Tag Archives: writing tips

Description – Don’t Leave it Too Late

Or, Avoiding the Longbottom Paradox

Readers who are invested in your story will begin to imagine the people and the places in it. This is what we want: for them to care about what you’ve created like it’s real. This means that, consciously or not, the reader is creating a picture in their minds. By adding detail too late on you can disrupt their absorption in your world by contradicting their image of it.

For example, if you want the reader to know that the character has an extraordinarily deep voice, or a strong accent, tell us that when they begin speaking. If you only share that after a significant portion of dialogue, the reader may feel as if they have been reading it wrong. Get your essential description in early to avoid reader upset.

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher: always cut off at the knees so you can't see he's standing on a box.

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher: always cut off at the knees so you can’t see he’s standing on a box.

It’s the same feeling you get when a film adaptation of a book comes out and the characters look nothing like how the source material describes them. Think of 6’5″ Jack Reacher being played by Tom Cruise. A brief Internet skim reveals that the opinionated masses believe that compared to the books, film Jane Eyre is too pretty; Katniss is too fair-skinned; Neville Longbottom looks too much like a young Clive Owen; and Tyrion Lannister is far too sexy for his (leather) shirt.

It’s fine for the reader to guess details that you don’t mention at all, it’s just when new information is introduced later that it can be annoying. 

That said, you are allowed  to surprise the reader on purpose, for example: ‘Betty swore internally at her alarm clock each morning, dreading another day of work. It was Monday and rain clattered into her windows. She dove further under the duvet; it was dreadfully cold. Well, no one can afford to heat draughty old buildings anymore. Eventually, the sound of her beloved dogs yapping inspired her to drag her weary legs out of bed. I suppose one must persevere, she thought, one is the Queen of England after all.’

What do you think? Has this ever happened to you when you’ve been reading?

1 Comment

Filed under Editing, Writing, Writing Advice

Don’t Panic! Just Choose Your Words Carefully

“Pick your words with care” Ford Prefect warns Zaphod Beeblebrox in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I  think that’s great advice for all writers. When you’re writing, it can be very easy to lose yourself in your fantastic plot. Your characters take on a life of their own and you’reGuide away, giving a narrative account of the thrilling happenings in their lives. Unfortunately, this can mean that word choice suffers. In the best works of literature, every word is working hard to create a precise image, an exact impression on the reader. Chilean author Isabel Allende meticulously goes through every word of English translations of her novels, making sure that they are true to her original meaning.

One of the worst consequences of failure to focus on word choice is repetition. Repeated words indicate a lack of craft to the reader; they can infer a lack of originality. ‘Said’ is a regular issue. The word ‘said’ is, in fact, saying very little. Usually the preceding or following text is in speech marks, so the reader is already fully aware that it is being ‘said’ so tell them something they don’t know! What is that character’s tone or expression? How has what they’ve shared affected the atmosphere? Consider this example from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

“Fiscal policy. . .” he repeated, “that is what I said.”
“How can you have money,” demanded Ford, “if none of you actually produces anything? It doesn’t grow on trees you know.”
“If you would allow me to continue.. .”
Ford nodded dejectedly.
“Thank you. Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich.”
Ford stared in disbelief at the crowd who were murmuring appreciatively at this and greedily fingering the wads of leaves with which their track suits were stuffed.
“But we have also,” continued the management consultant, “run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying one ship’s peanut.”
Murmurs of alarm came from the crowd. The management consultant waved them down.

towel

Choosing different verbs and describing reactions can give vigour and immediacy to a text. Verb choice is worth getting right and can do a great deal for characterisation and mood. Try to think exactly how your characters each walk, talk and move – what habits do they have? We can tell a lot about the impetuous and larger than life character that is Zaphod Beeblebrox  from the verbs Adams uses to describe his speech: spat, demanded, muttered, seethed, bawled. These all appear on one double page. Compare this to the nervy Arthur Dent: gibbered, asked, whispered, protested, goggled. 

If you see a word repeated often in your text, particularly close together, the first thing to do is reach for the thesaurus. Every writer should have a quality thesaurus. Looking up ‘synonyms’ on Word is okay, but a  thesaurus will provide a more thorough list and give options categorised under multiple possible meanings. A good edition will also provide a sentence for context of trickier words. If you’re considering using a word that you’re not completely familiar with, check it in a dictionary to make sure it means exactly what you intend it to. Every writer should also have a quality dictionary.

A varied vocabulary gives you greater nuance of meaning, enriching your writing to give the reader a more enjoyable and entertaining experience. Because of our history, the English language has more synonyms than any other language. Writers, you have a wealth of options from which to choose! Standard English adults have a vocabulary  of around 20,000 words – are you using yours to its full potential?

By the way, if you haven’t already, do read some Douglas Adams!

The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Thanks for reading! I’m always fascinated to know your thoughts and do please like and share!

Leave a comment

Filed under Common Errors, Writing, Writing Advice

Why We Write edited by Meredith Maran

 The subtitle sums it up beautifully: ‘Twenty acclaimed authors on how and why they do what they do.’ The introduction wittily reframes the question of why so many people write and offers famous solutions, including George Orwell’s suggestions: 1, sheer egoism; 2, aesthetic enthusiasm; 3, historical impulse; 4, political purpose. I think Terry Tempest Williams’ answer is an excellent one too, ‘I write to make peace with the things I cannot control.’

A summary of the author’s work and a table of ‘vitals’ introduce each section; did you know that Isabel Allende’s father was the first cousin of Chilean President Salvador Allende? Or that Jodi Picoult wrote Wonder Woman for DC in 2007?  Isabel Allende is the first to share her reasons and methods. She writes lyrically about the trials and successes of her career and finishes with this: ‘Language: that’s what matters to me. Telling a story to create an emotion, a tension, a rhythm – that it what matters to me.’ I also found myself pondering one line of her advice long after reading it: ‘a story should feel like a conversation…not a lecture.’

The writing is often introspective, but intelligent and open; everyone has had different crises, panics, rewrites, rejections and doubts: though all of them have ultimately succeeded. Each section ends with words of wisdom for writers. There are so many good ideas in this: read at the level at which you want to write; bypass publishers, put it out yourself; adopt an international viewpoint; push for original ways of describing things; pick ordinary moments and magnify them.

David Baldacci’s description of the profession is delightful: ‘I’m paid to daydream.’ Basically, I could spend this entire review quoting line after line from this book because it is all crafted by such accomplished writers. Armistead Maupin warmly remembers an encouraging teacher; Susan Orleans considers the awkwardness of calling oneself an ‘artist’. Almost every word in it feels like it is in its right place. That said, I did skip the Jane Smiley chapter – I was made to write one too many essays on A Thousand Acres and I’m keeping a promise I made to my teenage self that I needn’t read her again.

Many of the pieces have strong similarities, so it is more a book to dip into than to read all at once. There is a good mix of common issues, idiosyncrasies and practical concerns. The writers answer the question of why they write with brilliant honesty (from ‘the money’ to ‘I can’t think what else I’d do’) though one idea seems to pervade for the majority: something in them knows that they must write. They simply have no choice.

So, now I’m curious: why do you write? Comments please!

It’s an interesting book for writers and others interested in the craft. It’s also a worthwhile purchase: part of the profits goes to 826 National, a youth literacy organisation. Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.

5 Comments

Filed under books, Reviews