), Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, and Greenleaf and Whittier Avenues.

4. Brand names beginning with a lowercase letter, such as iPad, should now remain as is, even when beginning a sentence.

Example: iPads come in several sizes.

5. Capitalizing titles using headline style.

a. Capitalize the second element in a hyphenated number such as Twenty-Two, Fifty-One, or Eighty-Six.

b. Capitalize even the “short or unstressed” words; in other words, capitalize the articles a, an, the and all prepositions.

I admit this one makes a lot of sense. Uniformity is easier to remember and at least some word processing programs already make this sweeping capitalization in “title mode.” For me, however, it takes some getting used to. I often remember the new rule when I title my blog posts, for instance, then revert back to old habits when writing the content.

c. When a title includes quoted material, those words are now capitalized headline style, just like the rest of the title.

That’s it, I think. But I recommend becoming a fan of the Chicago Facebook page where you can receive brief rules tips regularly.

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Confusion Or Curiosity

I’ve determined my new writing goal: Create no reader confusion. And I’ve also deduced that creating reader curiosity is not the same as confusion. In fact, the former is desirable and a key factor as to whether or not a reader will continue on with my story.

Like so much in life, then, there is a tenuous balance between what information a writer gives and what he withholds.

Maybe one way to look at this topic is to consider what causes confusion. My friend Sally Apokedak once said that a writer creates confusion by providing conflicting facts. I agree, but I think there is more.

I think confusion results from improper motivation—when the reader isn’t given enough to understand why a character is acting as he is.

Another cause for confusion, in my opinion, is when the writer does not ground the story in something concrete. Playing off columnist Steve Almond‘s examples in a June 2008 Writer’s Digest article, I’ll offer one of my own to illustrate this point.

He didn’t know why she said it, but more importantly why she said it about him.

Does this create confusion or curiosity? The answer to this question can only be determined by what comes next. If the reader doesn’t start getting some answers (who is he, who is she, what’s the relationship between the two, what did she say, and why did she say it?) in the next little bit, I suggest confusion sets in.

The author does not need to give all the answers, perhaps not even complete answers, and probably not answers without introducing new questions. But the point is, unanswered questions or long-delayed answers are a cause for confusion.

A third cause, in my opinion, is the appearance of that which has not been foreshadowed or outright introduced in a scene. If a character is confronted by villains on the right and another baddie on the left, even as the true antagonist closes in from behind, what’s the hero to do? Well, he’ll hide in the barn, of course. The barn that the reader had no idea was in the scene. Above all, this kind of manipulation breaks the trust of the reader. He no longer feels confident that the author has told him all he needs to know.

But just how much should an author tell the reader? Almond’s answer to this dilemma is helpful:

The reader should know at least as much as your protagonist … [Readers] are happy to open with a scene, so long as they get the necessary background. And they don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

Helpful guidelines, I think.

This article is a repost of one that appeared at A Christian Worldview of Fiction June 17, 2008.

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Filed under Foreshadowing, Motive, Suspense