Monthly Archives: April 2013

Why Prose is like a Diamond

I should start by admitting that I am behind on this analogy, bekindrewrite has written an excellent post on it here: http://bekindrewrite.com/2012/08/03/the-diamond-buyers-guide-to-writing-a-literary-gem/

As she rightly says, one of the things both diamonds and prose needs is Clarity. It’s one of my bugbears when editing, that so many sentences have the potential to mean more than one thing. If it’s not clear, if there’s even potential for a reader to get the wrong one, it is incumbent on the author to rephrase.

I’m not talking about lack of clarity in the plot or story as a whole: there are plenty of reasons one might want to keep things vague pending a twist, or the revelation of a mystery. I’m talking about clarity at the level of sentence structure.

Take this example:

I went looking for the dog we lost yesterday

There are two possibilities for what this means. Either, 1) I went looking (at an unspecified time) for the dog which yesterday became lost, OR 2) I went looking yesterday, for the dog we lost at some unspecified time.

It is often possible to resolve ambiguity with the careful placement of punctuation (usually, commas). “I went looking for the dog we lost, yesterday”, for example. But that’s a bit cumbersome, and a lot of people either don’t like or don’t understand commas (There’s a reason the English legal system did away with them for so long!). The better option is usually to rework the sentence, “Yesterday I went looking for the dog we lost” is also clearly meaning 2, “I went looking for the dog, which we lost yesterday” is clearly meaning 1, because it puts yesterday in a sub-clause with the losing of the dog, and outside the sub-clause containing the looking.

As a writer, it’s very easy to get caught in this particular trap, because of course we know what we meannt. There’s no shortcut for closely reading the text and considering whether there is any ambiguity in each phrase.

If you want to procrastinate from it for a while, try naming the capital cities of all the countries beginning with “R” …

.

.

.

.

.

Did you start with Moscow or Rome?

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Friday Fiction – A Couple More

One of the amazing things about Friday Fiction is how many widely varied stories one prompt can produce. In the region of 100 writers respond to the prompt and while there is often some overlap in themes and subjects, there is always a huge spectrum among the pieces. I’m sure this week will be no exception.

What’s different this week is that the picture generated three very different ideas in my head, all of them crying out to be written. I posted my first story yesterday and commented there that I had other ideas. I’ve now had a chance to pen them into stories and I can’t even tell you for sure which is my favourite, but in case you are interested, here are the other two, all based on the same picture prompt.

gnarled-tree

Justification 2

“She was beautiful. Gnarled, craggy and deformed, but absolutely beautiful.”

“So why do it?”

“It was her time.”

“Euthanasia? You’re telling me this was an act of kindness?”

“Absolutely. You’re too young to understand, but us old folks, there are some places we can’t stand to be.”

“You cut down a centuries-old tree because you didn’t want to hurt its feelings?”

“If I left her there, how’d she have coped? Concrete tower blocks all around; kids hanging swings from her lower branches; dogs crapping on her roots and pissing all over her bark… I couldn’t bear to see that happen.”

 

Loyalty

She’s always been there, shared everything: my first kiss with Lily Spacek, when she told me afterwards my sister paid her to do it; the time my brothers dared me to swing out over the creek and I came home with one missing tooth and a mouthful of blood; when Amy agreed to marry me and the tears I cried when our daughter was born.

That tree comforted me after Amy’s funeral and now they say it has to be cut down? Well, they can use it to make my coffin. Bury me with the best friend I ever had.

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Friday Fiction – Justification

Time for another FF story – prompted this week by this photo and led by the inestimable Ms Wisoff-Fields. A few notes and thoughts on process follow the story for those who are interested, but you are welcome to just read the story itself. Critique and comments are always welcome.

gnarled-tree

Justification

“She was beautiful. Gnarled, craggy and deformed, but absolutely beautiful.” He sounded wistful.

“So why do it?”

“It was her time.”

“Euthanasia? You’re telling me this was an act of kindness?”

“In the rainforest, there is so little space, light and nutrients, one tree has to die before another can grow. Every death is a rebirth. A sacrifice of one generation for the next.”

Sparrow had heard enough, she knocked on the door and waited for the guard to arrive.

“Sick bastard,” she muttered as he closed the door behind them.

“Most of them are, ma’am. Most of them are.”

****

When I first looked at this picture, a few ideas sprung immediately to mind – the idea of a crooked family tree, for example, full of dark places and flaws, or an old man remembering all the scenes from his life that the tree had seen. But when I actually started writing, this is the story which popped out.

Until half-way through, I hadn’t actually decided what this story was. I thought it was about a farmer who had cut down a tree because he didn’t think it would be happy living in the middle of a housing estate when the land went to be developed. And then… well, I don’t really know what happened, but we ended up in some sort of Silence of the Lambs scene, with a murderer who believes his own justifications and a still-innocent agent trying to make sense of him. After that, her name was the only thing left to decide, and then a bit (a lot) of tweaking to cut 147 words down to 100.

I actually think any or all of the others might be interesting to write, but it was hard enough to get this one down to 100 words and I think they would all need to be longer. Maybe I’ll come back to them later this week, if I get a bit of time. ***Update: Two other stories  from this prompt can be found here

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In Mon – Farewell to Words

Well now. When I first got the email with this week’s InMon prompt, I thought I’d be writing a tribute to Steph, who runs it. I also began to consider how I might replace InMon in my blogging schedule. And then I thought about the date. And then I read the post in full. And then I sighed.

So, no tribute to you, Steph. And you almost did yourself out of a participant!

Instead, here’s a story…

A Farewell To Words

“I put them there for a reason,” sighed Joanna, trying to keep the whine out of her voice. “I don’t go in for gratuity, you know I don’t, but sometimes you have to include the character’s language for realism.”

“I know, but the publishers won’t take it.” Ian flicked through the redacted copy in front of him. He could almost hear the author’s brain trying to come up with arguments through the silence on the telephone. “Sometimes you have to sacrifice perfection.”

“For what? Market share? There is no way Bilton would say ‘Shoot’ when he sees those bodies. No way! There’s perfection, Ian, and then there’s…” She stumbled over the words; she wanted to pick up the phone and throw it across the room.

“I know it’s frustrating, Jo, but that’s what they are telling me. They want the novel. They want to give it publicity, a good launch date … hell, they’re even offering you an advance. That’s unheard of for a first novel in this market.”

“Did you say hell?”

Ian took a breath. Now she was mad.

“Did you say HELL, Ian? Not heck? Not gee, or shoot? You said hell, because hell is what came to your lips when you heard I might get some money for seven years of researching and writing. Now imagine you’d just seen a room full of carved up little children. Imagine you had spent chapters and chapters looking for those children, talking to their parents, hoping against hope that they were alive somewhere. Are you imagining it, Ian? Are you imagining you open that door and see the bodies piled up, bits missing, unseeing eyes staring at you … Now, tell me you would say ‘Shoot’.”

“Jo…”

“No, Ian. Go back to them. Tell them the swearing stays. And if they don’t like it, they can go shoot themselves.”

******

A bit of backstory, for those who are interested.

The prompt “Farewell to words” reminded me of the Hemingway title, A Farewell To Arms. One of his most famous and successful novels, this book was originally published censored, with the swear words replaced by dashes. It was America, in the inter-war period, and such language was too much for the publishers and readership. But this is a bleak, tragic novel, set during the First World War. Undoubtedly the real-life soldiers for whom those events were real didn’t hold back their language, but Hemingway was obliged to when he depicted them.

Even now, authors face a conundrum of how and when to use blasphemy, swear words and other controversial language. It’s a difficult balance to strike – between realism and toning it down for the market. Graphic, horrific scenes seem to get a much easier ride, and yet as a reader, I think I struggle much more with some of the images created than the odd F- or S-. I thought that might be an interesting subject for a short, and the story above was born.

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No Plot, No Problem?

Given that there are “plot-driven” novels and “character-driven” novels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that if your characters are strong enough, you don’t need a decent plot and vice versa, but is that really the case?

Murder mysteries, for example, are highly plot-driven. They are all about who killed whom and how and why, and the reader can easily become sufficiently hooked on a good mystery that the characters are allowed to be fairly two-dimensional and uninteresting. But if we consider all the famous mystery stories, they have something in common – a fascinating, flawed, quirky sleuth. Certainly, there isn’t much character development in these stories: Hercule Poirot never acquires modesty and Columbo never cleans up his act; but if the plot is what drives us through that episode, it is the character who brings us back to the next.

The problem I seem to have is more the opposite. After lots of practice here at Elmowrites and elsewhere, I’ve honed my skills at writing short stories, but when it comes to a novel, I find the whole question of plot daunting.

It’s easy enough to tell a story: “this happened, then this, then that”, but to write a decent novel, you need PLOT. You need progression, development, cause and effect. There must be sub-plots, each of which needs all of that too, and the subplots must be nicely tied in with the main plot to create a cohesive whole.

Many story ideas boil down to “what if” questions: what if a child psychologist who had recently been shot treated a boy who could see dead people? What if an asteroid were about to hit earth? What if a crazy German dude took over a building that just happened to house a rebellious NYPD detective’s wife? What if I watched too many Bruce Willis movies?! (I haven’t seen the latest yet, looks like I may have to wait for the DVD now)

But a PLOT is about more than that initial question. A PLOT needs the author to add tension and excitement and near-misses; a PLOT requires us to build our hopes for the characters from a carefully-crafted sequence of successes and failures.

I’m beginning to understand why writers need to study novels as well as movies. In plot terms, most movies are short stories, novellas at best. (This is probably why some of the best movies of all time are based on short stories: Stand By Me, Shawshank Redemption, Brokeback Mountain… the list is long and distinguished). When great (and not-so-great) novels are turned into movies, fans generally grumble about all the stuff that’s been missed out, and this is why. You just can’t fit 80,000 words into 2 hours of screen time.

A short story still needs a plot. Even Bruce has to fail a few times before he finally succeeds. Especially when someone’s provided enough budget to fly a fighter jet into a freeway. But it doesn’t need to have quite so many complexities as a novel, and this richness is what a good plot provides.

So, if you’re telling your better half what you did today, no plot is no problem, but if you’re trying to land a publishing contract, better hunt one down!

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