Tag Archives: Style

My Caveats

These are my caveats, which I have formulated over decades. One is personal, but the other two are universal. I suggest all writers engrave two and three upon their brain-pans in indelible, glow-in-the-dark, neuronal script.

  • Caveat One: I may not know what I’m blathering about.
  • Caveat Two: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong.
  • Caveat Three: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

Caveat One is obviously personal. This caveat is on my twitter account (@PKgesic) and also goes in the signature of any forum I join. I’m just warning people that I may be talking utter nonsense and they should really check it out for themselves rather than taking my word for it. I will quite happily pontificate on subjects ranging from the theory of mind to why the world economy is so messed up and what the hell is going to happen next. On most of these subjects my knowledge is autodidactic and therefore may be very very wrong. It doesn’t stop me spouting, but it should give people pause before they swim with the flow of my babbling opinions.

The caveat is not entirely personal however. I’ve never met an opinion I didn’t like to deconstruct and everybody else should do the same. Never take anything as read – no matter how worthy and respected the source.

Caveat Two is a result of too many writing rules being thrown at me on various writing sites. I suspect a lot of these rules began life on agent and editor sites, even in submission guidelines: this is what we do not want to see. Then bloggers, and other people who like something as complicated as reader taste simplified, took them up as battle-cries in the war against creativity. Yes, you can get all these things wrong, but that doesn’t mean they are rules.

Note: I am not talking about the rules of grammar here. Punctuation, word-usage, sentence structure, and so forth are essential for clear prose. Clarity of prose is essential for understanding. Comprehension is essential for…well, everything really. Ambiguity in your plotting is fine, everybody likes an unreliable narrator, but you really shouldn’t leave your reader scratching their head over your sentences. There are of course stylistic choices and flourishes you can use, but grammar is not something you can simply ignore.

Caveat Three is really just a warning.

If you read — for instance — ‘Show Don’t Tell’ on a website then you know, without a shadow of a doubt, that that person is talking out of their arse. If they give an example, which turns one word into fifty, then they ate a really hot curry and you are about to suffer the after-effects.

Only if they say something like ‘It is best to show rather than tell, because it places the reader in the scene. However, telling does have its uses’  are they actually speaking out of their mouths (yes, I know they are actually posting to a blog and not speaking, but once you start using a metaphor you really should follow through to the bitter end. In my humble opinion of course). The same goes for adverbs, dialogue tags, and any of the other myriad little things a writer should bear in mind when writing or revising.

I am as guilty as anybody else of saying ‘you should always’ or ‘you should never’ in critiques and edits, because sometimes the person you are critting or editing really needs to know that having a different dialogue tag after every single piece of dialogue is somewhat distracting to the reader. A certain amount of firmness is needed at that point. But my caveats are always there to let the writer know that everything to do with writing is subjective.

There you go, an insight into my philosophy of writing. Which I suppose counts as an introduction.

A version of this was posted to ‘of Altered States’ as part of my introduction to that site: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Has SF Lost Something over the Decades?

A friend of mine used to run a second-hand bookstore on eBay. Then he wrapped it up and was intending to take his unsold stock to the tip. This is sacrilege to me—you do not throw books away, never ever. I now have two—yes two—copies of the Da Vinci Code to prove this. My friend (hmmmm, that might be overstating the case here) slipped another copy into the job lot of books he gave me. Oh how I laughed. And I still can’t bring myself to throw ‘em in the bin.

I said I’d take any Speculative Fiction books he was going to toss. So a few hundred or so came my way. I was slowly working my way through them when I stumbled on some SF magazines from the 60s. Specifically New Worlds #107 from June 1961 and Galaxy #81 from August 1960.

So I read them.

And started thinking.

Have we lost something over the decades? Have all the writing courses , and latterly writing blogs, created an imbalance in the actual writing? Has fiction as a whole gone too far in the direction of literary quality and forgotten the basic rule of writing fiction: first tell a good story?

If you ever get a chance to read some old magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, do so. This is just before the New Wave came crashing into the party. You see a similar sort of disconnect with early 1980s SF, just before Cyberpunk spiked the wine with acid, but this disconnect between Golden Age and New Wave is really quite marked because up until that point literary concerns were subservient to the ideas.

The stories in these magazines are good, strong, well written, with clever ideas behind them. Apart from Brunner, Pohl, and Tubbs, they are written by writers I have never come across before—though they might be pseudonyms for famous writers, that sort of thing went on a lot back in those days. These stories were not collected into anthologies. These stories were considered average, normal stories of their day.

The science is, naturally, old fashioned; the cultural aspects can be a little disconcerting; the ideas are tropes that have now been mined to death; and the pace can be a little slow, but I think the average level of story-telling ability is higher than I see now in various modern SF magazines and sites. I was sucked into the stories, reading on to find out what happened next.

Yes, these are rather muscular stories, but they do drag you along. Modern SF, not so much. There are of course reasons for this.

We know all the tropes. We don’t have to explain them, we just point to the version of the trope we are using and get on with the writing. But this means that the idea quotient is lower so the literary quotient has to go up to raise us above the slush pile. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I favour clarity in the prose over pyrotechnics, because I think pyrotechnics are no use if the reader can’t ‘see’ the scene or comprehend the idea, but I do try to write great prose; I love it when somebody says, “cracking line”, or even better quotes a line back to me.

However, I also try to write good stories, with strong characters, and clever little ideas.

The lack of need to explain how a trope, like say faster-than-light drives or time travel, works in your universe (its a warp drive, its hyperspace, its the grandfather paradox, its quantum time leading to parallel worlds) frees up the writer to concentrate on other aspects of the writing. But what we forget is that these are tropes only to those of us who have read a large chunk of what came before. We forget that we should explain at least some of it for new readers to the genre. And in those explanations are spaces for new variations, new ideas, new plot lines.

Great prose is all well and good but without a great story it is essentially onanism as a spectator sport.

Read some old SF sometime. Those writers knew how to tell a story.

 

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Filed under Genres and other foolishness, Storytelling, Art, and Craft

Show vs Tell: Speech Verbs

Why are speech verbs any different from other verbs. You wouldn’t repeatedly use the same verb, so why are speech verbs different.

Why?

You wouldn’t write: He ran up the hill and ran over the top and ran down the other side. He ran across the valley floor and ran through the forest.

So why would you write.

“I raced up the hill,” he said.

“Over the top?” she said.

“Yes,” he said, “and then I sprinted across the valley.”

“I jogged through the forest,” she said.

“Did you?” he said.

“Yes,” said she.

Why? It’s bloody monotonous is what it is.

It’s all Show vs Tell. Using a verb like…oh I dunno…asked, whispered, grunted, is Telling not Showing. Well it is according to people who have lost their freaking minds.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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Writing into the Void

I used to be arrogant about my writing. I knew I could write a good line. I knew I could write believable dialogue. I knew I could create a solid plot out of thin air.

But I was writing into the void. I’m not sure who called it this; who used the word void to describe it. I read it somewhere but I am not sure who wrote it. Sorry about that, but the word resonated not the name attached to it. I used to call it writing into the vacuum, but void is better, void is more precise: it describes the process exactly as it happens.

Writing with nobody to read your work, nobody to see the flaws, nobody to show you the little things you have to know. Friends? Family? They are good for “Can I write?” Not because of what they say, after all they are unlikely to tell you you’re crap, but for the look in their eye as they say it. You can see the surprise, the respect; they know that the story works and they show that to you in their reaction. What they can’t do, however, is read your work as a writer would.

So you teach yourself, on your own, bit by bit, sphere by sphere, move by move. Sitting there writing away, learning how things work on the page the hard way, self-educating yourself to write.

I used to call close-third-multiple: viewpoint writing, because I had never heard of close third and needed something to describe what I was trying to do. Struggling with keeping the viewpoint firmly fixed in a single head in a single scene. Why? Because it felt right. It felt like that is the way it should be. Writing, reading, revising, rereading, revising, rereading…. every time spotting another instance where I let a line slip, when I had fallen out of the character’s head. Learning that the best way to learn how to write close third is to write first person.

Not knowing why this worked, just groping towards a style. I already had a voice. I’ve never had a problem with voice (I started writing at 11 obsessive teenager scribbling is very good for letting your voice through) but style, now that was a fish of a different genus.

And so it went with passive sentences too. Using the grammar checker  — remember when grammar checkers talked about clause splicing and so forth, no readability stats, no way of knowing which sentences was passive and which were not (computers still aren’t to be trusted on that score, not completely; they’re machines: they don’t know the meanings of the words you’re using. So always be careful, but they are useful — just don’t have the green lines on. Because those things are irritating, distracting and utterly worthless).

So I’d do a grammar check. 3% passive sentences. Then I would go page by page. If it flagged up a passive sentence on that page then I’d go paragraph by paragraph. Zeroing in on the sentence. Finding the right paragraph and  going sentence by sentence through that paragraph until I found it. Then altering it. Switching it around. Until it was not flagged as passive any more. Learning how to write sentences first time out of the box so my grammar check always says 1% (0% happens very occasionally. Some sentences have to be passive — it’s not a mortal sin, only a clumsy one).

And so on, with story structure, with character scenes vs plot scenes, with action vs reflection, with pacing. All the time on my own, writing into the void arrogantly sure that I could write.

And then I found writing sites.

I’d done nanowrimo and been on those forums and I think I managed to help some people and upset a whole lot more. Not much changes there.  What can you do? You are who you are.

But on other writing sites I started seeing the wood for the trees. I started seeing the little things that make all the difference. I started learning the lingo. And I started to talk to other writers for the very first time. And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, all the time, everyday, bit by bit, and I posted to threads, and I asked the questions, and my confidence grew.

Especially once I started giving and receiving critiques, that is where I started making the hard choices, the writer’s choices. Working for the story not my ego.

Arrogance is based on your own fear that maybe you can’t do this. Arrogance will make you give fixed answers to questions of style and pace and voice. Arrogance will blind you to the way forward.

Confidence is based on knowledge. Confidence allows you to see that there are many answers to any question about the craft, the art, the truth, and they are all correct. Confidence will show you the way forward.

Arrogance is false and confidence is real.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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Why Her World Shouldn’t Fall Apart

What makes Speculative Fiction (SF) — Science Fiction, Horror, Fantasy, or any of the many sub-genres — different from other forms of fiction?

Simple really: in SF the normal everyday experience of the reader and writer need not apply — the position’s already been taken by ravening cyber-witch-dragon-riders from the outer reaches of the twilight zone. Weird stuff happens and as a writer you have to make sure that only the weird stuff you mean to happen…um…happens. You don’t want to add an entire other level of inadvertent weirdness through sloppy phrasing. Keep your weird under control with accuracy. And a bullwhip.  And maybe some cream puffs, because ravening cyber-witch-dragon-riders from the outer reaches of the twilight zone are notoriously lactose intolerant.

Other genres (OG) have their own sweet irritations, but in SF you have to be precise, very precise.

In the OG the line, Her world fell apart, is a little melodramatic, maybe a little clichéd, possibly a little meh. Soap opera stuff, not a deal breaker with the reader, just a shrug of the shoulders and a “Come on, pal, entertain me since you can’t write a decent sentence. Full plot-speed ahead and damn the conjugations.”

But in SF you have to allow for the margin (as Samuel R Delaney put it) that her world might literally fall apart. Poof, Earth gone, everybody floating in space, wondering whose turn it is to put the cat out, where the cat is, and why exactly can they still breathe if the world is in tiny pebbles all around them?

Another classic example of this sort of line.

He threw his eyes down the road, remember Tom Cruise doing this in Minority Report?

Well, to be accurate, he dropped his old eyes down a concrete corridor, chased them as they bounced and skidded and squirted out of his clumsy hands until finally he just managed to catch one of them as it tumbled down a drain. Carefully scooping it up and then merrily using that very same eye to open a biometric lock. He must have corneas made of diamond — well, I suppose he is Tom Cruise after all.

You throw your *gaze* down the road (and that is still a dodgy line in any genre (AG)) not your eyes. And if you have delicate organs covered with a material, which can be scratched by a SPLINTER, and then proceed to play football with it, it is entirely possible that an extremely sensitive device that has to look through that self-same material to see either the iris (or worse the retina) might, just might, throw up a false negative, don’t you think?

Don’t write her fingers pierced his bicep, because they might if she has talons.

Don’t write he was overcome with the fragrance of the flowers unless you mean he passed out.

Don’t be sloppy.

Think about what you are saying, take each word literally and make sure they say precisely what you mean them to say.

This is of course good advice in OGs as well as in SF, but it is right up there with adverbs and said bookisms in the world of the weird. Getting this stuff wrong makes you look like an amateur, it means you haven’t thought it through.

Now, maybe editors don’t care these days, maybe this is considered pedantic, maybe the X-Factor is the finest TV programme ever produced.

But do you really want to take the chance of an editor sighing, hitting delete, and then the “Thank you…but…” lands in your inbox, just because you couldn’t be bothered to rephrase an already sloppy line?

Just saying.

Take it or leave it,

So sue me (no, please don’t do that, that’s not what I meant at all).

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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The Value of Retyping

There’s a danger with word processors. They allow you to fiddle around forever: change a word, go back and change another one, go back change the punctuation, take this story beat from this scene and cut and paste it in to this one. Constant messing around at the margins of the story.

And in the process, you kill the flow of the words. It is no longer this smooth, well-paced, linear flow from one idea to the next, from one scene to the next. You mess around so much that you lose the rhythm of the work. I should imagine pretty much every writer has done this and then spent hours, days, weeks, months, messing around trying to get back what they have lost.

Stop. Print it out. Type it back in. (Using the print out, lets not go crazy and try to remember every word).

That’s my advice.

Make all the changes you need to make for structure, pacing, character development, plot — whatever you need to fix. Make the changes as rough or as fine as you want. You need to change that bit of dialogue, change it. You need to cut and paste that story beat from that scene to that scene so the sequence works, move it. You need to make that sentence work better because it’s bugging the hell out of you, make it work.

Then print it out and type it all back in. The real hard core method is to print it out, delete the original, and then type it back in. The reason to delete is so you are forced to retype even the scenes that work with no cutting and pasting them over; the reason why you retype the scenes that work is because the flow goes straight through them and you need to follow the flow.

I came by this method while reading an old interview with one of the greats of the SF Golden Age (I forget which one, which is unfortunate but it took a while for the message to sink in). He used to type his first drafts on the back of old bills, envelopes, scrap bits of paper, anything. The idea being that he could not possibly submit that to an editor, so he forced himself to retype the second draft.

We have word processors now, so what constitutes a second draft these days? A complete start at the beginning revision, where you fix all these things on the screen. I don’t think so. That’s revision not a draft. That can lead you down the ‘ten years writing the same damn story’ syndrome, because you’re not seeing the story as a whole anymore. You’re seeing it as separate scenes, sentences, punctuation marks. You can drive yourself crazy doing that sort of thing.

A complete retyping of the entire story, the way most writers had to do it before the advent of word processors, that’s a second draft.

Obviously,  people will say that it’ll take too long to retype the entire thing, that it’s quicker to just revise. If you have a good strong first draft, then you’re probably right. Not much point retyping the whole thing if all you need to do is clean up a couple of sentences. But if you have to do anything structural, anything major, retyping takes less time than fiddling and will produce a better story.

You decide (or discover for pantsers like me) that this character is in love with this other character, for instance. You can go back and drop in stuff, work out beats within scenes, play the foreshadow card for all it is worth, but the interactions of every other character will be off too. This sort of emotional involvement affects everybody around the two people engaged in the flirting, moon-eyed glances, sighs and all the other things that people falling in love do.

It affects all the dynamics, all of them. It might even affect the dynamics (at a story-telling level) of characters who never even meet the moon calves.

You can of course go through the whole thing, shifting, adjusting, making decisions, altering this word here, and that word there, and so forth. But it doesn’t alter the fact that, when you wrote the original draft, you didn’t know about the lovers. If you retype it with the full knowledge of this plot point then you automatically adjust everything as you go and as a bonus you smooth out all the bumps in the flow caused by pratting about word-fiddling.

And it takes less time because you are writing free and easy again. You know the story, you know the characters, you have the first draft in front of you and you are reading it. You don’t have to remember anything, you just have to type it in. No better way to spot a truly dodgy bit of writing than when you type it back in again. The damn things leap off the page at you.

Anyway, just a thought. It works for me, it might well work for you too.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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If the Story Requires It

As  a writer I have no real problem with heading straight for the dark-side. I’ll write a torture scene or a bloody fight scene or some nasty vicious bit of political chicanery without a qualm if the story requires it. But that’s the important bit, If the story requires it. I do not write torture porn because I don’t really see the point. A story with the single purpose of showing people being treated abominably is a story I really don’t want to read.

It’s writers missing the point. The point of blood and gore is not the blood and gore, it’s the story and the story can’t just be, ‘Here’s some blood and gore, aren’t my characters nasty pieces of work?’ It’s like they read Elric and identified with Stormbringer.

SF&F is my bailiwick, but you see it in thrillers and other genres too.

The important thing about brutality in a story is consequences. It’s always about the consequences. If something bad happens then it reverberates, it throws out ripples of cause and effect. Should bad guys always get their comeuppance? Not always. That sort of morality play is also boring because it takes away the tension. Should they lose something because of their vicious behaviour? Yes.

This isn’t the real world. This is fiction. If, as a writer, somebody decides (and it is a decision) that a brutal character should be written as somebody to admire, then I wonder about that writer’s morality. Not religious morality, not philosophical morality, but their common decency. There is nothing admirable about rape, or torture, or mass-murder. Characters who do this are not anti-heroes, they are villains.

And don’t tell me (in the case of fantasy) that this was the way it was back in the Middle-Ages, because you ain’t writing about the Middle-Ages. You’re writing about a world that you made-up; this is your world, your rules, your choice.

Besides, the strong-men of history, the nobles who went on Crusades and slaughtered entire cities, the Mongols who gave cities a choice, surrender or die, the Spartans who created a society based completely on war, and all others of that ilk. Yeah, they were the bad guys. They were not heroes.

They may have done heroic things on times, but they did that stuff by accident. If you have a society based on might is right, death before dishonour, and unthinking obedience to a leader, every so often you are going to find yourself doing something seemingly heroic because you can’t back down. Does that make you a hero? Well, if the rest of the time you are raping, pillaging, and slaughtering people by the gross, not so much.

This holds true at smaller scales too.

Bullies are weaklings. Always. If somebody has to damage somebody else either physically or emotionally to make themselves feel stronger, then they are by definition not strong. Unless of course they are psychopaths, who do things simply because they can, because they have no empathy. Psychopaths aren’t strong either, they are sick and lacking in humanity.

Therefore, there are consequences for bullies. They are weak and will break easily. And there are consequences for psychopaths. They will never know the simple joy of a smile reciprocated.

If a character is neither a bully or a psychopath, but are damaged by their upbringing, then they’re damaged. That’s a pretty big consequence and something worth exploring.

As far as I am concerned, morality is not about how you fight but why you fight. Once the gloves come off there are no rules, but there are rules about why the gloves come off. A character who uses violence simply to get their own way is weak.

There are of course a lot of nuances here. Is a soldier ordered into an immoral war, immoral? Is a law-keeper upholding an immoral law, immoral?  Is somebody raised in an immoral society, immoral? And so on. These are the juicy bits that every writer should want to sink their teeth into. And please remember when I talk about morality, I’m not talking about religious morality, but the morality of decency, fairness, and doing the right thing.

The nuances are the tension in a story and there should always be consequences.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘Firedance Blogs’: http://firedancebooks.com/blog/

 

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Filed under Character, Character Dynamics, and Character Interactions., Storytelling, Art, and Craft, Structure and Plot