Tag Archives: writer

Word up! Rulz No.1

More by using Less: Dump your Darlings

There aren’t any rules in creative writing but…. there kind of are.

At least, if you’re a newbie, unpublished, unpractised writer, then you ought to learn the ‘unwritten’ laws of the craft. Once you are up and running, then respected and published and lauded, you can break every rule in the book (so long as you are doing so for a reason). For now, learn your craft.

Lets look first at the “rookie mistakes” – probably the most common is to cram sentences with adjectives and adverbs. A new writer will often fall in love with words and phrases and become over-enthusiastic in their application. However, overly verbose writing deadens the impact of the sentence – which defeats its purpose. By all means, use adjectives but go easy and be clear. An example of an adjective/adverb heavy sentence:

A dark grey, crinkled brow of solemn cloud crept sluggishly over the majestic hills that were patchily bruised with a blackish purple moss and randomly spiked with prickly yellow furze.’

There is too much going on in this sentence. Each individual image is in competition for the readers’ attention. The result is a boring blur. Think about what is necessary here. Everyone knows furze is yellow and prickly, so do you need to inform the reader of these facts? “Majestic” doesn’t really do anything here – except communicate that the hill is big, which one would assume. I would pare the sentence to the following:

‘A cloud slugged over the hills.’

I hope you can see how ‘less is more’ here. The image is much stronger without shoehorning in all those adjectives/adverbs.

A note on adverbs:

Adverbs have a bad reputation in the literary world. Many writers avoid them completely (there’s one right there). I would suggest you use them with caution and very, very sparingly (see, another one) and never, ever with speech attribution (“she said nervously”).

Adverbs like “suddenly” or “immediately” are thought of as cliché traffic lights. If something happens unexpectedly in a story, you don’t need to “flag it” to make the reader aware that this was a “sudden” action – it should be obvious. So, don’t use them.

Over reliance on adjectives and adverbs is a typical, and some would say necessary, phase for those beginning their writing journey. So, don’t worry if you recognize your own writing here. As “mistakes” go, the over use of adjectives and adverbs is a useful one, as it serves to build your vocabulary. All good writers should have this phase. Just keep calm, carry on, edit down the adjectives and remove the adverbs – and you’re on your way.


Veritably Verbose

 

Street Graffiti, Norwich, March 2014

 

I speak English, Hungarian, French and Irish and I write, ergo  I love words. However, as a teacher of creative writing, I know that the mis/over use of words, particularly adjectives and adverbs, is the most common ‘fault’ you’ll find in the work of novice writers. Lack of confidence in writing skills will have new writers shoehorn as many descriptive words as they can get into a sentence – resulting in a lot of bling and little substance. The advanced writer will ‘show’ an emotion/atmosphere/interpretation in a pared down manner.

It’s hard to ween yourself off adjectives and adverbs. Part of the problem is that there are so many descriptive words in the English language, a tongue with more word-families than any other language. This fact is rooted in the English language’s parentage:  French and German, and also the English language’s absorption of words from a multitude of other tongues.  Thus, there  are many English words that describe quite similarly (ie “loving” is from German and “amorous” is from French), so it is easy to get carried away and over do it, with such a lavish spread on offer. But in order to improve, you need to exercise restraint.

That is not to say you can’t enjoy words. Most of my favourite words are loan words and include: “pyjama” and “shampoo” which come from India (though I’m not sure of the specific languages), “Hacienda” and “siesta” which are Spanish. “Itsy-bitsy”, “paprika”, “coach”, “goulash”, “hussar” and “biro” which are Hungarian. “Smithereen”, “galore”, “banshee”, “slew”, “brogue”, “kibosh”, “hobo”, “gansey” and “shanty” which come from Irish. I enjoy writing them, I love saying them – I’ve just got to be careful about stuffing my prose with too many descriptive and exotic words. Less is usually more. I like to use the painter’s palette analogy – if you add blue to yellow, you get green. If you add blue, yellow, red, green, gray, you get mud. Too many descriptive words, as lovely as they are on their own, will muddy the picture you are trying to create.

Words are fun, go ahead and celebrate words – but do so in moderation…


Truth Will Set You Free

A Truthful Shop, Brighton.

Truth is not fact.  A fact is, well, a fact – something undeniable like ‘the sun rises in the east’. Truth is far less easy to quantify, to prove, to grasp. Truth is more subjective than fact, and depends on the belief system of the beholder.Truth is the reality you feel it to be and the artist’s job is to capture and communicate that truth.

Writing from truth, what you feel passionate about, can lend work real emotion, emotion difficult to conjure otherwise. Tears in a writer will bring tears to a reader. And as an artist, it is often your job to stand naked in front of the world, truth in hand. Truth is writing what you believe.

Writing from fact is reportage, when you write using ‘truth’ you add extra spice and colour to the mixture to make it fiction, more interesting, and more moving.

And remember, an issue with writing from reality is that ironically, fact is often too weird and too unbelievable to work as fiction. Your readers will say, ‘oh, come on, that would never happen.’ And you can’t phone them all up and say, ‘actually, it did. I’m not making it up. I once knew this bloke…’ Instead, you’ve often got to tone down the story to make it more credible. Real-life coincidences can be particularly problematic here.

So, be careful with facts… but always write with truth.


And your point is…?

If you fly into the sun…

Theme is the main idea behind a story/poem/song. It is often a universal idea or philosophy. Think of Aesop’s Fables (The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf). On one level the stories are simple tales that amuse children but they also carry a second, deeper message – a universal truth. This moral is the theme. Such themes are often relevant to everyone, everywhere, in every language, in every culture.

For your writing to be considered ‘art’ you ought to have a theme. Therefore, as well as writing a story whereby Joe wants Natalie, Joe gets Natalie, Joe loses Natalie – you include an underlying message like: “jealousy kills love’.

As you write your story, don’t lose sight of your theme. Some writers use the theme as their title (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). Though this is not common, nor encouraged, using your theme as a provisional title on your Work In Progress might keep you focused on your message as you are writing. It is also possible that your theme  may become a tagline or catchphrase associated with your story, like “Greed is good” for Wallstreet (albeit in contrary form).

Examples: your theme could be a comment on the role that luck plays in a person’s life, or your belief that all beings are interconnected. Moralistic writers might warn against the seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. Alternatively, a writer may want to say such indulgences make the world go around. Whatever your theme is, it is your “message” or “philosophy” and ought to be consistently evident in your story.

Once you have found your theme, a way of reminding the reader of its centrality to your story is to place symbolic “motifs” throughout your work. That is to say, if your theme is jealousy, and a widely known symbol of jealousy is “green eyes” – you could give your character green eyes and/or have him own a green eyed statue that unnerves him. You might also have a lot of “green” in your story. Thus, green becomes your story’s “motif” and will help to create a sense of unity in the piece.


You On Your Rocking Chair, Me On My Bench

Van Gogh’s Portrait of Gauguin’s Chair

Setting and character description are linked. A man who favours a torn leather armchair filled with cushions is  quite different from a man who rathers sleek minimalist designer furniture. The setting should complement and reflect the character.

It is often effective to draw around the character, sketch them in their absence. What type of chair do they favour? Wallpaper? House? What book is left on their bedside table? Is their office desk obsessively orderly or natty and neat?

I have a background in fine art painting and I find painting is a great way to understand this aspect of character description – the concept of describing your characters by drawing around them rather than delivering a direct portrait of the same. I like to compare these two portraits by Vincent Van Gogh: one a self portrait and the other Van Gogh’s portrait of Paul Gauguin.

What do you think Vincent is communicating regarding his own and Gauguin’s character and personality?

(Bear in mind that Van Gogh and Gauguin were close once but their relationship became strained when they house-shared at Arles – when these portraits were painted.)

And how would you paint these two portraits in words?

Van Gogh’s Chair, Self Portrait


Saved by a Ukulele

Uke

I’ve got a brand new Ukulele. A purple one. I’ve acquired it because over the next five months I have to write a novel, a screen play and a radio play. So, rather than a) freak out or b) knuckle down, I’ve done what any self-respecting writer worth their displacement activity will do – I’ve decided to learn to play a musical instrument.

This makes no sense. Nor is it supposed to. I’m feeling over-whelmed, so my brain flails around for something to take my mind off the big task at hand… and I came up with Ukelele playing, of course.

This is not utter insanity (though it is probably closely related) I intend on working in some basic ukulele playing into my radio play. Though, more importantly, it is allowing me to be a child. I am an award winning writer, with a prestigious MA, who has published and has had work broadcast. I am also a former student of the visual arts. Therefore, when I write or paint or draw, there’s pressure to be good, to deliver to a professional standard – which bleeds some of the creative enjoyment from the activity. And I miss that.

I’m unmusical. I have a voice like a strangled cat crashing though a shattering window and early attempts at piano, well, they didn’t take. So, I’m rather confident that I’ll be rotten on the ukulele too. Hurrah! Thus, my purple ukulele will allow me to be a child again – and if I never progress past three chords,  I won’t care. In fact, I’ll wallow in it and seek refuge in it when the pressure of what I must achieve over the coming months seems too much.

And if the book, screenplay and radio play don’t fly – I can always take up busking.

All together now, 1,2,3,4…


My Grandma Always Says…

Image

The graveyard is full of indispensable men. 

Writers worth their ink need to be making some point with their story. By that, I mean your tale ought not be solely just a boy-meets-loses-regains-girl trip.

Beneath your storyline, there should be something else going on, a deeper message, your comment on how humanity works, or doesn’t. It is a writer’s (or artist’s) job to present the human condition as they interpret it. It isn’t meant to be heavy and scary, I’m simply suggesting that once you’ve written your story, or even just have an idea for one, you should sit back and consider what it could be saying on a larger, universal scale.

A good way to understand this concept is to consider Aesop’s Fables. Each one is a tale that could be enjoyed on a superficial level by a child, yet there is a deeper meaning, or moral, which endeavors to teach the child some universal truth about life, ie being slow yet determined is often better than being hasty and fickle (Tortoise and the Hare).

A good place to seek inspiration is a list of proverbs. A proverb is usually a metaphor and encapsulates in simple terms, a lesson from the common experience of humanity. Here’s an exercise that might get you going: sit down and have a think about the specific meaning of the following and then go freewrite a story illustrating this philosophy.

You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.

A little learning is a dangerous thing.

The belly has no ears.

Trees don’t grow to the sky.

A dumb priest never got a parish.

The only free cheese is in the mousetrap.

Eaten bread is soon forgotten.

The squeaky door gets the oil.

 

Image

 

 


Me Time

cropped-rtemagicc_sue-healy.jpg

 

I’ve got a younger colleague who is rather plugged in to all things techie and ITish – and thanks to his urging, I’m now not only twittering, but also looking at doing some links to pdfs of my stories and perhaps a kindle collection down the line (thanks again, Dan!). In the meantime, if any of you are interested, here are some stories of mine already published online.

The Last of the Shower – A quirky and nostalgic punk looks to wake his dead bandmate: HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association Competition has ‘The Last of the Shower” on their site (which won the2011 Award).

Grapefruit – An over-privileged youth is accused of a sexual misdemeanour. Winner of the Meridian Award.

Ha-Ha A blackly comic story, with a twist. A runner up in the Limnisa/Bluethumbnail Competition:

The Pretender – A tale with a twist and intrigue, which was ‘highly commended’ in the Twisted Stringybark competition. ‘The Pretender’ can be downloaded as part of an anthology:

Thanks for the interest!


Word up

Bang!

As a linguist and a writer, I love words. However, as a teacher of creative writing, I know that the mis/over use of words, particularly adjectives and adverbs, is the most common ‘fault’ you’ll find in the work of novice writers.Insecurity will have new writers shoehorn as many descriptive words as they can get into a sentence – with the result akin to an over ‘bling-ed’ Christmas tree. The advanced writer will ‘show’ an emotion/atmosphere/interpretation without  resorting to a heavy-handed sprinkling of descriptive words.

It’s hard to ween yourself off adjectives and adverbs. Part of the problem is that there are so many words in the English language, a tongue with more word-families than any other language. This fact is rooted English having sprung from French and German, so there are English words that describe quite similarly (ie “loving” is from German and “amorous” is from French). And with such a lavish spread on offer, it is hard for the newbie writer to exercise restraint. Oh but, to improve, you must.

That is not to say you can’t enjoy words. English has magpied extensively from many languages. Most of my favourite words are ‘borrowed’ words and include: “pyjama” and “shampoo” which come from India (though I’m not sure of the specific languages), “Hacienda” and “siesta” which are Spanish. “Itsy-bitsy”, “paprika”, “coach”, “goulash”, “hussar” and “biro” which are Hungarian. “Smithereen”, “galore”, “banshee”, “slew”, “brogue”, “kibosh”, ‘hobo’ and “shanty” which come from Irish. I enjoy writing them, I love saying them – to paraphrase Frank McCourt, it feels like having jewels in your mouth. I’ve just got to be careful about over using ‘exotic’ words in my prose. It can look pretentious.

And you don’t only construct literary art from words but they also set the tone of the piece and there are certain words and phrases that are closely associated with particular genres of writing. Romance type novels I associate with “tawny” and “chiselled”. SciFi writers invent words to name their machines, planets and creatures such as “Klingons” and “Zogathons”.

Words are fun, go ahead and celebrate words – but do so in moderation…


Tweet Thing

Me, when I was at the vanguard of all technology (age 17)

I’m middle aged. I’m 42. And this side of ‘40’ has thus far resulted in reading glasses, having to wash the grey from my hair more frequently and more trips to the doctor in the past year than I’ve had in the past 20 years. Once I’ve finally got my head together, it’s my body that goes all Pete Tong.

Recently, however, I’ve become aware of another symptom of middle age – I’m no longer a product of the world in which I reside. The world of my youth is gone, a distant age symbolised by long dead VCRs, Pac-Mans and Walkmans, smoking in pubs, dial landline telephones, typewriters and cassettes. The new world, feels strange, disconnected from me. I do not want it to be this way. I want to be part of this world. I try.  Look at me, typing on my laptop, texting on my phone, updating my blog, uploading photos, linking stories to YouTube, TED and my Facebook page. Me.

Yes me, who was, I’ll have you know, the first journalist in my hometown of Waterford to report on this new-fangled phenomenon called the ‘Internet’ way back in 1994. I’d been to New York and had seen it in action, me myself, personally like – came home and spread the word via my column in a local paper. So, I’m no Luddite, I’m all for the new. I just resent its alien nature, and wish it was as natural to me as, say, satellite TV was to my generation. Which is a very long winded way of announcing that only thanks to a younger, hipper and more plugged in colleague, I’ve returned to Twitter.

I joined Twitter yonks ago, but could never see the point in it – unless you were a celebrity and (sad) people were actually interested in what you were having for breakfast. So, I sort of gave up and linked my Twitter account to my blog and never checked it, nor tweeted. My colleague, Dan, has cajoled me into giving it another go, to tweet daily and make contact with cyber people, cyber readers and writers and publisher and agents and reviewers and people who might help my career (is mentioning that you’re doing this for networking reasons breaking some sort of etiquette?). So, I’ve updated my Twitter profile et al and I’ll give it a go. I’ll not be growing old gracefully, dammit!