Monday, August 31, 2009

What to do with particularly fine passages

Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
Samuel Johnson 1709-1784

A Book for Today: Samuel Johnson by Jeffrey Meyers

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How To Write in Active Voice

Much advice for new writers includes the admonition to: Use Active Voice. This advice basically calls for replacing He was happy with his present with His present made him happy. However, much of this advice stops here without clear instructions showing what habits to develop to avoid passive voice.

In order to avoid voice, a writer must become skilled in finding a variety of subjects to write about. For example, unskilled writers make this common mistake: when a scene includes a single character, they use that character as the subject of every sentence. Skilled writers naturally employ a variety of subjects.
Alban inclined his head and turned, a few long-legged strides taking him down an alley. The last step became a leap, air and light imploding around him as his form shifted. Crimson light colored alabaster skin as he reached the rooftop and disappeared from Margrit's sight.
Evening sunlight shone a brilliant gold, making Margrit's eyes ache as she squinted against it. The bitter aftertaste of bile hung at the back of her throat and her stomach churned, making her eyes water at the acidity. She clutched the soft sealskin against her chest, running before she was even aware she was moving. Escape seemed paramount.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Truth vs Drama

Not so long ago there was a scandal when a writer published an inspiring autobiography of their recovery from a life of poverty and drugs when the truth was revealed: the story was fiction.

Some people were very upset and others merely confused.

Where were you?

The author's defense was that it was a great story, why does it matter whether it was literally true or not? Certainly many novels start with the conceit of telling a true story.
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank...
Many writers get lost in the balance between drama and truth - all writing (fiction and non-fiction) need a balance of both. Most writers have a preference, much like a preference for right- or left-handedness. Something unconscious but obvious to everyone we meet. Some writers are closer to Mark Twain - great storytellers, truth be damned, while others, think of your college textbooks here, completely ignore the narrative and stick to the facts.

You might imagine that this is the way of the world and the chasm between fiction and non-fiction will never be bridged. That is not true.

First, there is an enormous demand for non-fiction books with drama and human conflict (beyond the novel alluded to above). Think of all the biographies (A Book for Today: Skakespeare by Bill Bryson), histories (A Book for Today: The Irregulars by Jennet Conant, A Book for Today: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson), and all popular science and math volumes (A Book for Today: Group Theory for (non) Mathematicians). Non-fiction with a strong narrative and drama can be very popular, and without it, you have textbooks (the number one reason people hate school).

Similarly, good fiction needs to have the feel of truth whether it is a child's fantasy or a political thriller.

I notice many beginning writers, especially in speculative fiction, become so enamored with their ideas (truths) that they ignore the demands for drama. All the ideas, no matter how inventive and enlightening, can make up for a dull story.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Foriegn Language Phrases in Fiction

If you feel the need to include foreign language phrases in your writing, three options are available:

1. The foreign phase can be immediately repeated in the character's or narrator's thoughts as in:
Hola, he shouted.
I turned around wondering while he was saying hello to me.
2. The foreign phrase can be obvious from context as in:
Before the meeting started the scientists bowed and said Konichiwa, to each other.
3. The foreign phase may be used in a way where the literal meaning meaning is optional as in:
When he hit his finger with a hammer, he screamed Merde.
Glossaries should never be employed in short stories. Even novels with glossaries/dictionaries at the end should be written to minimize the need to reference the lexicon. However, in the case of a novel, the reader might invest in learning new vocabulary for a term that might be used dozens of times. Such an investment is excessive for a short story.

The advice for foreign language can be also applied to technical jargon.

It can also be applied to obscure vocabulary.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

What happens next vs What's happening

Every story teller starting before Homer found a way to sustain the reader's interest. The author might think of this as suspense (Will Phileas Fogg get around the world in 80 days?), or mystery (Who dunit?), or story arc (What will happen to Tom Sawyer after he paints the fence?). The driving force might characters (Jane Austen) or the plot (Jules Verne) or even setting (J.R.R. Tolkien). While the choices are seemingly endless, every writer most find a way to keep the pages turning.

One way or another, the reader is driven forward by What happens next? We may wonder about the fate Pip or Jurassic Park or Middle Earth. Almost any technique is acceptable . . .

except one: What's happening?

The characters may be confused (Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice) or and reader may be misled (red herrings), but the reader can never simply be confused.

If the reader is asking What's happening? instead of What happens next? the writer has failed and most readers will simply discard the book. Reader's will tolerate many kind of puzzles, except the one asking what is happening in this story?