Rules for Writing Fiction

On the Guardian website, February 20, 2010, there is an article, Ten Rules for Writing Fiction Parts 1 & 2, which caught my eye, mainly because of the writers who were offering their opinions.  In this post I’ve picked out some that haven’t been covered before in this blog, and with which I agree or disagree.

Illustration: Andrzej Krauze from the article

Is this a metaphor for writing fiction or for the opinions about it?

  • Hilary Mantel: “Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.”      I agree!
  • Michael Moorcock: “If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.” and “Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery)”   Good point.
  • Will Self: ” You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.”    I find this quite interesting; I had only feelings of pride for my first book when completed.  More recently, with my eighth, I do feel that sense of inadequacy.
  • Zacie Smith: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”     This is very similar to Will Self’s comment.
  • Rose Tremain: “Forget the boring old dictum “write about what you know”. Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.”    I did just this with my last two novels.   By the way, when one does this, one has to be connected to the Internet – contrary to the advice of several authors.
  • Sarah Waters: “Writing fiction is not “self-­expression” or “therapy”. Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.”     I like the analogy.
  • Jonathan Franzen: “Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.”    I think this is probably good advice.  Luckily the two novels I’ve written in the first person are distinctive.
  • Esther Freud: “Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.”   I don’t agree with this; I think that a whimsical, unexpected metaphor can be very enlightening.
  • Neil Gaiman: “Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”  I thought it was jut my compulsive self: noticing a problem in an earlier chapter and immediately rushing to find and fix it.
  • P D James: “Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more ­effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.”   I think this is an excellent point and it is contrary to some who encourage the use of common words or discourage the use of a thesaurus.

Internal Dialogue

“Internal Dialogue: the Greatest Tool for Gaining Reader Confidence” by Elizabeth Sims appeared in the June 2017 issue of The Florida Writer.  Ms Sims introduces the article with  a discussion about how con artists work.  “The best con artists don’t begin by asking for your confidence – they give you theirs first.  Here’s my story. I want you, you especially to hear this.  The request for help comes later.  But before either compassion or greed can be exploited, the mark must feel something for the con artist.  When you think about it, what is fiction but one beautiful long con?  The reader – the mark – opens a book craving a good story, thirsting to be part of something special.   We, as writers, do everything possible to gain the trust of our  readers so we can entertain, shock, delight and amuse them all the way to the end.

“And the greatest tool for gaining reader confidence is internal dialogue.  Because when a character reveals his thoughts, he’s confiding in the audience.  I’m counting on you to understand me – and possibly even help me understand myself.   Suddenly readers are in the thick of it; they feel involved and invested.

“Internal  dialogue is the inner voice of a character, which is a metaphysical subject.  In most modern cultures – and, consequently, most  modern literature – there’s a dichotomy within the self: there’s an I and a me.”

(I, the objective pronoun which takes the action and me, the subjective pronoun to which the action is done)

Ms Sims goes on to say: “with internal dialogue, you can:

  • Establish your characters and their unique voices
  • Show the difference between what a character thinks versus what she says or does; this can fuel tragedy or comedy
  • Trace a character’s growth and development, or a character’s degeneration
  • Develop you plot
  • Reveal things below the surface: pain, secrets, hopes, fears . . .
  • Create and develop suspense.  Especially when the reader knows more that the character
  • Change the subject.  A character’s thoughts may drive your story in a new direction
  • Reveal a character’s opinions
  • Describe.  A character can look around and comment on his surroundings; he can observe and analyze
  • Develop and reveal character motivation.  Why are they doing what they’re doing?
  • Reflection.  Let your character think through a problem or process an event to whatever degree she is capable of. A character can be a tad less smart than the reader, thus permitting the reader to feel on top of things.
  • Adjust the pace.  Let your character pause and reflect.  It will slow things down and let the reader absorb what just happened.

“Internal dialogue typically takes three basic forms: first-person narration (I thought . . .), third-person narration (She thought . . .), and direct thought-speech (where the character seems to speak directly to the reader).  Then there’s the issue of tense. . . . You’ll find that the majority of internal dialogue is written in the present tense, no matter whether the rest of the work is in the past.  As to format, the only rule is to avoid quotation marks, single or double, as they’re associated with spoken aloud dialogue and can confuse the reader.  It used to be the convention to put inner thoughts in italics . . . Now the trend seems to be to keep everything in Roman text, the idea being that italics are intrusive and unnecessary.”

Ms Sims mentions several pitfalls to avoid:

  • Making a character’s inner voice into a wisecracker,  “Such a voice can be entertaining but only if used sparingly.”
  • Head hopping among various characters
  • ‘I thought to myself . . .’  “Who but oneself does one think to?”
  • Telling chunks of backstory by having a character remember it
  • Putting in anything that doesn’t serve the story

I think this makes clear the power of internal dialogue, but, like any other written vehicle it must be used in a balanced, appropriate way.  My personal preference is to write internal dialogue in the first-person present and to use italics, which I don’t think is confusing.

Ms Sims quotes the following passage from Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel:

The encounter, though, had bruised her.  Gavin was the first person, she thought, that I was ever really frank and honest with; at home, there wasn’t much premium on frankness, and she’d never had a girlfriend she was really close to, not since she was fifteen.

I would write this as:

The encounter, though, had bruised her.  Gavin was the first person that I was ever really frank and honest with.   At home, there wasn’t much premium on frankness, and she’d never had a girlfriend she was really close to, not since she was fifteen.

The Florida Writer says: “Elizabeth Sims is the author of the Rita Farmer Mysteries and Goldie award-winning Lillian Byrd Crime Series.  She’s also a contributing editor at Writer’s Digest magazine, specialising in the art and craft of fiction.  Her instructional title, You’ve Got a Book in You: a Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams, has helped thousands of writers find their wings.

Elizabeth Sims

What Is a Novel?

When I first started writing, and someone asked me the question, “What is a novel?”, I would have replied, “A good story.”  But frequently, brief replies don’t really enlighten the questioner, and the more I write, the more I understand that a ‘good story’ is actually very complicated indeed – at least when it is written down, printed, publicised, sold to the general public, and liked by its readers well enough to earn its writer more than a trivial income.

So what does a ‘good story’ consist of?  There are a number of qualities of a ‘good story’, and while some may not be directly measurable, they are all, at least scrutinisable and subject to opinion:

  • The Plot:  A plan of what happens in the story.  Is it interesting?  Is it predictable or unpredictable?
  • The Characters:  The fictional people who populate the story.  Do they come alive?  Do we care about (like or despise) them?  Are they active or passive? Are their relationships to one another interesting?  Do the characters’ beginnings and end points support the Message?
  • The Setting:  The time(s) and place(s) in which the story takes place.  Is the particular setting of interest to the particular reader?  Is it easy to place oneself as the reader comfortably into the setting?
  • The Message:  What, in an overall sense, is the author trying to say to the reader? If nothing, do we care?  If something, is it clear?  Does it make us think?
  • The Tone:  The kind of emotion which is inherent in the language the author uses.  Is it sad? angry? melancholy?  matter-of fact?  Does the tone seem to support the Message?
  • The Narrator;  Who’s telling the story?  Is the choice of narrator supportive of the above five characteristics?
  • The Tense:  Is the story told in the present or the past tense?  Is the story supported by the choice of tense?
  • The Action:  Exactly what happens.  Is it credible?  Is it attention grabbing?  Is there too much or too little action?  Is the action relevant to the Message?

And then, there are the variables which define how the story is told:

  • The Language:  At what educational level is the story pitched (toddler vs college grad)?
  • The Words:  Do the words convey an exact (vs approximate) meaning?  Are there cliches?  Are there too many or too few words?  Do they convey appropriate feelings as well as facts.
  • The Sentences:  Does the author use correct grammar and punctuaton?  Do the sentence structures facilitate understanding?   Are they readable without difficulty: not too complex; not too simple?
  • Realism vs Fantasy:  Is the author’s choice of realism vs fantasy supportive of the story overall.  If there are elements of fantasy, does the reader automatically suspend disbelief?
  • Dialogue vs Backstory vs Narrative:  Is there a balanced use of these techniques?  Does their use support the story?
  • Tension:  How much tension does the author build into the story?  Does it support the plot? is there too much or too little tension?

Perhaps there are some variables I’ve overlooked.  Please don’t hesitate to mention them.

Revising

‘Revise’ has a number of synonyms, including: improve, reconsider, update, rewrite, amend and modify.  With my current novel, having finished writing it, I am doing all this and perhaps a bit more.  It is a tedious process, but, to my surprise, I’m enjoying it, because, as I get closer to the end – I’m now about half way through – I’m feeling an increasing sense of pride in the output.

You may recall that in an earlier post, I said that I would print each chapter out in an unusual font and read it aloud, marking anything that jarred on my senses for later correction.  I have done that, and I would recommend it for any author before submitting his/her manuscript for final editing.  Before I started my reading aloud process, I had made a list of ‘lingering concerns’: issues which I felt had to be addressed.  For example, I thought that I had left the characters’ feelings to much to the reader to interpret: they needed to be clearer.

So, here is what my revising process included:

  • Restructuring:  My draft manuscript was 16 chapters long, each about 17 pages.  I thought it would be better to shorten the chapters, particularly because there is a lot that happens in the book.  I’m in the process of reducing the chapter length to about 10 pages, so there will be over 25 chapters.  I also wanted to have a title alluding to the content of each chapter, believing that this would add to reader interest and attention.  The hard part was deciding where to separate the chapters, because previously, I didn’t worry much about that.  As a compromise, I have some material which relates to the topic of a preceding or a following chapter an the beginning or the end of some chapters, but I decided that this was a better solution than having some chapters as short as 6 or 7 pages.
  • Voices: Apart from the narrator, there are two other anonymous, contrarian voices.  I did not want their identity to be obvious, so I have reduced their roles.  But, at the same time, I wanted to reinforce the relevance of these voices to the characters, because they are part of the theme.  I’ve been doing this by having the characters make oblique references to the voices.
  • Characters: I have sharpened the characters so as to make their personalities more unique by having them do or say unusual things which are still in keeping with their individuality.  There are also two minor characters which are too neglected in the original manuscript.  As I’ve mentioned above, clarity of the character’s feelings is essential.  I’ve had to add passages which define the character’s thoughts or actions which reveal feelings, or something about their body language.  I’ve tried to avoid writing ‘the character felt . . .’, but I will let the narrator clarify the character’s feelings without using the word ‘feeling’.
  • Theme:  There is a theme based on Nietzsche which has to do with the development of the individual.  I felt that this theme was well introduced but faded in the later parts.  So, I’m bringing in reminders.
  • Dialog: I have been told that I write good, believable dialog, but I know it can be unnecessarily long.  There is a lot of pruning going on.
  • Unnecessary wording: Like the previous point, I have been unmerciful in deleting text which does not contribute to the reader’s understanding.
  • Time line: The story takes place over a period of about 15 years, but I sensed it was becoming difficult to keep a strict time line in order.  I’m deleting all references to sequence or the passage of time, believing that these milestones tend to be a distraction for the reader.
  • Consistency: I’ve found that I called a restaurant ‘Poseidon’ in the early chapters and ‘Neptune’ in later chapters.  I confess to being hopeless at remembering the names of people and places.  Similarly, in one chapter a terrorist organisation was called Dhul Fikar (Sword of the Prophet) and Dhul Fakir later.  The first spelling is correct.
  • Clichés: When one is reading aloud, clichés tend to reverberate, and they can be re-written
  • Inadequate words: Similarly, an adjective or a verb or even a noun can sound and feel inadequate in best defining the character’s feeling, the situation, or the setting.  Thesaurus to the rescue!
  • Typos: I’ve read the original manuscript three or four times, but I’ve still found (a few) typos!

Five Ways to Approach Revision

An article with the above title appeared in The Florida Writer, August edition; it was written by Mary Ann de Stefano who is the editor of the Writer.  She says in LinkedIn, “I am a word nerd with techie tendencies and a marketing bent, and I want you to believe in yourself and your writing.”  Through her website MAD about Words, she offers a number of services for writers.

Mary Ann de Stefano

What particularly interested me in her article is that I am on the verge of finishing my latest novel and I have a strong feeling that my work will benefit from a healthy does of editing (by me).

In the article Ms de Stefano says: “Literally revision means to ‘see again’.  But how do you see your writing from the detached perspective when you’ve been immersed in it?  Here are five ways you can approach revision with a fresh look at your manuscript.

1. Put it away.  Take the longest possible break between finishing your draft and revision.  Time away from your work will give you the intellectual, emotional and psychological distance you need to see it anew.  Unless your bound by a contest or contract deadline, let your book length work rest for six weeks or more.

2. Change the scenery.  If your habit is to write on a computer, print a hard copy of your manuscript for review.  Make the printout look different from the screen version by changing the font.  You might be surprised by how reading your work in Helvetica rather than Times New Roman changes not only how your eyes see the work, but how your mind sees it, too.  I know someone who had a bound book created from her manuscript on Lulu, which she said was cheaper than having it printed at one of the office supply stores.  She says looking at her work like a real book changed the way she read it.  She read quickly as she would a real book, and when she saw problem areas, she marked them quickly with a sticky note for later.  Then she went back through and reworked the areas that had caused her to stumble or pause on the first read.

3. Read it aloud.  Hearing your writing read aloud brings it out of your head and gives you a new opportunity to see it (hear it) with revitalized attention.  Read your manuscript aloud from beginning to end, even though a long work might take several days.  Resist the urge to stop and tinker with a sentence or a scene.  If you come across something that needs further work, mark it for further review and move on quickly.  You might try recording and playing back your reading or having a trusted friend or writing partner read the work to you.

4. Take a bird’s eye view.  Spread a chapter or two out on a long table- or on the floor –  so you can view each page individually.  Look at your pages from above.  See walls of unbroken text or dense paragraphs (all narrative?)  See pages with nothing but short loose paragraphs (all dialogue?)  See sections where all the paragraphs are virtually the same length?  Mark these sections for review, because they may indicate issues with balance between dialogue and narrative or problems with proportion, rhythm or pacing.

5. Do it again.  Retype your entire manuscript (or a problem chapter).  This tactile approach – going over your work word by word – is bound to spark new ideas.

Take the time to revise and revise again.  Resist the urge to seek unmitigated praise for a first draft or try to get others to ‘fix’ your work by sharing it with beta readers or sending it off to and editor.  Even the pros don’t get it ‘right’ the first time.”

My intention is to take all of Ms de Stefano’s advice (except no. 5) and I’ll add a sixth: work from a to do list.  As the writing has progressed, I’ve noticed some thematic issues, character development problems, and occasional bad writing habits that will need to be addressed.

Review: The Bestseller Code

I mentioned The Best Seller Code in my recent post of August 4th, where I commented on a review by Sandra Elliot for The Florida Writer.  Now, having read the book, I can give you my own reactions.

First, let me say that it is a ‘must read’ for aspiring novelists, not because it reveals all the secrets of creating a bestseller (which it doesn’t), but because it will give you insights into your own writing’s weaker points.  (Assuming that there are a few.)

One aspect of the book that I found frustrating at the outset was that there was no discussion about how the ‘almost five thousand ‘ novels which were read by computer were selected.  Five hundred to these (10%) were best sellers.  Presumably all genres were represented, but in what sort of distribution?  Equal balance of male and female writers?  How about the age and background of the authors?  (There are comments on the back grounds of best-selling authors.)  What about the authors’ nationalities?  (Although all are presumably English-speaking.)  There was no mention of the age distribution of the novels, although all of the bestsellers mentioned are recent novels.  To what extent do readers’ tastes change over time?  How about the type of publisher (traditional vs indie) and the marketing budget?

There are a number of examples of the characteristics of books which tend to make them best sellers, or not, and these, of course are helpful.  But the authors admit that their computer model is only 80% accurate in predicting whether a novel will be a bestseller.  The methodology of the authors’ research used three different mapping algorithms to compare hundreds of dimensions in ‘space’.  One dimension, for example, is the use of the word ‘very’.  It turns our that authors who use ‘very’ frequently in their text are less likely to produce bestsellers.  Particular dimensions may be quite influential in predicting bestsellers.  An example is ‘human closeness’.  The computer reads the text looking for words and arrangement of words which mean that the author is writing about human closeness.  It turns out that Fifty Shades of Grey was not a best seller because of its sexual content, but because of its human closeness.

The computer was 71% accurate in identifying the gender of the author.  Three genres that have difficulty achieving bestseller status are romance, science fiction and fantasy.

Some of the dimensions which contribute to good public acceptance include: emotional cycles; active, rather than passive characters; characters who need rather than wish for; author’s distinctive style (J K Rowling’s first incognito novel was recognised not by its subject but by her style).

Topics that readers like include: marriage, death, taxes (really), modern technology, funerals, guns, school, work, doctors, presidents, kids, moms, and the media.  Less popular subjects are: sex (except in a small erotic genre), big emotions, wheeling and dealing, existential or philosophical sojourns, dinner parties.

For me, the chapter on style was particularly interesting as it included a number of specific examples and commentary on why a particular style is effective.  I also believe that I need to work harder at bringing life to what my characters are feeling in subtle but effective ways.

Having said all this, I think it’s important to keep one vital point in perspective.  There are many award-winning novels which are clearly labours of love by their authors, memorable for their readers, and which never make the bestseller list.

 

Plotting Problems

There is an interesting article on the Writer’s Digest website, 11 Plot Pitfalls – And How To Rescue Your Story From Them, by Laura Whitcomb (born December 19, 1958), an American writer and teacher.  Whitcomb grew up in Pasadena, California. She received a degree in English from California State University in 1993.  She is best known for her book A Certain Slant of Light, which has been optioned for a film by Summit Entertainment. Whitcomb has won three Kay Snow awards and was runner-up in the Bulwer-Lytton Writing Contest.

Laura Whitcomb

Ms Whitcomb lists the pitfalls as follows:

1. THE PLOT ISN’T ORIGINAL ENOUGH.  It may be very similar to another story, play or movie.  When I write, I have an issue or two,  the setting, and the characters in mind before I start.  I also define the direction that the novel will take, but my novels tend not to be driven by a pre-conceived plot.

2. READERS ALWAYS KNOW EXACTLY WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN.  This can definitely be a problem is one is working with stereotypical characters and a familiar plot.  When I start a novel, I don’t know what’s going to happen.  It depends on how the characters (who have to be pretty unique) react to the issue(s) in their particular setting.  And often, I’ll take pains to shape the story so that the character goes down an unexpected path.

3. THE PLOT IS BORING.  “Often, after thinking of wild ideas to make the story more interesting, you begin to come up with workable ones that are just as stimulating, but better suited to your book.”  I agree.

4. THE PLOT IS ALL ACTION AND THE FRENZIED PACE NUMBS READERS. Ms Whitcomb makes the point that it is important to give the characters an opportunity to reflect on what has happened, consider what might happen, and express their feelings.  Real life isn’t all action.

5. THE PLOT IS TOO COMPLEX.  “Does your protagonist have to visit her father in the hospital twice—once to bring him flowers and talk about Mom, and then again to find he has taken a turn for the worse? Couldn’t he take a turn for the worse while she’s still there the first time? Does your villain need to have three motives for revenge? Would one or two be interesting enough?”

6. THE PLOT IS TOO SHALLOW.  “Ask yourself these questions: Why am I bothering to write this story? Why does the outcome matter to the characters? How do the characters change? How did my favorite book affect me the first time I read it?”

7. SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF IS DESTROYED.  “Readers need to buy into the reality put forward by what they’re reading. You may go too far with a plot point or not far enough with preparing your audience for that plot point.”  I think this is a very good point.  As a writer, one constantly has to ask, ‘is this believable?’  If not, something has to change.

8. TOO MANY SUBPLOTS MAKE THE PLOT OVERLY COMPLEX.  Only Agatha Christie could get away with this.

9. THE SEQUENCE IS ILLOGICAL. “If you feel the order of scenes or events in your story is off, list each scene on a separate index card and, in red ink, write a question mark on every card that doesn’t feel right where it is in the story. Shuffle the cards. I’m not kidding. Mix them up completely. Lay them out again in the order you think they might work best, giving special attention to those with red question marks.”  It’s important to feel the reaction of the reader at every point in the story.

10. THE PREMISE ISN’T COMPELLING.  “See where you might make the stakes higher, the characters more emotional, the setting more a part of the overall plot. Remember: The premise should make your readers curious.”

11. THE CONCLUSION IS UNSATISFYING.  “Do you have to create more suspense before you give the readers what they’ve been craving? Do you need to make the answer to the mystery clearer? Does the villain need to be angrier, or perhaps show remorse?”

I would add one more point: keep the suspense coming in waves.  This solves several of the problems mentioned above.

The First Scene

‘Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right’ is the title of an article in the February, 2017 issue of The Florida Writer.  The main point of the article is: don’t tell too much too soon.  It is written by Paula Munier who is Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist at Talcott Scott Literary Services.  She has experience as a journalist, editor, acquisition specialist, digital content manager, publishing executive, author and writing teacher. (!)

Paula Munier

She begins the article by mentioning that she moved from “sunny California” to the “Northeast, where winters can be brutal”, and she dreaded the prospect of beginning “a journey, even if it’s only to the grocery store – which means venturing out into sub-zero temperatures to a frigid vehicle that may or may not start.  It was a cold prospect I dreaded, until I happened upon two spectacular tools: remote car starters and heated car seats”.  These allow her to “slip into a warm seat in a warm vehicle with a warm engine and hit the road.  This is a beautiful thing.

“You want to do the same thing with your story.  Every reader starts a cold story, and you want to warm the reader up to your story as quickly as possible.  You want the reader to slip into a warm seat in a hot story with blazing beginning and take off for parts known only to you, the writer.”

She says, “One of the main reasons so many opening scenes fail is because the writer tries to tell too much about the story too soon.  ‘Tell’ is the critical word here.  The writer is telling – rather than showing – us the story.  Many scenes are overburdened with backstory, description, and the characters’ inner monologue, which leaves little room for the action that should be driving the story forward.”

Ms Munier then suggests an exercise to edit a beginning: mark up the text as follows:

  • mark the backstory text (what happened in the past) in blue
  • mark the description (of the setting, etc.) in pink
  • mark the inner monologue (the characters’ thoughts and feelings) in yellow

I don’t have coloured text on WordPress, but perhaps the reader would like to mark up the beginning several of my recent novels:

Seeking Father Khaliq:

“May I ask you, honoured Professor al-Busiri, if you will go to meet Princess Basheera?”

I looked up reluctantly from the student essay I was reading, and considered the bearing of the woman who had entered my office unannounced.  She was tall and slender, graceful; she was motionless, but there was a suggestion of incipient mobility.  She was dressed in a black naqib and a jilbab so that I could see only her dark eyes.  Her voice, however, had an optimistic lilt to it.  She must be about thirty, I thought.

Deliberately, I pushed the essay to one side.  “Who, may I ask, is Princess Basheera?”

“She is my employer, sir.”

“And what does this Princess Basheera want with me?”

“She has an assignment that only you can fulfil, Professor.”

This is very strange.  A young woman comes into my office at (I glanced at my watch) two thirty-six in the afternoon, and asks me to meet with a Princess Basheera (glad tidings), about whom I know nothing, to undertake an assignment, about which I also know nothing, but which, it is said, only I can undertake.

I closed my fountain pen, thinking for a moment.  “Can you give me a reason, madam, why I should say ‘yes’ to your request?  I have a full afternoon of work ahead of me, and I cannot afford the time to discuss university business.  That should be pursued through the office of administration.”
The woman nodded.  “I can assure you, Professor al-Busiri, this has nothing to do with university business.  Nor does Princess Basheera wish to sell you any product or service.  The assignment is related to your status as a renowned professor of philosophy.”

(Probably too much description and inner monologue)

Hidden Battlefields:

“There were two documents,” she confided, her eyes fixed on his across the table; “two documents that got him convicted.”

Robert nodded, urging her to continue.

She said, “Nobody testified against him, apparently.”

“What were the documents, Mary Jo?”

She sat back, and folded her arms across her chest.  She was wearing a pale blue cardigan with pearl buttons; only the top button was undone.  “Well . . .” she began and paused.

“I mean,” it was his turn to lean forward.  He looked around the busy Olive Tree restaurant that she had selected: it was near her work in Alexandria, Virginia.  No one seemed to be paying attention.  “Can you give me an unclassified version?”

“Well,” she said quietly, “one was a diagram of a centrifuge cascade.”

“A centrifuge cascade that’s used to make weapons-grade nuclear material?”

She nodded.

“How could that diagram get him convicted?”

“Because it had the actual levels of . . .”  She picked up her menu and seemed to be looking for the waitress.  To her menu, she confided: “. . . uranium enrichment on it.”

“Oh, I see, and the levels . . .”  He paused.  “. . . were much higher than anything the Iranians have announced.”

(Pretty good – no backstory, no inner monologue and very little description)

The Iranian Scorpion:

“So, I remind you of your father’s girlfriend?” Kate inquired with one eyebrow arched provocatively.

Robert was clearly enjoying this conversation. He leaned towards her, his hands clasped around the Gordon’s martini which rested on the hotel’s grey granite bar. “Yes, you do.” He watched her with a not-yet-predatory interest.

She, too, smiled, indicating her willingness to play the game. “In what way do I remind you of your father’s girlfriend?”

“Well . . .” he glanced briefly at the open button on her khaki shirt, then, he studied his martini. “Mary Jo is very good looking . . . and she has a rather nice figure . . . and she is a clever, out-going girl.”

“Girl?” Kate raised that eyebrow again, but this time it expressed scepticism. “If she’s your father’s girlfriend, wouldn’t the word ‘woman’ be more appropriate?”

“No. She’s my age.”

Kate sat back on her tall chair. “And how old would that be? – give or take a few years.”

“In my case it would be thirty-two; in Mary Jo’s, about thirty-four.”

Kate chuckled and took a sip of her white wine. “So the old man likes young skirt.”
He stirred the martini with his forefinger. “Yeah.” There was a note of resentfulness in his response.

(Again, pretty good: no backstory, no inner monologue, perhaps a little too much description.)

This strikes me as a pretty worthwhile exercise.

Writing Advice

On their website, The Writer’s Workshop say: “When you send your stuff off to an agent, 9 times out of 10 your work won’t actually be read. It’ll be ‘looked at’.  What does that mean? It means that an agent (or junior reader) will simply glance at the first page or two of your submission. In a large majority of cases, authors will give themselves away as amateurish in the opening chapter.  If you’re one of them, then the agent will read no further. Sure, the agent doesn’t know about your story, your characters, or your brilliant ideas. The fact is that if your writing style is poor, then those things are irrelevant.”  The website goes on to give lots of advice about writing style and techniques.  This makes sense: after all The Writer’ Workshop is selling their editorial services.  Their message is, ‘use our service and agents will read your manuscript’.

On the iUniverse website, there are tips from fiction authors, and I found it somewhat surprising that there were only two tips that mentioned writing style or technique.  These are:

“Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.” — Jonathan Franzen, and

“Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.” — Elmore Leonard

I wonder what Franzen means by ‘interesting verbs’.   If he means ‘unusual verbs’, why not say “Unusual verbs are seldom very effective”.  In which case, I agree.  I’m not sure Leonard’s advice is actually helpful.  What is ‘the knack of playing with exclaimers’?  And if there is a knack, why have a quota?

iUniverse is a self-publishing company, so maybe they want to be associated with important authors.  Anyway, here are some of the tips that caught my eye:

“In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.” — Rose Tremain  I agree!

“Always carry a note-book. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.” — Will Self   Maybe I should start carrying a notebook, but I doubt I would use it.

“It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” — Jonathan Franzen; and “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.” — Zadie Smith  I disagree.  If one is writing fiction that is intended to be’real’ in time and space, how can you do it without Google?  Unless, of course, ‘good fiction’ is not real in time and space.

“Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out—they can be got right only by ear).” — Diana Athill  I’ve got to do more of this.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov  Beautiful.

“The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply.” — Will Self   Very true.

“Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!” — Joyce Carol Oates   A necessity.

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” — Neil Gaiman   True, except for publishers’ editors.

“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.” — Neil Gaiman  This sums it up.

 

Writing Every Day

There is an article on How to Write Every Day by Leo Babauta in the February issue of The Florida Writer.  I found it interesting to compare my experiences with his.  Leo Babauta is a ‘simplicity blogger’ and author.  He created zenhabits.net, a Top 25 blog with a million readers. ‘Zen Habits is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness’. He is a best-selling author, husband and father of six children.  In 2010 he moved from Guam to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Leo Babauta

Mr Babauta says “I write (a) journal, blog posts, courses for my Sea Change program, books and e-books.  For fun, I’ve written 50,000 words of a novel NaNoWriMo, and another year I wrote 110,000.  For years, I wrote newspaper articles and opinion columns.”

For me, writing consists of writing about 125,000 word novels and 50 blog posts per year.  The motivation for me to write is the joy of creation, and not – as a retiree – my means of making a living.

Mr Babauta lists the following benefits of writing every day:

  1. My writing skills have improved with the years
  2. I’m able to write faster, type faster, with so much more practice
  3. I can clarify my thinking better because of writing regularly
  4. I able to think from the reader’s perspective, which helps me in a lot of life situations
  5. I am forced to reflect on my life, which deepens my learning
  6. I am forced to figure out how to motivate myself to write regularly
  7. I learn to create a regular practice, as I do with meditation, exercise and eating healthily
  8. I learn to overcome perfection and put things out there to be judged, which helps me to embrace failure and messiness
  9. I learn to overcome distraction and procrastination.

I agree with most of his benefits, but since I do not write for a living, I am not forced to write regularly.  Typically, I write for about three hours, four days a week; this leaves time for my pro bono charity consulting, exercise, household chores, etc.  With respect to number 8, I think that most novelists strive for perfection.  We get one chance to impress our readers: when the novel is published; it is not a give and take business in the way that blog creation is.

Mr Babauta lists these actions writers can take to write daily:

  1. Most important: Have a good reason. . . . “If it’s because is sounds fun, sounds cool, sounds nice, you’ll abandon it when you face discomfort. If you want to do it to help someone else, to make the world a better place, to lift someone’s spirits, to reduce your pain, to find a way to express your deeper self, then you can call on this deeper reason when things get difficult.”  (I agree completely)
  2. Block off undistracted time.  “All you need is ten minutes a day.  But you have to block off those ten minutes.”  (I agree about undistracted time, but for me, anything less than an hour is insufficient.  I find that I need to get in touch with the feel of the novel, and ten minutes certainly isn’t enough.)
  3. Don’t let  yourself forget (the time you’ve set aside).              (This isn’t a problem for a seasoned novelist: there is a passion to keep going!)
  4. Do it in a sprint.  “Some people think they need to write for an hour or two to make it count.  But a task that big will seem daunting.”     (Two hours isn’t daunting at all, if you’re committed to writing several hundred pages.)
  5. Practice mindfulness.  “You can treat writing as meditation.  It’s a way to put everything aside but you and the writing, to let your thoughts become words on the page. ”     (I agree completely!)
  6. Practice gratitude.  “As you practice mindfulness, notice the awesomeness of this moment of self-expression.”   (Right on!)
  7. Embrace imperfection.  “Writing is about letting go of our ideals, and just doing anyway, even if we can’t have perfection.”   (This is a difficult one for a writer of literary fiction.  One concedes that achieving perfection is impossible, and one knows that it’s counter productive to fuss too long over a phrase or passage, but ultimately, that phrase of passage has to feel ‘right’.  Edit, edit, edit.)
  8. Don’t let your mind run away (for a little while).  “Your mind will want to run away from writing.  This is normal.  The mind doesn’t like uncertainty and discomfort. . . . Don’t run.”    (This is what’s known as ‘writer’s block’.  The more one writes, the less of a problem it becomes.)