Saturday, 19 March 2016

3 Not-Obvious Writing Gremlins that Can Really Mess up Your Stories

The world of writing is awash with rules, and some are shouted louder and more often than others. Never use adverbs, avoid passive voice like the Ebola virus, show don't tell, etcetera etcetera... if you haven't heard these at least once in your life before, trust me, you will the moment you emerge from the nuclear bunker you must have been living in up until now.

Of course rules aren't always a bad thing. The three above are actually good, when used sensibly and as and when applicable rather than obeyed 100% of the time, forever to the power of infinity. In terms of writing they were invented for quality control, to help writers create the best work they could so that readers could have the best experience... well, reading it. And that, ultimately, is what us writers strive for (isn't it?)

But some of the little glitches that crop up in stories don't really fall into the category of 'rules.' They're more like gremlins, i.e. only a problem in certain circumstances (like - um, getting them wet or feeding them after midnight? Okay, bad analogy...)

At first glance, you may look at the following list and, for at least some of them, think "Seriously? Who's going to notice that?" But that's how they do their damage. Readers - especially readers who aren't writers, and therefore haven't been bombarded with a metric tonne of rules and regs about writing - will still feel their effects, but they won't know why. 'I don't know, something about the way it was written just irked me,' is the usual vibe that's communicated by those who tossed a book aside because they just "couldn't get into it," or "it bored me." Leaving aside examples like those who try to read a Barbara Cartland novel when they hate Romantic Fiction,  many readers feel this way because something in the writing keeps knocking them out of the story world and back into the I'm-reading-a-book world. And these little gremlins might not be obvious, even to the reader, but they're there....

1 - Oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah.... jeez, this tune is boring.

We all know about the umpteenth Deadly Writing Sin of Repetition. Poor old E.L. James got called out on it in her Fifty Shades series, with her heroine's 'Inner Goddess'-ing and 'Oh My'-ing. (Every writer in the history of forever has that problem by the way, before we all get too smug. The only difference between us is how ruthlessly we edit our pet phrases out of our work before it sees the light of day.) Other variations on this theme include overuse of the same type of body language; that permanently windswept hero might fuss with his hair in a million different ways, but when he does it to express every emotion he ever has, in every possible circumstance... well, he's got bigger problems than just looking like a raging narcissist. These types of repetition are obvious, because the words are acting more like pictures for the reader, and they're seeing that same damn picture over and over again.

But a more subtle form of repetition is more like music, in that it messes with the rhythm of sentences - most often dialogue, over paragraphs, scenes and even whole chapters. It's a bit like listening to a Black Lace song (click on that link at your own risk.) Once you've heard one verse and a chorus you really don't feel a need to hear any more... but still it goes on... It happens when you use the same sentence structure for each line of dialogue, over and over again. Here are some examples:

"I never killed your wombat," said Jane.
"But you were the last one to see him alive," said Tom.
"That doesn't mean I killed him," said Jane.
"Jane loved Flopsy like her own child," said Barry.

"Well," said Mary, "how are we going to open this tub of Pringles?"
"We can't," said Harry, "when both of us have broken our nails."
"I wish," said Mary, "we'd never gone to that cowboy manicurist."
"But then again," said Harry, "she did give us great spray-tans."

John straightened his tie. "I'll show that clown mascot who's boss," he said.
Susan patted his arm. "Ronald McDonald won't know what hit him," she said, smiling.
Ted picked up the briefcase. "You're supposed to meet him at noon. What time is it now?"
Miranda looked at her watch. "Eleven twenty-five," she said.

Did you feel the plodding rhythm as you read them? Each example may have had different approaches to where they put the dialogue tag/action beat, but they were always in the same place, over and over again. After just a couple of lines it starts to sound like a nursery rhyme, which is only fine if that's what you're writing. To avoid this effect, it's better to mix and match where you put your tags and beats (and indeed, miss them out entirely when it's obvious who's speaking anyway.) However, this can be difficult when you have more than two people in conversation at once, and is when Example 3 is most likely to occur. Readers need to know exactly which character is saying which lines of dialogue, and in cases where a two-plus group aren't 'taking turns' to speak, putting the tag/beat anywhere other than right at the beginning of the dialogue can feel too late to impart that vital information. Making your characters' speech patterns more distinct is the key to this problem, so readers can guess by the tone and word usage who's talking. And you can cheat it a little bit by having a couple of non-tagged back-and-forths between two characters every now and then before letting a third jump in. You can also mix up Example 2 and Example 3 placements; as long as the dialogue before the tag/beat is short (just one or two words) the reader won't have to wait too long to figure out who's talking.

2 - "What did you do to the house, Honey?"

 'For weeks Hermione had been coming in through the front door and flopping straight onto her living-room sofa after a hard day's work at TaxidermyRUs. Until that fateful day... she magically acquired a hallway! It wasn't there before, but at some point between the end of Chapter Five and the beginning of Chapter Six the Builder Fairies paid a secret visit, and now she has to navigate an entire new set of interior architecture before she even sees her beloved sofa. As if she didn't have enough problems, what with the gravity-warp from that giant wormhole threatening to swallow up Chingford in less than a week from now...'

Do not think for a minute that readers won't notice something like that. There are Star Trek fans out there who complain when one of the redshirts has 'the wrong insignia for their rank' on their uniform, so you betcha life there'll be readers who notice when you doof up with the layout of your settings. Of course there'll be many who don't, but for those who do it not only yanks them out of your story-world as they try to recalibrate, but they lose a little trust in you as an author. After all, if you can't get little things like that right, how are you going to get us to the finale of this novel in one piece?

If you have real-life settings in your story your job is slightly easier, since there are ready-made photos, maps and even floor plans of most places thanks to the wonder of sites like Google. For made-up locations, you'll need to draw your own maps. Yes you will, don't look at me like that. I've had to draw my own map of the secret underground base in Redemption, so that a) I could figure out where all the different areas should be and b) so I can then remember where I've put them. I spent hours on that map and looked at it loads of times since, but even now I still have to refer to it to find out if, say, my characters really would have to walk past the lab to get from the mess hall to the library.

Obviously it's nice to get all that info right first time... but you won't, so don't sweat it on the early drafts. Make it a bona fide editing pass in its own right later on, where you can go through a more polished draft looking specifically for those kinds of doofs. You'll be glad you did - and so will any eagle-eyed Trekkers who read your work. (Not 'Trekkies,' by the way. They don't like that, apparently.)

3 - Behold, the amazing multi-tasking superpowers of Octopus-Man!

'Kargo the Barbarian hacks and slashes his way across the battlefields of Doodah, his battered shield smeared with goblin blood and his sword all covered in entrails. When he finally storms his way into Castle Dropnuts he spies the fair lady Britnea, and is overcome with love for her. "Fair lady," he says, "forgive me for my intrusion. I may be naught but a lowly Barbarian, but I am still capable of rocking your world. Please accept this gift as a token of my love." She gasps and blushes as he presents her with a single, perfect red rose...'

Whoa, hang on a minute, where did that come from? Was he hiding that rose up his kilt somewhere? (And with all those thorns.... ooh, doesn't bear thinking about...) And what happened to his hulking great sword and shield?

Okay, that was a bit of a daft example, but sometimes when a character has a prop of some kind and there's a long portion of action or dialogue happening, it can be easy to forget that, until you say otherwise, they're still holding and probably even using that prop. The same thing can happen with having them do some mildly strenuous activity like chopping wood for the stove outside the front door, and then in the next moment they're somehow in a chair on the porch, chillaxing and cracking open a beer.

It happens most often when you have long sections of dialogue and interaction between characters, where it's easy to get so lost in the drama of what's being said you forget what they were actually doing before the conversation started. So it pays to make a note of what each character is doing and holding at the start of each section, and make sure you either keep those details consistent or add in the necessary 'transition business' if you want them doing and holding something else by the end of it.  You don't have to get silly about it - "Ted put down his cup on the table that was next to him and then got up out of the chair he was sitting in so that he could walk over to the closed door on the other side of the room before putting his hands on the handle and opening it..." - but unless your characters are wizards don't have them conjuring things out of thin air, turning them into something else in the blink of an eye or making them randomly disappear while they teleport to the other side of the building.

I'm sure there are some people out there reading this and thinking "this is pretty pedantic stuff here - nobody cares about little things like these, surely?" They do. Just look at some of the one-star reviews on sites like Amazon and GoodReads. It's easy to dismiss those who rage about the continuity errors in films and tv shows as nerds and obssessives - but the bloopers they spot only appear on screen for a few seconds at best. The average reader can take far longer within the page to spot any of your continuity errors - which means they don't need to be uber-observant to pick them up. The result? Many more chances for you to look like the prize wally if you don't take the time to check that stuff before you publish your masterpiece.

What other Gremlins would you add to this list? Do you have pet doof-ups that you routinely make in early drafts? Feel free to share in the Comments.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

So... Why Are We Doing This Writing Thing Again?

If you're a writer, have you ever asked yourself "Why do I write?" Or does it seem like a redundant question?

I'll admit it's not one I've given much thought to in the past. Why do I write? Might as well ask 'why do I eat chocolate?' or 'why do I listen to music?' So perhaps it was rather ignorant of me to assume most other writers felt the same way. After all, the process is not always rainbows and fluffy kittens, so it's gotta be something pretty powerful that keeps you showing up at the page. Especially during those times when everything you write makes you feel like a dyslexic toddler trying to bang out War and Peace. With a crayon. On a pebble-dashed wall.

But then I saw two posts on a writing forum I frequent, from two different members, in the same week. And, on the surface at least, they seemed to be making two very different points about writing and writers.

The first was just a simple, one-line statement: "Everyone can write, but not everyone is a writer." That was it -  nothing more in actual words, but the added sentiment of "discuss" was certainly implied. And discussed it was. Of course it wasn't the first time I'd heard the view expressed - in fact, anyone who's been writing for longer than about ten minutes usually gets to hear it by at least the eleventh minute. Many people who responded to the post shared the view that the very act of writing is enough to make that person a writer, and objected to the implication that only those who were 'good at writing' had the 'right' to award themselves the title of Writer.

Because therein lies the problem. How do you quantify what 'good' writing is? E.L. James and Stephanie Meyer, to name but two, have been repeatedly mauled by both literary critics and 'discerning book lovers' (whoever they are) for their allegedly terrible prose and awful characters, but they've sold millions of copies of their books so they must be doing something right for a hell of a lot of people. While at the other end of the spectrum Hemingway is regularly lauded as a literary genius, but if you don't like his style (and I'll confess to being one of those who doesn't) you're not going to enjoy reading his books no matter how super-awesomely frickin' amazing he apparently is. So what if it had been up to me and people who shared my views to determine whether or not Hemingway was 'allowed' to call himself  a writer? What if all those publishers who initially rejected the Harry Potter stories also got carte-blanche to tell J.K. Rowling "Oh yeah, and, because we don't like these books we also don't think you should consider yourself a writer anymore. Sorry and all that, but' y'know - not everyone's got the X-Factor?"

So this post received quite a clear, majority answer; if you write, you're a writer, and any implication of there being some sort of 'standard' that must be met before you're allowed to think of yourself as a 'proper' writer is elitist and pretty much unenforceable anyway.

The second post, however, was a little more complex, and definitely harder to unpack. The Poster said he'd been writing for just over four years and had learned a lot about writing in that time - from books, courses and online websites and forums just like this one. He'd also recently been reading a lot of works by other authors - authors he'd always admired and were well-regarded. And he felt that, after all these four-plus years of learning and writing, his own work was as good - and in some cases, better - than works written by these other authors. In short, he felt he'd learned all he could possibly learn about writing and couldn't get any better at it than he currently was. So... should he quit writing altogether?

If your reaction to that was "whaaaaat?" don't worry - so was mine. Why in the holy heck would you quit doing something you thought you were - not just good at, but better at than people who were already successful in that field? That's not so much dropping the mic as whacking yourself between the eyes with it and then falling offstage because you can't see properly. As the thread progressed it seemed what he was really saying was that, after his four years of learning all he could possibly learn about writing and reaching a position where he felt he was at least as good as most of the authors he admired, he still wasn't published or anywhere near as successful as those authors. And with that in mind, if he really couldn't get any better at writing because he was as good as he could ever get... what was the point in carrying on? Why waste his time continuing with his writing if apparently no-one was noticing how talented he already was?

A lot of people pointed out the most obvious thing to him; four years is a ridiculously short time in the growth of a writer. In fact, in terms of human development it's comparable to reaching potty-training stage. You wouldn't expect a four-year-old to beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon - even a super-talented one - and it's the same for writers, because there's a lot more going on under the surface than what you see on a page of any author's work. Successful authors become so because they make what they do look easy - but they only get to that stage after years of hard slog. And none of them would ever say they've learned everything they could possibly learn about the craft - nope, not even Stephen King or J.K. Rowling.

But as I thought more deeply about these two posts, I realised that, even though they appeared to be offering different perspectives on writing, the sentiment behind them was actually the same: if you can't be among the elite of writers there's no point in even trying to be one. Forget about doing it for the love of writing, or because you feel you have things to say - commercial success and recognition is the only thing that legitimises your work.

If you really believe this - if this sounds like your reason for becoming a writer - you are, I'm afraid, setting yourself up for a lot of frustration and disappointment. At the very least in the early years of your journey as a writer - and, maybe, for the majority of it. Because success and recognition isn't guaranteed, for any writer - no matter how talented they are. For every famous writer like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, who are able to make being a best-selling author their actual career, there are hundreds more who make so little from their book sales that they still have full-time, non-author jobs to pay their rent and bills (or a supportive spouse with a reasonably well-paid job.) These authors have no shortage of loyal fans who love their work... but in terms of money earned from that work there are probably part-time shop assistants who earn a higher wage than they can ever make in book royalties.

I can't help wondering if the two posters of those forum threads consider those kinds of authors fools. Would they tell them to give up? "Face it, you're obviously not good enough at what you do to make a proper career out of it, so stop wasting your time and find some other vocation you can make real money from." Thing is, if writing is in your blood, heart and soul it's not that simple. Because here's the point that those two posters are missing; those of us who love being writers don't write for the money or the fame. I'm not saying we don't want those things (most of us do, even if we don't admit it) but it's not what drives us to write. If we could look into a crystal ball and see our future, and that future showed us we were never going to make any money or get any fame for the stuff we write - well, we'd still write anyway. Because we'd have to. It's who we are and what we do.

I used to say that I would never, ever tell anyone they should quit writing. But after reading these two posts I've changed my mind. Now, if anyone comes to me and says "Should I quit writing?" I'm going to say the following:

"Yes. If you're asking yourself this question - and asking it honestly, rather than in that cringey fishing-for-compliments way people sometimes do - you should quit writing. If you're thinking "that £1.99 Kindle book I read said writing books was a quick and easy way to make money, but I'd have earned more working in McDonalds by now," then definitely quit. Quit it completely. And then see how that goes...

"If after a while you feel like a weight has been lifted, or you find some other hobby or creative outlet that fills you with more joy or brings greater rewards than writing ever did, you'll know you made the right decision. You were dead right to quit. Enjoy your new, writer-free life!

"But if you feel like a part of you is missing, like some of the colours have gone from your life, and that you keep finding yourself going back to your notebooks or computer and jotting stuff down 'just for fun'... you'll know you can't stop yourself from being a writer. It's who you are. You might never be a famous one, or a rich one - but you are a writer all the same."

If a writer is what you are, quitting is not an option for you, any more than breathing. So don't quit being a writer. Instead, quit building up a list of expectations for what a writer is 'supposed' to be. Contrary to what the media would have you believe - in this Tweeting, FaceBooking, selfie-posting, Strictly X-Factor's Got Talent-saturated society we live in - fame and fortune are not mandatory qualifications for being a proper, bona fide writer. Hell, you don't even have to wait until you've had work published before you can officially wear that Writers' Badge.

It's not about the money. It's not about the fame. So if that's all you want from writing... well, there are quicker and easier ways to get both of those these days. Being a writer aint a job, sweetie, it's a way of life. But a rich and rewarding one - even without the cash and the celebrity status - if it's what you're born to do.