Tag Archives: writing

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

The Mark on the Wall by Virginia Woolf

The Mark on the WallThis is one of my favourite short stories: a meditative stream of consciousness with intelligent irony. It’s also where the band Modest Mouse found their name. I wrote a piece of close criticism on it for a course I completed earlier this year. I’ve highlighted the literary techniques Woolf has used – it’s so impressive how much she has fitted into just two paragraphs. We can all learn from the greats.

I chose the following paragraphs to analyse:

Perhaps it was the middle of January in the present year that I first looked up and saw the mark on the wall. In order to fix a date it is necessary to remember what one saw. So now I think of the fire; the steady film of yellow light upon the page of my book; the three chrysanthemums in the round glass bowl on the mantelpiece. Yes, it must have been the winter time, and we had just finished our tea, for I remember that I was smoking a cigarette when I looked up and saw the mark on the wall for the first time. I looked up through the smoke of my cigarette and my eye lodged for a moment upon the burning coals, and that old fancy of the crimson flag flapping from the castle tower came into my mind, and I thought of the cavalcade of red knights riding up the side of the black rock. Rather to my relief the sight of the mark interrupted the fancy, for it is an old fancy, an automatic fancy, made as a child perhaps. The mark was a small round mark, black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantelpiece.

 How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object, lifting it a little way, as ants carry a blade of straw so feverishly, and then leave it…. If that mark was made by a nail, it can’t have been for a picture, it must have been for a miniature—the miniature of a lady with white powdered curls, powder-dusted cheeks, and lips like red carnations. A fraud of course, for the people who had this house before us would have chosen pictures in that way—an old picture for an old room. That is the sort of people they were—very interesting people, and I think of them so often, in such queer places, because one will never see them again, never know what happened next. They wanted to leave this house because they wanted to change their style of furniture, so he said, and he was in process of saying that in his opinion art should have ideas behind it when we were torn asunder, as one is torn from the old lady about to pour out tea and the young man about to hit the tennis ball in the back garden of the suburban villa as one rushes past in the train.

Here’s my analysis:

virginiawoolfThis short story can be seen as a study of internal monologue as a form and an exploration of the fluidity of thought. The story begins with the word ‘perhaps’, immediately drawing attention to the unreliability of a first person narrator recalling the past and to give it the naturalism of a person trying to recall the specifics of an event. Throughout it has a conversational tone, ‘so he said’, as if the narrator is confiding in the reader. The same conspiratorial effect is created by ‘A fraud of course’, wherein the similar vowel sounds verge on assonance, giving an added phonological impact to this colloquial declarative that abruptly ends a descriptive flight of fancy.

The narrator fancies she sees the fire as ‘the cavalcade of red knights’. The alliterative fricatives in the phrase ‘that old fancy of the crimson flag flapping’ lend an excitement and verve to this image. There seems to be some irony in her ‘relief’ as the ‘sight of the mark interrupted the fancy’ because the majority of the story seems to be her exercising her imagination. The fact that it is ‘an old fancy, an automatic fancy, made as a child perhaps’ implies that this is part of her character – the tendency for her mind to wander to the fantastical. Again in the phrase is the ‘perhaps’ of not quite knowing from whence her thoughts and memories come. This self-confessedly fallible narrator seems more genuine because of her uncertainties: an irony that adds to the depth of the narrative point.

The dark spot on the wall is the focus of the story that she returns to, periodically anchoring the stream of consciousness. Colours of ‘crimson’ and ‘red’ provide a contrast with the mark, ‘black upon the white wall’, perhaps juxtaposing the vibrancy of the imagination with the room. The description of her knight image is finished with the words ‘black rock’. The pararhyme creates a definitive, conclusive end to her distraction. She returns directly after to the mark. The colours ‘red’ and ‘white’ reappear in another fanciful thought: ‘the miniature of a lady with white powdered curls, powder-dusted cheeks, and lips like red carnations.’ It is interesting that the flowers of her simile are given colour, yet the ‘three chrysanthemums’ that stand on her mantelpiece are not. This could indicate that she is more taken by the brilliance of colour in her mind’s eye than in reality and so more absorbed with her internal life.

At times the story seems a self-aware exploration of internal monologue, ‘how readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object.’ The lexical field of nature hints at the idea that it is ingrained in human behaviour patterns to think this way.  In this simile, the ants carry ‘a blade of straw’, rather than grass, thus suggesting that their exercise is futile and ultimately unfulfilling. The implication is that swarming thoughts are similarly fruitless.

Complex sentences reflect the flow of related thoughts; the final sentence of the second paragraph is significantly longer than others, evoking excitability in the focaliser’s rapidly flowing thoughts. The extreme verb ‘torn asunder’ indicates the significance of this conversation to her, potentially because of the idea presented: ‘art should have ideas behind it.’ It is possible that Woolf is making a wider point here about the art of literature that she intends the reader to pause on. The simile that follows shows the narrator seeing things as they almost happen, ‘as one is torn from the old lady about to pour out tea and the young man about to hit the tennis ball in the back garden of the suburban villa as one rushes past in the train.’ Her experiences are incomplete, unsatisfactory, connoting the truncated and fleeting nature of thought. It is also reminiscent of the way she pulls short and limits her moments of imagination at the start of the story.

A contrast is created by the staid thinking of the people that owned the house previously, who moved because they ‘wanted to change their style of furniture.’ Their insistence on a single style of house and décor is contrapuntal to the fluid, imaginative thinking of the narrator. The repetition in ‘an old picture for an old room’ highlights the simplicity of their view.

The narrator’s curiosity about the neighbours seems to be phrased more as one would refer to a story than to people, ‘one will… never know what happened next’, as if their lives are a tale without ending. This further connotes her tendency to imagination. In this case and elsewhere, the voice changed from using the first person ‘I’ to the inclusive pronoun ‘one’, which creates a distance from the sentiment. This has the effect of drawing attention to the thoughts and their processes: she is observing the thoughts as if they are held by another, but also creating the sense that her concerns could have universality.

This story typifies a modernist transition from traditional first person narration to stream of consciousness. The narrator begins by resisting distraction, drawing the story back to the mark on the wall. However, in her attempt to express the nature of wandering thoughts, she ultimately introduces imagery that is more elaborate and evocative than her childhood imaginings. The reader realises that mark on the wall is the catalyst for an exploration of the ever-active mind.

Read the full text of The Mark on the Wall here if this has sparked your interest.

1 Comment

Filed under books, Writing

Exclamation Marks

Westward Ho!

It is impossible to say this town’s name without sounding like you’re suggesting a galleon-based voyage towards it.

The key point with exclamation marks is to use them sparingly, otherwise they will lose their impact. There are three main uses:

1. Exclamation marks can be used to indicate an exclaimed sentence: ‘With a gorilla in a hot air balloon! A hot air balloon of all things!’

2. In speech they show that something is shouted or said loudly: ‘Get that gorilla back in its enclosure!’

3. They can also be used to indicate that a statement is intended to be humorous: ‘I couldn’t tell if it was him or the hippo that had made the mess!’

However, if the humour is evident without the exclamation mark, it is often more amusing and stylish to dead pan.

“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald

With this many exclamation marks how could this not be a prudent fiscal move?

With this many exclamation marks how could this not be a prudent fiscal move?

The main issue that occurs is over-use. Please don’t use more than one at a time. If you feel that you need to give more emphasis to a sentence than others that already have one exclamation mark, it is likely that the original sentences didn’t require exclamation marks at all. I associate multiple exclamation marks with dodgy advertising; my spam folder is full of exclamation marks.

It is often better when meaning is conveyed through content. Do it with your words, not with your punctuation.

How do you feel about exclamation marks? Do you use them in your writing? Leave me a comment.

2 Comments

Filed under Common Errors, Proofreading, Writing

Sibilance

Sibilance is the recurrence of a hissing ‘s’ sound which can be effective in prose and poetry. It is sometimes referred to as sigmatism after the Greek letter sigma. Sibilance, as with all types of alliteration, draws emphasis where it is used. Note all the ‘s’ sounds in this extract from John Masefield’s Sea Fever:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking,

In this case, the sibilance gives a sense of flow, reflecting the movement of waves in the sea. It makes it very pleasing to read aloud – give it a try!

Shushing LibrarianSibilance is used commonly to draw people’s attention or admonish them (sssshhh!). Therefore, we know that it is an intense sound and can thus add this intensity to a piece of writing. A good example of this can be found in Bram Stoker’s Dracula: ‘The smell of sweetest victory swirled in his nostrils, overpowering the stale smell of battered bodies that lay underfoot.’ Here it also helps to highlight the contrast of the ‘stale’ and ‘sweet’ smells, using this phonological pattern to encourage the reader to associate the two descriptions.

Can you think of any other good examples of sibilance? Tell me in the comments!

Please do like and share if this has been an edifying read. Thank you!

3 Comments

Filed under Poetry, Proofreading, Writing

Confessions of a Closet Groover

Today, dear reader, I’m going to tell you the secret of my (moderate) success. robot-dance-contest I’m not one to blow my own brass section, but I think I’m pretty OK at writing things. I got firsts in my dissertations and I have an ebook that sells relatively well (it’s half off at the moment – if you’re interested!). To get those results takes many hours of dedicated keyboard tapping. It can be really difficult to sit at a computer, focus and just keep typing interesting matter. The brain simply can’t deal with that level of constant concentration; that’s why I needed something else to do, for just a couple of minutes each hour: something completely different to free my thoughts, rest my eyes and avoid some sort of nasty repetitive strain issue. This is my secret weapon: The Three Minute Dance Break

"Guys? I thought you said you were all going to join in... well this is embarrassing.'

“Guys? I thought you said you were all going to join in… well this is embarrassing.’

Seriously, it works. For just three minutes every hour, stand up, do something that vaguely resembles a stretch you once saw someone do in a Fame parody, press play on your audio equipment and have a proper dance about. It relaxes your muscles, gives you a good stretch, stops you getting square eyes and allows your brain a rest ready for a new burst of creativity. This is probably best applied in the relative privacy of your own home; though come to think of it, in any library the people around will just assume that you’re the starting point of a Harlem Shake and feel obliged to disrobe atop the furniture to join in.

I know not everyone likes to freestyle so here’s my literary dancing suggestion: Dance like a mystery writer –  put in a twist at the end! 

It can be glorious for giving your brain the space to come up with new ideas – a great cure for writer’s block! For more well thought out tips on writer’s block, click here.

What do you think of The Three Minute Dance Break? Give it a try! I hear all the writers are doing it! 

If you enjoyed this, please like or share!  

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing Advice

A Good Opening Line Can Make all the Difference

Last week I opened a book and the first line was so thoroughly uninspiring that I gave a small incredulous yell and immediately closed it, forever. That line was, ‘It was Thursday and I was making soup.’ Congratulations, author who shall remain nameless, with those eight unbelievably dull short words you have put me off what may well be an excellent story. I realise this may just be my opinion, but in a ranking of days and foods, I’m pretty sure ‘Thursdays’ and ‘soup’ are the dullest. There is in fact a competition for the worst opening lines that has some fantastic examples of awfulness; a winner used the imaginatively terrible ‘He swaggered into the room with a certain Wikipedic insouciance‘.

1984The opening line of any piece of writing really matters. It is your first impression and it needs to be good. What do you want people to know about your book? A lot can be established in one line. For example, 1984 begins: ‘It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ George Orwell instantly demonstrates that we are in an alternate future where things are fundamentally reordered.

Establishing theme is a common factor in many of the most famous opening lines. Sweeping statements in the author’s voice are often best remembered: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ With parallel phrasing and a lovely contrast, Charles Dickens immediately introduces social dichotomy as a central subject of A Tale of Two Cities.  A universal declaration is also used by Tolstoy to begin Anna Karenina: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ The reader infers that what follows will be a personal drama with much pain and unhappiness.

Imperatives work well to start things off; they draw the reader directly into the action. Consider this from Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy: ‘“You will marry the boy I choose,” said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.’ The mother’s attempt to find her daughter a suitable boy to marry is the core of the story. The conflict over this is also confirmed by the use of the adverb. Using dialogue to begin can pull the reader straight into the characters’ relationships. First person can have the same impact: ‘Call me Ishmael’ works as a simple, iconic imperative in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Beginning at the end is a device often employed. Daphne du Maurier’s rebeccaRebecca begins: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ Using a dream perfectly expresses the significance of this place; the evenness of the syllables gives it a rhythm. We are also told that the book will be an open and deeply personal recollection.  

A real favourite is from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: ‘The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This made a lot of people very angry and has widely been regarded as a bad move.’ This always gives me a laugh. The first line should prompt an immediate reaction from the reader, whether it’s amusement, interest, excitement, recognition or empathy. Don’t just start to tell the story; tell the reader something about the story.  

What do you think makes a good opening line? What’s your favourite? I’d love to know! Comment below and please do like and share! 

1 Comment

Filed under books, 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

‘Who’s’ or ‘Whose’?

These two words are often confused. We’re used to using apostrophes for possessives and this is not the case here, so this mistake is easily made. It is a similar issue to ‘it’s’ and ‘its’ and is very easy to read past and overlook in your own work. Here’s how to get it right.

TomBakerDrWho

Who’s is the contracted form of who is.

Who’s that wearing the magnificent scarf?

The Doctor, who’s a Time Lord, has a particular fondness for Earth.

Whose is the possessive form of who, it means belonging to whom. 

Whose TARDIS is that?

It belongs to the man whose bow tie is very cool.

tardis-matt_00428408

That’s it for who’s and whose, illustrated by Doctor Who. Any questions, thoughts or Doctor Who memes, you know who to come to! As always, please do like and share if this was at all helpful!

Leave a comment

Filed under Common Errors, Proofreading

Comparatives and Superlatives

Comparatives are used to compare one thing to another- they often have an ‘er’ ending. Superlatives are used to compare more than two things- they often have an ‘est’ ending. So ‘Holmes is better than Watson’ (because there are only two of them) but ‘George is the best character in the Famous Five’ (because there are more than two of them).

A common error is using the superlative when there are only two things in contention: mt

‘Of the two methods, the oldest was better’ should be ‘Of the two, the older was better.’

Double comparisons are also not acceptable in standard English:

‘She was the most greatest’ should be ‘She was the greatest’.

‘She is more faster’ should be ‘She is faster.’

Additionally, I also see ’empty comparisons’, the use of a comparative without a base:

‘Today was better.’ Than what? It should be made obvious to the reader what you are comparing.

Also, superlatives are often over-used in writing. Unless used stylistically, exaggeration can become a barrier to how much the reader will understand and trust your statements. Think of the number of times advertisers use superlatives- do we really believe that their product is ‘the best’?

Not all multi-syllable adjectives take ‘er’ and ‘est’. This is where ‘more’ or ‘most’ is used before the adjective.

For example ‘The sofa was the most comfortable seat in the room’.

I hope that’s helped. Let me know what you think or if there’s anything else you’d like explained or discussed. As always,  I’d very much appreciate if you could share or like this if you found it useful! Thanks!

Leave a comment

Filed under Common Errors, Proofreading, Writing

All You Need is Love…and Perhaps Some Literary-themed Valentine Gifts!

Why not start by throwing some Austen Confetti over your loved one?

austen-confetti

Say it like Mr Darcy! ‘You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.’ Do throw in a jammy dodger for good measure.

1

2

The whole of Wuthering Heights on your wall! Not On The High Street also do A Midsummer Night’s Dream and other classics in this form.

Wuthering Heights

From the British Library, a collection of historical love letters.

romance

Buy them something lovely to keep in touch with, like this writing set.

writeTry Oxfam Books for some beautiful old editions of poetry and all sorts! no-bliss-like-this-five-centuries-love-poems-jill-hollis-paperback-cover-art

I think it’s always lovely to receive an extravagance- something beautiful that I wouldn’t buy myself. A few Februarys ago, I was delighted  to be given this hardback, illustrated essay collection by my favourite director.

starting point

Happy Valentine’s!

What are you getting your loved one this year?

2 Comments

Filed under books