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.

The Careful Writer: Common Pitfalls of the Beginning Novelist: Part 1–Characters

painted leavesHave you ever wondered how an editor decides not to read your cherished tome past the second paragraph of the first page and has pegged you as a beginning writer? This used to really bug me… Now, as a published author, mentor, and writing coach I read a lot of unpublished manuscripts. I now recognize what these editors do.

So, I’d like to share what I’ve learned over the years (some of the very same comments that have been made of my work, I am now sharing with you). I’ll be providing you my advice in three parts: 1) characters; 2) language; and 3) structure.

Let’s start with characters, since they are in my opinion, the most important part of a novel:

Characters carry the theme of the book. Each character needs to have a role in advancing the plot and/or theme; each character needs a reason to be there. A character therefore needs to be distinctive and usually shows some character development (as story arc) from beginning to end of story. Your characters are the most important part of your book (more so than the plot or premise). Through them your book lives and breathes. Through them your premise, your plot (which is essentially just a way to create problems for your characters to live out their development) and story come alive. Through them you achieve empathy and commitment from the reader and his/her willingness to keep reading to find out what’s going to happen next: if the reader doesn’t invest in the characters, they won’t really care what happens next.

Characters need to be real. They come to life by giving them individual traits and real weaknesses and heroic qualities that are consistent and have qualities readers can recognize and empathize with. You play these against each other to achieve drama. For instance, a man who is afraid of heights but who must climb a mountain to save his love is far more compelling than one who is not; a military man who fears responsibility but must lead his team into battle; a scientist who is afraid of failure; etc.

Characters of beginning writers often suffer from lack of distinction, or purpose, and often simply clutter up a story. For a character to “come alive” their “voice” must be distinct. Give them distinctive body movements, dress, facial features and expressions that reveal character, inner feelings, emotions, fears, motivations, etc. Then keep them consistent. There are several techniques writers use to increase empathy for a character. This includes use of third person POV, keeping the story with focus on fewer rather than many characters, creating character dossiers and keeping them consistent, providing each character a distinctive “voice” (figuratively), as in how they behave, say, react, etc. Another way to make your characters distinct (and works to also tie into plot and theme) is to make your characters not get along. Make them argue, disagree (at least!), have suspicions, betray one another, laugh and ridicule, etc. By doing this you increase tension, conflict (two things every book requires) and you enlighten the reader into each of the characters involved. Make them fight or argue over what they believe in – or not. You need to describe your characters in effective brief but vivid language as the reader encounters them.

Here are some questions you need to ask about your characters:

  1. if I can remove the character, will the book fall apart? (if not, you don’t need that character; they aren’t fulfilling a role in the book);
  2. how does the character portray the major or minor theme of the book? (that’s what characters are there for)
  3. what is the role of the character? (e.g., protagonist, antagonist, mentor, catalyst, etc.)
  4. what is the story arc of the character? Does he or she develop, change, do they learn something by the end? If not, they will be two-dimensional and less interesting
  5. what major obstacle(s) must the character overcome?
  6. who are your major protagonist(s) (the main character who changes the most)?
  7. who are your major antagonist(s) (those who provide trouble for your protagonists, the source of conflict, tension, the obstacle: one of their own?
  8. what’s at stake: for the world (plot); for each individual (Theme) and how do these tie together? Every character has a role to fulfill in the plot and to other characters. Don’t be afraid to totally remove characters if they do not fulfill a role.

To summarize, each character is there for a purpose and this needs to be made apparent to the reader (intuitively through characterization, their failings, weaknesses, etc.). Make them bleed, hurt, cry, feel. This needs to be clear to the reader, who wants to empathize with some of them and hate others. How characters interact with their surroundings and each other creates tension, a key element to good storytelling. Tension, of course builds further with the additional conflict of protagonist with antagonists. But, in truth, it’s more fun to read about the tension from WITHIN a group that’s supposed to be together. Think of Harry Potter and what was juicy there… It wasn’t really Voldemort … it was what went on at Hogwarts between Harry and his friends and not-so-friends. That is what makes a story memorable; that is what makes a story something you can’t put down until you’ve finished it.

Part 2 of the Beginning Novelist will focus on language.

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.

 

 

The Careful Writer: Commonly Misused Terms

nina-LL-interviewWhen I first started writing stories — a while ago — I knew that I was a poor speller, had generally bad syntax and often misused grammar. Someone, who believed in my capacity to tell a good story, despite my shortcomings in delivery, handed me a slim copy of Stunk and White’s classic guide The Elements of Style. This elegant 105 page book includes elementary rules of usage; elementary principles of composition; a few matters of form; words and expressions commonly misused; and an approach to style.

It is “…still a little book, small enough and important enough to carry in your pocket, as I carry mine,” said Charles Osgood. And it has helped me out of a few messes. Let’s look at some examples of commonly misused words and expressions. These words and expressions, Strunk and White tell us, “are not so much bad English as bad style, the commonplaces of careless writing.” Being mindful of our language and our style can often make the difference in a publisher’s or editor’s perception of our professionalism.

Here are some of my favorites, in some cases more because of Strunk and White’s pithy comments than from the actual utility of the advice. Have you used any of these?

Allude: not to confuse with elude. You allude to a book; you elude a pursuer.

Allusion: easily confused with illusion. The first means “an indirect reference”; the second means “an unreal image” or “false impression”.

As to whether: whether is sufficient.

Being: not appropriate after regard…as. For instance, go from “she is regarded as being the best writer” to “she is regarded as the best writer.”

But: unnecessary after doubt and help. For instance, go from “I have no doubt but that…” or “She could not help but…” to “I have no doubt that…” and “She could not help…”

Compare: to compare to points out the similarity between objects regarded as different (as in most metaphor); to compare with points out the differences between objects that are similar. For instance, life may be compared to a pilgrimage; Paris may be compared with London (another large city) but compared to a movable feast. Nina: some modern linguists consider these interchangeable and do not distinguish the metaphoric elements of comparison. I concur with Strunk and White.

Comprise: literally means embrace. A zoo comprises mammals, reptiles and birds — because it embraces or includes them. The animals do not comprise a zoo — they constitute one.

Disinterested: means “impartial”. Do not confuse with “uninterested” which means “not interested in”. You bring in a disinterested (impartial) person to judge a dispute; another may be uninterested (couldn’t care less) about the dispute.

Effect: noun means “result”, and as a verb means “to accomplish”; not to be confused with “affect” which means “to influence”.

Farther/further: farther refers to distance and further refers to time.

Finalize: called a pompous and ambiguous verb by Strunk and White, I must confess using it many times in my other life as a consultant in business. Every segment of our society adopts its own vernacular of offbeat, “jargon” words and expressions that are regarded to help the flow of business. Another example that comes to mind is the use of dialogue as a verb. When using vernacular of any kind, be mindful that it is appropriate to your character, situation and story.

Imply/infer: not interchangeable. To imply is to suggest or indicate but not overtly express; to infer is to deduce from available evidence.

Interesting: Strunk and White suggest that this is, in fact, an uninteresting word, given that it tends to label and “tells” rather than letting the writer “show”. For instance, instead of using “an interesting tale of …” avoid the preamble and simply make it interesting! Let the reader judge. Telling them won’t make it so. This applies also to any letters you write to publishers and editors; avoid telling them your story is funny or interesting. Show it in your description.

Less: don’t use instead of fewer. Less refers to quantity; fewer to number. For instance “his troubles are less than mine” means they are of less magnitude; while “his troubles are fewer than mine” means he has a small number of troubles.

Nice: means everything and nothing. Use it sparingly and judiciously with intention; in other words, to be purposefully vague as in conversation. Strunk and White define it as a “shaggy, all purpose word”.

One of the most: Strunk and White define this phrase as a “feeble formula” that is threadbare, invites cliché and adds little except words to narration.

Personalize: Strunk and White dismiss it as a “pretentious word, often carrying bad advice. Do not personalize your prose,” they say, “simply make it good and keep it clean.” I agree. It falls under jargon.

Prestigious: “it’s in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it,” say our prestigious experts. Sorry … couldn’t help myself.

That/which: that is the defining (restrictive) pronoun; which is non-defining. For instance, 1) the lawnmower that is broken is in the garage (tells us which one); 2) the lawnmower, which is broken, is in the garage (gives us an additional fact about the lawnmower).

While: many writers use it indiscriminately for and, but and although. It can be efficiently replaced by a semi-colon (e.g., change “the girl stood by the door, while the man stood next to the couch.” to “the girl stood by the door; the man stood next to the couch.”). While is best used to mean “during the time that”.

salt depositsReferences:

Strunk, William and E.B. White. 2000. “The Elements of Style” (Fourth edition). Longman. New York. 105 pp.

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.

The Careful Writer: Some Notes on Composition

nina-LL-interviewe-closeDuring my recent reread of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style”, this little book yielded more good advice that I wish to share with you.

“The shape of our language is not rigid,” they tell us. “We have no lawgiver whose word is final.” This is because language is fluid and ever-evolving as the artist’s tool of communication. The artist interprets the world; the writer interprets the language to reflect it.

And yet, a basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. To be effective, Strunk and White assert, “writing must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.”

In some cases the best design is no design at all (as in a love letter or a casual essay, which is an acceptable stream of conscious flow). But, in most cases—particularly in “storytelling”—planning helps. The first principle of composition is “to determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.”

Jack Bickham, author of Elements of Writing Fiction: Scene and Structure reminds us that, “a thorough understanding and use of fiction’s classic structural patterns frees the writer from having to worry about the wrong things and allows her to concentrate her imagination on characters and events.” Structure, explains Bickham, is the internal part of the story, like the braces of your house; while form is external, what you do with the structure. Structure and form link to construct “story” in a series of scenes that “interconnect in a very clear way to form a long narrative with linear development form posing the story question at the outset to the answering of that question at the climax.”

Strunk and White discuss twenty-two elementary principles of basic composition. Here are a few choice ones.

The 14th Elementary Principle: Use the Active Voice

The active voice is often more direct and vigorous than the passive. Strunk and White note that activating a sentence not only makes it stronger but shorter. “Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor,” they say. Here’s one of their examples:

Passive: My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.

Passive, indefinite: My first visit to Boston will always be remembered.

Active: I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.

Activating the verb breathes life into the sentence, gives it motion and direction, and empowers both subject and object.

The 15th Elementary Principle: Put Statements in Positive Form

Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating and noncommittal language. “Use the word ‘not’ as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.” Here are a few examples:

Negative Positive
He was not very often on time. He usually came late.
She did not think that studying Latin was a sensible way to use one’s time. She thought the study of Latin a waste of time.

The 16th Elementary Principle: Use Definite, Specific, Concrete Language

Prefer “the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract,” they say. The surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite and concrete. The greatest writers use words that call up pictures. The key is to know what details matter.

Author Jordan Rosenfeld describes your novel as a world in which your reader enters and wants to stay in for a while. You make it easy for the reader by adding concrete details for her to envision and relate to. Ground your readers in vivid setting, rich but unobtrusive detail. Don’t abandon your characters to a generic, vague and prosaic setting, drinking “beverages” and driving “vehicles” on “roads”; instead, brighten up their lives by having them speed along Highway 66 in a 1959 red Corvette, sipping a Pinot Noir.

The 17th Elementary Principle: Omit Needless Words

“Vigorous writing is concise,” Strunk and White tell us. Ray Bradbury once told me that “every word counts” in a story, from the name of your character to the verb you use to activate and give direction to your sentence. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts,” say Strunk and White. Activating your verbs is one excellent way to invigorate your sentences. Strunk and White provide several common expressions that violate concise writing.

Original                                Just use…
The question as to whether Whether
There is no doubt but that No doubt
Used for fuel purposes Used for fuel
In a hasty manner Hastily
The reason why is that Because
Her story is a strange one Her story is strange

How about the term the fact that? Strunk and White go into some detail with this rather pesky term. Here are a few examples:

·       I was unaware of the fact that ·       I was unaware that
·       Call your attention to the fact that ·       Notify you
·       In spite of the fact that ·       Although
·       The fact that he had not succeeded ·       His failure

References:

Bickham, Jack. 1993. Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene and Structure. Writer’s salt depositsDigest Books. Cincinnati, Ohio.

Strunk, William Jr. and E.B. White. 2000. The Elements of Style. Fourth ed. Longman. New York, NY. 105pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 166pp.

Rosenfeld, Jordan E. 2008. “Novel Revision for the Faint of Heart”. In: Writer’s Digest. February, 2008.

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.