Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Five Things I've Learned About Writing

Never have I claimed to know what I am doing when it comes to writing. For a long time, I thought all one had to do was sit down at a computer and let the story pour out of them. Little did I know there were rules, though people often debate whether these need to be followed or broken, tricks, jargon, structures and devices that one needed to be aware of in order to craft something not only readable, but sell-able.

In the last two years I've learned a crap ton of stuff about the craft I call story weaving.

Here are the top five things I've learned:


To be honest, when I first heard this term I thought it meant some drunk chick at the bar blabbing on about why her ex broke up with her, the reasons she didn't care, what she is searching for in a man and how pretty my dress is. Turns out, I wasn't too far off from the truth. Think of an infodump like an over-share - too much information, too soon and often completely unnecessary, if not inappropriate. These large, somewhat unruly, sections of details can leave the reader feeling put off, bogged down or, God forbid, uncomfortable.

Everyone agrees a story needs details, but said details don't need to be offered up in one hefty, and hard to swallow, lump of back story. There are numerous ways to get around the infodump, but my most preferred is dialogue. Dialogue is your friend. Someone can tell a story and fill the reader in while still adding direction and making the scene engaging. The book moves forward, the reader remains riveted and all is right in the world.

We all can be infodumpers from time-to-time, the key is to be aware of what infodumping is and curb it as much as possible. Of course there are published books that infodump. One such example is the marvelous book Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson which infodumps all over the place. To be blunt, the whole book is pretty much one big infodump, but the author is Canadian and we let these things slide with those people.

Passive Voice

Who knew a story had voice? Furthermore, who knew a story's voice could be passive or active? I certainly didn't.Well, now I do and I have no excuse. The truth is, once you are made aware of it, you understand why it is important to purge the passive and activate the active. When you write active it puts the reader in the story, making it more engaging and compelling them to continue reading instead of using you novel to prop up their end table with the wobbly leg.

Here's an example:

The pen is being held by me.

Hello passivity, so nice of you to stop by. This is completely unnecessary, and somewhat awkward.

I am holding the pen.

Better, right?

There are some instances where passive voice is necessary, like of you were writing a crime novel you might opt to say 'The jewels were stolen' instead of saying 'Jacky Jackerson stole the jewels' because it's likely at this point the 'detective' might not know who stole the jewels. Are you with me? Good.

Was Ing-ing

That doesn't make any sense at all, does it? What I mean to say by 'was ing-ing' is the importance of cutting 'ing' verbs out of your work, especially when it is preceded by 'was'. Oh, this also increases the activeness in your story which means this point ties nicely in with the previous one. Go Active-Man!

In my first novel I relied heavily on 'was ing-ing'. People 'was ing-ing'ed all over the place. Okay, I'm being a smartass and trying to mess with your head. Let me explain what I mean. First, it's always a good idea to keep your 'was' and 'ing's in check. Watch out for them! Or you might end up with a sentence like this:

She was walking along the sidewalk, studying the trees over head, and absently snacking on a granola bar.

Now, let's not focus on how craptastic this sentence is (because I literally just whipped it up special for this blog post and didn't put much thought into it) and instead focus on the 'was' and 'ing'. This sentence is easily adjusted to make it, not only less passive, but easier on the eyes.

She walked along the sidewalk, studying the trees over head, and absently snacked on a granola bar.

We lost a 'was' and two 'ing's. I feel my work here is done.

Excess Words

No, I am not talking about when you drone on and on about the sunset peaking over the jagged mountain tops which are pointing to the sky like an old hag's crooked finger. That's something entirely different. It's called beating your reader to death with descriptions that are unnecessary to the story or, more familiar in the writing circuit, purple prose or overwriting.

When I say excess words I mean adding in an extra word here and there for no apparent reason. These need to be culled. Why, you might ask, because they staunch the flow of your work and sometimes they make you look stupid. Oh yeah, I went there.

Here are three common examples:

The cold ice cube slipped down between her breasts making her shiver.

I burned myself on the hot pan.

The apple pie that I baked yesterday cooled on the windowsill all afternoon.

Can you identify the words that can be weeded out in order to make the sentences more fluid?

If you said cold, hot, and that, you are right. First, we all know an ice cube is cold, so the world 'cold' is redundant. Second, if you burned yourself on a pan, it had to have been hot, so what's the point in putting it in. And lastly, your sentence stays the same whether you have 'that' or not.

It is always best to week out these excessive words, not only to trim your overly fat word count, but to make the work more readable. I see the above examples all the time, but usually it is 'the wet water' or 'a furry kitten'. It annoying. Especially the world 'that. It's one of my pet peeves and something I must dedicate a future blog to. Noted. Moving on.


Since I already mentioned this in the previous section I thought I would expand on it here. Apparently, there is such a thing as too much detail in a novel. Did you know people audibly groan when they reach big, thick, ugly chunks of narrative? They do. And they often skim over, or down right, skip them altogether. I know this for a fact because it's something I do myself.

Overwriting, or purple prose, is probably one of the worst things you can do to your writing. Not only does it grind the story to a halt, but it can be tedious to read and often unnecessary. Why torture your reader? The truth of the matter is, we, the attention deficit society that we are, need action, dialogue, and white space somewhere on the page so our eyeballs don't dry up from lack of blinking.

Look, I know the sunrise is gorgeous in your head and all you want to do is convey the image to the reader with your precious words. But you do not need three paragraphs about the morning dew kissing the grass and how the blades tickle the soles of your feet as the overwhelmingly sweet smell of nature washes over you and the sun warms your upturned face as you stare up at the sky, void of clouds, even the big fat puffy ones, you know the ones you used to stare at as a child when you laid on the hill and tried to make out what their shapes resembled. No. Just spare us. It's a lovely day, we get it, move on.

I have this saying. It's a simple little saying that rhymes and I am going to pass it along to you.

More than three sets your reader free.

This means, if you use more than three sentences to describe something then you might as well let your reader go. To be honest, three sentences is even pushing it, but sometimes that extra line about the heated granules of sand under your sensitive footsies is necessary. Sometimes. Not always.

There seems to be one exception to overwriting. Historical Fiction. For some reason it is not only accepted, but also encouraged. Don't ask me why, I am just as stumped over this as you are.

What a fantastic little list of things I learned. Hopefully, you've learned something. And if you haven't, I can only assume you've been entertained by the witty way in which I delivered my list.


Evangeline said...

What if I would take out "that I baked yesterday"?

T.L Tyson said...

You could take all those words out, but it depends on the context of the sentence. I wanted to highlight the unnecessary 'that' as it is something I often do. I think I removed 1000 from the first draft of Seeking Eleanor.

"I baked yesterday" give time frame and a indicator as to who baked the pie. Ifyou remove it, the pie could have been baked today and by someone else.

Polution said...

I'd get rid of 'down' as well.

T.L Tyson said...

It was a crappy sentence, leave me alone. :D

Calvin said...

A very educational post. Definitely will help me on my project. Is it okay to infodump and then edit it down? This writing stuff is harder then it should be. Thanks for the help.

T.L Tyson said...

@ Calvin - I think for the first draft anything goes, then you edit it after. I myself am aware of the info dumps as I go, as well as the other things mentioned, but most writers just get it all down and deal with the mess after. :D

Eleanor Raif said...

Hey thanks for laying it out for me. I read the overwriting thing with a bit of a cringe until you said that historical fiction was the exception. Phew! I'll have to work on it when I get back on that sci-fi book collecting dust in my old .doc files. Authonomy has been helpful for that. Putting my stuff out there and, like, having people READ it. Like THAT was supposed to happen....

T.L Tyson said...

@Eleanor Having people read it is the first step. Finding someone you trust who will be honest with you regardless of your feelings is step number two. :D You're on your way by simply being aware of your writing and wanting to grow.