The Careful Writer: Common Pitfalls of the Beginning Novelist: Part 2–Language

painted leavesHere are five things that I guarantee will improve your story:

  1. Voice: This is the feel and tone that applies to the overall book (narrative voice) and to each character. The overall voice is dictated by your audience, who you’re writing for: youth, adults, etc. It’s important to give each character a distinctive “voice” (including use of distinct vernacular, use of specific expressions or phrases, etc.). This is one way a reader can identify a character and find them likeable—or not. In a manuscript I recently reviewed, I noticed that the characters spoke in a mixture of formal and casual speech. This confuses the reader and bumps them out of the “fictive dream”. Consistency is very important for readers. They will abandon a story whose writing is not consistent. So, my advice to this writer was to pick one style for each character and stick to it. Voice includes what a character says. It incorporates language (both speech and body movements), philosophy, humor. How a character looks, walks, talks, laughs, is all part of this. Let’s take laughter for instance: does your character tend to giggle, titter, chortle, gafaw, belly-laugh? Do any of your characters have conflicts with one another? Either through differences in opinions, agendas, fears, ambitions… etc. One learns so much from the kind of interaction a character has with his/her surroundings (whether it’s another character or a scene).
  2. Point of View (POV): Many beginner’s novels are often told through no particular POV. Many first manuscripts often start in the omniscient POV (that of the narrator) and ever so often may lapse into one of the character’s POV briefly. This makes for very “telling vs showing” type of writing (not to mention being inconsistent again). 90% of writers do not write this way because it tends to be off-putting, it distances the reader from the characters, and is very difficult to achieve and be consistent with. Most writers prefer to use limited third person POV (told from one or a few key characters; that is, you get into the head and thoughts of only a few people: all the observations are told through their observations, what they see, feel and think). This bonds the reader to your characters and makes for much more compelling reading. I would highly suggest you adopt this style. That’s not to say that you can’t use several POVs… just not at the same time; it is the norm to use chapter or section breaks to change a POV.
  3. Passive vs. Active Verbs: beginners often use a lot of passive verbs (e.g., were, was, being, etc.). Some use too may modifiers. Try to find more active verbs. Many writers fall into the pattern of using verbs that are weak and passive (and then adding a modifier to strengthen it…it doesn’t). Actively look for strong, vivid verbs. This is a key to good writing. I can’t emphasize this enough. For instance, which version is more compelling: ‘she walked quickly into the room’ or ‘she stormed into the room’?
  4. Show, don’t tell: this is partly a function of POV and use of active verbs. Once you change to 3rd person, much of this will naturally resolve itself. An example of telling vs. showing is this: [He was in a rage and felt betrayed. “You lied, Clara,” he said angrily, grabbing her hand.] instead, you could show it: [His face smoldered. “You lied, Clara,” he roared, lunging for her.] Telling also includes large sections of exposition, either in dialogue or in narrative. This happens a lot in beginning writer’s stories. It takes courage and confidence to say less and let the reader figure it out. Exposition needs to be broken up and appear in the right place as part of the story. Story is paramount. “Telling” is one of the things beginning writers do most and editors will know you for one right away. Think of the story as a journey for both writer and reader. The writer makes a promise to the reader that s/he will provide a rip-roaring story and the reader comes on side, all excited. This is done through a confident tease in the beginning and slow revelation throughout the story to keep it compelling. Exposition needs to be very sparingly used, dealt out in small portions.
  5. Unclutter your writing: There is a Mennonite adage that applies to writing: “less is more”. Sentences in early works tend to be full of extra words (e.g., using “ing” verbs, add-ons like “he started to think” instead of simply “he thought”). Cut down the words in your paragraphs (often in the intro chapters) by at least 20%. Be merciless; you won’t miss them, believe me, and you will add others later in your second round of edits.

 

This is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire)

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Story and Metaphor in Art Form: How Writing and Painting Whisper or Shout Their Truths

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world—C.S. Lewis

conifers in the mistA short while ago I painted on a canvas for the first time in over twenty years…okay, thirty years. It was a thrilling experience but also refreshing and freeing to use a different medium to express myself and tap into that place—that force—that resides inside us and speaks to us.

Part of the thrill was that I was being coached by a good friend of mine who is a master painter and teacher. What’s interesting is that while she instructed me on some of the painting methods, it struck us both how many similarities existed in composition, technique and structure between visual art and storytelling.

Take direction, for instance. A writer uses plot and subplots to move a story and its characters through a textured and colored tapestry of theme. According to my friend, every painting flows, often directionally (like many photographs) from the lower left to upper right, leading the eye from one place to another, exploring a theme, idea or emotion. Plot is motion. So is the paint brush.

You think only writers tell stories. Well, look again at visual art. Every work of art expresses an artist’s feelings, thoughts and emotions; an artist’s story. We are all stories, after all, and we all have many stories inside us. The writer’s medium is the word; the painter’s is the visual image. Isn’t it a truism that a picture is worth a thousand words? The range and type of story varies equally in both media. For instance, writing ranges from poetry or poetic prose (e.g., Ulysses by James Joyce) that requires substantial interpretation to allegory (obvious symbols) or creative non-fiction (like this blog post) whose artistry lies mostly in its composition and reporting style. Paintings also display a range from the poetry of abstract or surrealistic art (e.g., the surrealism of Salvadore Dali), which requires more interpretation, to realistic “photographic” art whose interpretation lies more in its composition (e.g., the detailed realism of Tomislav Tikulin).

The “language” that writers and painters use finds its parallels in form, structure and intent.

For example, let’s take metaphor. The writer uses one concept or image to evoke the feeling of another; “raining cats and dogs” for instance. The painter can evoke the feeling of one medium with another, achieving the same effect through metaphor—producing a stronger more compelling image through oblique metaphor and another perspective. For instance, a painter using acrylics may evoke the tone and emotion of a watercolor by using soft brushstrokes or another medium (e.g., using a sponge or cloth to apply the paint) and lighter softer colors to achieve that signature wash.

A story’s depth is achieved through animating three-dimensional characters that reflect a multi-layered theme. A painting’s depth works through the dance of light, shadows and textures and the use of techniques like fading and detail. Chiaroscuro in story and in painting play on contrast, perspective and the interplay of light and color to pull the viewer and reader deep into the artwork.

Painters echo elements from one part of a painting to another to make it cohesive and provide a “complete” piece that is ultimately satisfying to the viewer. Painters do this by using repeated elements like shapes, curves, and color schemes to get the same flow, or using a faded version of a similar image elsewhere. Techniques that writers use to achieve the same echoing effects for a satisfying story include parallel plotting, mirrored plots, framing (particularly of story promise with climax and dénouement), and themed beginnings and endings.

You’ve heard of writer’s block? There’s also painter’s block; the painter staring at the white canvas, paint brush poised to make that first stroke. Luckily, there’s something called painting-over the dry; not unlike editing a paragraph using the control-shift “x” and “v” key on the computer. Writers continually revise their first drafts, cutting out extraneous exposition and adding thematic details. The writer’s revision process is all about fine-tuning, simplifying and polishing. Painters also “edit” their art through similar means. We even use similar language for both media: “polishing”, “adding color”, “making it flow”, “adding texture”, etc.

conifers in the mistEvery artist is a reporter of life and truth; every artist chooses the medium that best expresses his or her art. I started out in the visual arts. I was all ready to pursue a fine arts degree in university to become a commercial artist. Then, right on registration day, I opted out of art altogether and went into the science program. Heck, I went all the way to getting a Masters of Science degree, taught university science courses and consulted in the environment. Now, here I am writing science fiction and eco-fiction and teaching writing to engineers and scientists and science fiction writers. Cool, how we choose our path…

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Moving From Prosaic to Spectacular

woman-writing-a-bookWhat makes some writing stunning and other writing lackluster? Mostly, it’s the language—the words—you use. And, it isn’t just what words you use; it’s how you use them. Here are a few things you need to consider when translating your work into something that “sings”.

Use Active Verbs and Reduce Modifiers

Many writers, not just beginners, slide into the pattern of using passive and weak verbs (e.g., were, was, being, etc.). Then they add a modifier to strengthen it. It doesn’t. Actively look for strong, vivid verbs. This is the key to good writing. Active and powerful verbs move a story forward. For instance, which version is more compelling?

Jill was walking quickly into the room.

or…

Jill stomped into the room.

The second example not only more quickly and efficiently demonstrates how Jill entered the room, but demonstrates with what attitude. There is no substitute for the use of powerful, appropriate verbs in sentences.   

Avoid Excessive & Meaningless Prose

Novice writers often use too many words to describe an event, action or scene. An overabundance of words slows down the story and obscures plot and action. Excessive prose includes:

Repetition: many beginning writers will often first tell then show in a scene. You don’t need to do both; trust the reader to get the “show”.

Extraneous words: e.g. “he started to think” instead of “he thought”; use of the obvious such as “she saw the big man lying on the bed” instead of “a big man lay on the bed” (“she saw” is implied through her POV). This second example also demonstrates how you can shift the readers’ attention from “her seeing” (in the first phrase) to “the man lying” on the bed (in the revised phrase). This simple change can create a much more powerful sentence through the seamless shift in reader attention.

Dull description not related to plot: I recently edited a writer’s over 400-page urban fantasy that contained far too much ordinary detail. Detail that, in small doses, may have enlightened the reader on the qualities of the protagonist; but in larger doses ground the narrative to a boring halt.

When you look for a more efficient and purposeful way to say something, you cut out unnecessary detail. Remember that virtually all description should be related to the plot and theme of the story.

Alliteration, Metaphor, Simile, Personification

These devices bring lyricism and cadence and powerful imagery to your prose. However, as with anything powerful, you need to use these judiciously. Use them where you wish to convey a strong image and to punctuate your prose.

Be Mindful of Word Accuracy

More often than you might think, a writer inadvertently misuses a word to convey an idea or emotion. For instance, let’s consider the following sentence, which describes a character’s reaction to a dog being cruelly mishandled:

“What are they doing?” Jack said crossly.

The modifier crossly suggests that Jack lacks compassion; it infers petulant annoyance.

“What are they doing?” Jack scowled.

Scowled still suggests the same icy disdain, though it may have been delivered with false bravado or through genuine discomfort from a hidden compassion. If the writer wished to convey shock, disgust or compassion, the following would better represent that sentiment:

“What are they doing?” Jack said, eyes wide.

Or:

“What are they doing?” Jack stammered.

Avoid Using Words like “Felt” or “Seem”

These “telly” words prevent the reader from directly experiencing the story by imposing a level of interpretation. For example, “he felt himself falling” can be improved to “he fell”. If you want to spice up the phrase, use another verb: “he toppled” “he stumbled” or “he crashed”.

Read your Writing Aloud & Punctuate Your Pauses

It isn’t just a clever metaphor when they say your writing style is called your “voice”; because your readers “listen” to what you write. Reading out loud helps define cadence, tone and pace of your prose and streamlines your writing. When you read aloud, pay attention to where you naturally pause. You may wish to put in a comma, semi-colon or period there.

Size and Vary Your Paragraphs  

Paragraphs are visual elements that help people read; they break up text on a page in logical places to provide white space for reader ease. I’ve heard people quote the “two-inch” rule for maximum paragraph length and I concur. This is one of the reasons some passages are harder to read than others; long paragraphs are more tiring to the eye. Find those logical breaks and put them in. Varying paragraph length creates a more interesting story “landscape” for the reader. Don’t be afraid to go to some extremes like using the one sentence – or even one word – paragraph.

Size and Vary Your Sentences  cool texture

As with paragraphs, overly long sentences can try a reader’s patience and you may lose them entirely. Too many short choppy sentences can also reduce your prose to a mundane level. Varying your sentence length in a paragraph creates the lyricism and cadence that makes prose enjoyable to read.

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.