Monday, 12 December 2011

Guest Post: 'Writing essentials’ by Morgen Bailey



It's been a while since we had a guest poster hre on FWB, but recently Chaz caught up with Morgen Baily (another insanely helpful fellow writer/blogger/etc) and invited her to contribute something.

So here's some helpful advice regarding writing style and technique, courtesy of Morgen:

American science-fiction novelist Jerry Pournell is reported to have said “I think it takes about a million words to make a writer. I mean that you're going to throw away.” I started writing for fun six years ago and more seriously three years ago and with three NaNoWriMo novels, one-and-a-half novels in between, three NaNoWriMo anthologies (a cheat on doing a novel this year but I still made the 50,000 words), part of a script, some poetry and loads of short stories under my belt, I’m pretty sure I’ve reached that target. How much of them I’ve thrown away I couldn’t tell you but it’s only a fraction, and if like me, you’ve dabbled before really knuckling down, you’ll feel better for it. It’s all about practice. If someone sat you in front of a piano, would they expect you to play a concerto? Would you expect that of yourself?

In my experience too many novice writers worry about finding their ‘voice’ and understanding their ‘craft’ early on. It can be a long journey, perhaps not as long as a million words, but as long as you write regularly (daily is the ideal but when does life afford that luxury?) you’ll get there… and here are a few basics to put in your suitcase:

• Probably the most used phrase when teaching writing is ‘show don’t tell’. If you have a character who is angry for some reason, saying ‘Andy was angry’ is a classic example of ‘tell’. Simply put, you’re not showing us how. If you wrote ‘Andy slammed his fist onto the table’ you are.
• Dialogue tags – it’s recommended that you can only go up to six pieces of dialogue (between no more than two people) without attributing it to someone. And there's nothing wrong with ‘said’. Don’t be tempted to look at your thesaurus and say ‘Andy postulated’. You could also avoid tags by another character saying “Oh Andy, that’s…” or in the description; ‘Andy laughed. “That’s…”
• Character names are important as we often get a sense of their personality by what they’re called. A Mavis is likely to be older than a Britney and would, usually, act differently. Avoid having names starting with the same letter; if you have a Todd talking to a Ted, the reader can easily get confused. Bill and Ted would be fine and as we know, they had a wonderful time back in the late 1980s.
• I’m a big fan of repetition… of not doing it. Unless it’s ‘the’, ‘and’ etc, a word should only be repeated if the second instance is to emphasise or clarify the first. For example, ‘Andy sat in the car. He beeped the horn of the car.’ You don’t need ‘of the car’ because we already know he’s in the car. If you said ‘Andy sat in the car. He beeped the horn and the car shook’ that would be fine because you’re clarifying that it’s the car and not the horn (because it’s the last object you mentioned) that’s shaking.
• Stephen King’s writing guide / autobiography ‘On writing’ has been the most suggested book in the interviews I’ve conducted. Amongst other things he’s notoriously against adverbs (‘ly’) and fair enough – in ‘completely dead’ you wouldn’t need the completely because dead says it all, and a character doesn’t need to be ‘sighing wearily’ because the sighing tells us enough, but adverbs are necessary in the right context. Again it’s all about clarification and fine-tuning.
• Every word has to count; does it move the story along or tell us about your characters? If not, the chances are it can be chopped.
• If you’re having trouble with a passage move on or leave it and return later with ‘fresh eyes’.
• Read. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your genre or not (one of my Monday nighters writes amazing sci-fi but has never read a word of it) but reading will help you see how a story is structured and balanced between dialogue and description; short sentences speed the pace, long passages slow it down.
• Join a writing group, get your work critiqued. Read your work out loud. It’s amazing what you’ll pick up when you hear it outside your head.
• Subscribe to writing magazines, go to workshops, literary festivals. If you really want to write immerse yourself in all things literary.

There are many more examples I could give you but all you need to remember is that it’s not about clever words (because that ends up becoming ‘purple prose’) but just getting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard and having fun. When your characters take over (and they will) you’ll have the time of your life!

Morgen Bailey
http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com

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