Tag Archive | writing strategies

Severus Snape & The Sound Of Words

Authors have been doing it for centuries – creating characters whose very name gives you a sense of their personality.

Charles Dickens was a master of the art. He was the man who gave us Fagin (nasty sounding type), John Jarndyce (a kindly, upstanding lawyer, Ebeneezer Scrooge (would you trust him?) and Uriah Heep (can’t you hear him snivelling?)

Across the years and across the genres, authors pick names that sound right for their characters – Lee Child gave us the ex-military, wandering tough man Jack Reacher, while J K Rowling turned to alliteration for the sinister Severus Snape.

severus-snapeAs an author, I know that choosing the names of characters – whether main protagonist or bit part – is very important. I like names that aren’t too long but somehow give an idea of what a person’s like.

For my schoolboy hero in The Vault I picked Adam Strong, while the narrator of Pagan’s Sphinx is overland expedition leader Ben Drummond. (Took me a while to get his name right – he was Will Lewis for a while but even despite my Welsh heritage I knew that couldn’t be his real name.)

But is there more to it than just randomly picking a name that sounds right? What makes a name sound right?

Yesterday, via a post on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, I was introduced to the concept of phonaesthesia. Big word but a curiously simple idea. The basic concept is some individual sounds convey ideas of shape, movement etc.

For example, many words that start ‘fl…’ are to do with airborne movement – e.g. fly, flick, flee, flap. Think about these ones – rubble, rugged, rough, rumble. Any connection? Or these – glitz, glamour, glee, glance and glare.

And it’s clearly not all to do with the fact that many words might derive from a common root. Apparently a study involving both American college students and Tamil speakers showed that when asked to choose which word – bouba or kiki – represents a round boulder and which one a jagged boulder, 95% picked kiki as the jagged shape.

There’s a lot more – fascinating – detail in the Oxford Dictionaries post, which concludes with this:

“A similar test—though far more imaginative—is offered by linguist David Crystal: you have to crash-land your spaceship. Two planets are equally close by. One is inhabited by Lamonians, the other teems with Grataks. Which do you choose?”

You’d have to go with the Lamonians wouldn’t you? The Grataks? Well, they just sound far too gratakly to be safe.

I thought this was an interesting one to share. Might give a new dimension to picking names for characters – see what other words are in the dictionary starting with the same syllable and see how that fits. Could be particularly useful for sci-fi and fantasy writers who are inventing names from scratch – I mean, you’re not going to get very far with a villain called Blumbest or a heroine called Crungle are you?Competition link


Avoiding Hooptedoodle

Elmore Leonard – who died last month – was known for taking liberties with grammar and famed for a gritty, succinct style that won him many admirers, including both readers and fellow authors.Elmore-Leonard-006

As an author, Leonard was renowned in particular for his authentic-sounding dialogue. He got his first break writing Western pulp fiction novels in the 1950s – a number of which were later turned into films, including Valdez Is Coming and 3.10 To Yuma.

But as well as breaking the rules he didn’t like, Leonard came up with a suitably succinct top ten of tips for other writers.

In a 2001 essay for the New York Times, he explained: “These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.”

His 10 rules were:

  1. Never open with the weather.
  2. Avoid prologues
  3. Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the said ‘said’.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  6. Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose’.
  7. Use regional dialect – patois – sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places or things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Now, obviously, reading is a very subjective affair. Elmore Leonard’s novels won’t be to everybody’s taste. I also freely admit to breaking quite a few of Leonard’s rules in my own books.

But there’s a lot of sense in what he says. I might come back to some of them in more detail in another post but there’s also a crucial ’11th’ rule that Leonard said summarised the other 10:

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

“Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)”

If you want to read Leonard’s piece for the NY Times in full then click here. I’ve also got an alternative take on his rules that I would summarise as:

  • Don’t state the obvious – let readers work out emotions etc from what your characters do and say.
  • Leave plenty to the imagination – just give readers a few pointers to guide them.

Any thoughts on Leonard’s rules? Any you’d strongly disagree with (as a reader or a writer) or any you’d like to add?

NB. ‘Hooptedoodle’ is what Leonard described as a writer breaking loose with a bunch of pretty words that, while nice, don’t add anything to the story.

Multiple Intelligences

As a teacher, one thing that’s drummed into you while you’re learning how to teach is that different people learn in different ways.

It’s an idea that I think could also be applied to readers – and used by authors thinking about how to target their books to a particular audience.

learning practical

Like all things to do with education, there’s a huge amount written on the subject – including a lot of jargon. (Educators just love complex theories that baffle the uninitiated.)

But the basic concept is pretty straightforward. For example, I like to learn through a mixture of reading, listening and doing. I don’t have a lot of patience with instruction sheets – I’m like the boy in the picture above, although I will look at the instructions when I’m not sure what to do next (or when it’s all gone wrong).

There are lots of terms that get bandied around but the important one here is multiple intelligences. This is the theory that the brain uses a number of different pathways to learn – and we each combine these ‘intelligences’ in different ratios.

The terms and number of intelligences vary. Some people list three main ones: auditory, visual and tactile. Others – like in the chart below – are more complex:learning multiple-intelligences-infographicBut the other day I started wondering whether we, as writers, can also apply the theory to our readers?

After all, everyone knows that literature is extremely subjective. Something that’s a work of art to me may well leave another person cold.

How much of that, though, is a reflection of our multiple intelligences? People don’t just learn in different ways, they also read in different ways.

Someone with a bias towards auditory (aural/musical) learning might well be the kind of person who verbalises a text – either literally reading out loud or hearing the words in their head. People who are logical/mathematical might like crime novels or anything involving a puzzle (as long as it makes sense and is properly explained).

A kinaesthetic (tactile) learner may reflect that preference in the way they read. Perhaps just it’s the fact they can’t sit still – or maybe they like stories that involve lots of action and dialogue. They’ll be bored rigid by lengthy expositions (like this one), whereas a finely crafted explanation will go down a treat with those of a verbal/linguistic bent. Likewise, readers of a visual inclination might enjoy a detailed description that allows them to really ‘see’ a scene.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple, as people don’t generally use just one intelligence but a combination. However, maybe we can use the theory to analyse our books and think about what type of readers we’re appealing to and using this to fine tune our prose to best effect.

I could go on but hopefully intelligent people like you will have got the general idea by now.

So, that’s my basic take on multiple intelligences. It might not be entirely how a textbook theorist would explain it but this is my version. (I doubt if I’m the first person to think of applying the multiple intelligences theory to reading but I’ve not come across it before.)

The question of whether authors can develop it to apply to readers – and how useful that would be – I’ll leave to you! Any ideas or comments?

Curing Writer’s Block

I’ve noticed a few posts recently on the subject of writer’s block so – for what they’re worth – I thought I’d offer my ideas for how to overcome it.

Before you read any further, though, I’ve got to point out that I’m not claiming to have any miracle cure. These just happen to be things that work for me:

1. Write something different. Just because inspiration has totally dried up for your novel/story/poem, this doesn’t mean you can’t write anything.

Many authors – most of them far more famous and successful than me – will tell you that to be a writer, the most important thing is to write.

So, write a blog post, write an email to a friend you haven’t been in touch with for ages, write a real letter (remember them) to your grandmother/mother/old teacher. Alternatively write to the your local newspaper with a rant about something that winds you up. Write a diary.

Whatever you write, any kind of writing is an opportunity to practice useful skills – the ability to write proper like what I does, to stretch your vocabulary, paraphrase, summarise, etc, etc.

2. Edit. If nothing new is coming to you, don’t waste time getting frustrated but use it to go back and spend some time editing previous chapters/stories/poems.

Looking back at what you wrote six months ago might help you get back in the flow and stimulate new ideas. And if it doesn’t? Well, at least you might spot some of the embarrassing typos in your first chapters.

3. Get out and sweat! Personally, I find my best story ideas come when I’m running or cycling. There’s something about those kinds of exercise that I find extremely therapeutic.

I think one reason that it really helps to get up and going out for a run or a ride is that it forces you away from the problem. I’m not consciously thinking about much except where to put my feet or which way to go.

For me, if I’m suffering from writer’s block then sitting staring at my laptop screen trying to make my brain come up with something creative is the worst thing I can do. If I’m running or cycling then my conscious is pretty well occupied – giving my subconscious time to relax and let out all the ideas that have been bottled up.

4. Read. If the writing just isn’t happening then don’t force it. Go and read someone else’s work. A good read can take your mind off your own frustrations, help you relax and maybe even inspire you with some fresh ideas.

Any other thoughts? I also think that the worst thing to do is to get stressed about it. So, you’ve got writer’s block? Well, everyone gets it. It’s a phase, it will pass… but the more you worry, the longer it will take.

And, tempting though it may be, the answer is not more coffee/alcohol or other stimulants. They may get your brain buzzing but they probably won’t have much effect on your creativity.

That’s my thoughts. Any other cures or observations?

Brutality Works

I was in the shrubbery today. Working with shears, secateurs and – for the really big bits – a pair of heavy-duty loppers that will cut through branches as thick as my wrist.

The first bush I tackled was a rhododendron. It looked quite good but hadn’t been cut back for years and was taking up too much space.

To begin, I was quite careful: just cutting away a few outer branches until I could see what was behind. Then I got progressively more brutal. There was lots of dead wood in the centre and not much life. Plus I realised the rhododendron was blocking out a hydrangea that was just coming into flower.

Half an hour later, the rhododendron was half its previous size. The thing is, though, it now looks better. The straggly, intertwined jungle is no more. Rhododendrons are tough. It still has plenty of strong growth at the base and will soon send out new shoots. In the meantime, the hydrangea can show off its blooms – and get a much bigger share of the light.

All of which is a good metaphor for how to edit a book.

Can't see the shrubbery for the rhododendron.

Can’t see the shrubbery for the rhododendron.

When I write, I concentrate on getting the story out. That’s the most important thing. I start at the beginning and work through to the end. (I have a rough plan, mostly in my head, but all sorts of things generally develop along the way).

But getting to the last page is only the end of the first step. Then it’s time to get the book ready for readers and less is nearly always more.

Stories take many forms. They grow from the seeds that are our ideas. Sometimes they grow fast and straight, sometimes they twist and turn into convoluted shapes.

But it’s essential we make sure they’re not full of deadwood, broken branches… or have simply grown too big. (I’ve just finished reading an historical epic by a well-known author; a great story in many ways but extremely over-blown and full of so many obscure words that sometimes the sense of the narrative was lost.)

So, when editing, it’s important not to be afraid to prune hard. All authors will have turns of phrase, bits of description, snatches of dialogue that we are loathe to throw away but it’s important to think about whether they really add to the story.

It can be a hard thing to do – and I probably should be more ruthless with my own work! – but sometimes being a bit brutal with our work can actually be the best thing for it.

Friday Night Boogie

It’s Friday night here. I’ve just added another 500 words to the thousand-odd that I wrote this afternoon. I’ve got a glass of whisky beside me and some classic soul/funk playing. Life is good.

Getting 1,500+ words written today is particularly reassuring after suffering from writer’s block for about a month. In the end, the cure was relatively simple: I didn’t try writing anything new but sat down and went through some corrections to a proof of the book’s first few chapters.

Then on Monday I just sat down and got back to work on Church Of The White Rabbits. Suddenly the end of the novel looks back within reach.

Enjoy your own Friday night. Kick back, relax… and enjoy The Emotions. (Or go and seek something else if this isn’t your cup of tea!)


Frustrated By Rabbits

Writer’s block is so annoying. A couple of months ago all was fine. My current project seemed to be on a roll. I was writing one chapter straight after another, barely having to pause for thought.

It’s  the kind of mental zone any author loves to be in. The words are flowing, the end is in sight and there’s even a (loose) plan on how to get there. (And I do so hate having to think.)

But then… Well, it all started to slow down a month or so ago.

I partly blame life – the real kind – for interfering. Not only did I have more work on but we’d got buyers for our house in Cornwall. With the real possibility of getting some money in the bank within a few months, Carolyn and I then couldn’t help but start to look at possible homes around here.

Inevitably more hours spent working (and thinking about work) and looking at options for places to live have meant less time for writing. All these things going on probably also meant less spare capacity for my brain to cook up plots, scenarios and dialogue. (Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis will know that my mind is the kind that works best when not given any conscious instructions – let ideas fester on their own and my subconscious will eventually dish out the goods.)

The fact that the weather has finally turned nice hasn’t helped either. All that sunshine out there makes me look out of the window rather than at the screen in front of me.

To begin with, I didn’t worry when the word flow began to dip. We went off on holiday for 12 days at the end of May but we’ve been back for more than a week now and I was hoping to do some writing this evening.

Then I looked at where I’d left it with the White Rabbits… and my brain just feels like it’s full of sawdust! I know roughly what’s left to write. I’ve got a vague outline – and various loose threads to tie together. But it just isn’t coming.

So what’s the answer – whisky, sleep, exercise, yoga, another holiday?

Arrrrgh. Writer’s block isn’t just annoying. It’s gut-churning, fingernail-chewing, mind-numbing, anxiety-making, confidence-sapping frustration. Hate it!

Any tips on how to slay the beast and awaken my inspiration?

Guest Post – Research For Writers

It’s time for another guest post – and today I’m welcoming back fellow author Jessica Lave with her thoughts on research. Take it away, Jessica:

Stop Procrastinating & Dig In

jessica2Research is a four-letter word for some writers. It’s time-consuming, it’s not always clear when we need it, and the sheer volume of information out there is pretty intimidating.

Why Research Matters

Writers make things up on a daily basis. We’re professional make-believers, compulsive liars, and spend substantial time in a fictionalized version of reality. Why research when we can just as easily make something up?

Readers can only be asked to push their imaginations so far. If a writer constructs a contemporary story in a real city, the history, intersections, colloquialisms, and landmarks had all better match up, or the locals will be after blood.

Even in science fiction or fantasy, the laws of physics and bounds of reality still apply. The writer must set up exceptions throughout the story so the reader can keep up with the “rules” of the fictional world. It’s easy to make up an explanation for why something happens in a book, but a reader has to buy the explanation, and that’s where research comes in.

Research keeps a story balanced with a good blend of fact and fiction.

When to Research

Writers sometimes struggle to separate imagination from reality. It’s hard to experience the story from a reader’s perspective. But, whether it’s science fiction, historical romance, or contemporary crime fiction, there’s a point at which readers will buy into the story’s premises, and a point at which they’ll put the book down, shake their heads, and write a two-star review saying, ‘It just wasn’t very realistic/believable/good.’

Beta readers are invaluable when it comes to research – they’ll tell you what is or isn’t believable and ask questions if something was confusing. However, a good writer thinks a few steps ahead – while writing, or at least during the editing process – about the research needed to make the story work.

If you as the writer have to stop and ask yourself about something in the story, you need to research it. How long does it take to fly from London to New York? Did people still send telegrams in 1968? How do I write about a mathematician when I barely understood high school algebra? You don’t need to be a frequent flier, over the age of 60, or understand advanced mathematics to write these things into your story. You just need to investigate.

Good Research Strategies

Strategy depends on your work style. If you work best without interruptions, it’s best to make notes as you go and research later on. Vocalizing your questions and thought process – yes, talking to yourself about your book – can help you identify the parts of the story that need more research.

If you prefer a little background noise while you write, some movies or even books on tape (ones in your genre!) can be a great way to research style and dialogue. Connecting with settings, action, and dialogue similar to your story fuels the imagination.

If you are a multi-tasker and flit around while you write – checking your email or Facebook or getting up for a snack or a drink on a regular basis – then keeping a few “research tabs” in your browser may work for you.

Some good starter pages:

  •  A dictionary/thesaurus website: for that perfect word
  • A name generator or baby names website: for character names
  • Google Maps: for cities, street names, travel times, etc.
  • IMDb: for movie buff characters, or to research films to watch while you write
  • A news source: for current events. Current events can inform your characters’ surroundings and worldviews, and can even be a good source for plot development.
  • And, it’s not necessarily research, but pull up a music player and tune in. It’ll make all that “homework” go by in no time!

Why Research?

I love research and learning new things, but when I’m in the middle of a story, it’s a battle to say “no” to the little devil on my shoulder who wants to throw stuff at the wall and hope it sticks, and say “yes” to the pulsing cursor nagging at me in the search engine bar.

Why research? Because without it, you’re just a liar. With it, you’re a novelist.

quietontheset-coverABOUT THE AUTHOR:

By day, I work in a cubicle tending to an e-commerce website. By night, I blog, I review television shows and films, and occasionally I settle down long enough to write a novel. I’ve always had a diverse set of interests, which has led me to study everything from ethics to yoga to film, but the one thing that has stayed consistent is my enthusiasm for writing.

Writing is my way of bringing my interests together—I may not be able to speak six languages, pick the lock on a door, or cook a five-course meal without a recipe, but I can write about a character who can, and that’s the next best thing!

Visit me on my website at JessicaLave.com, follow me on Twitter @jessinsists, or check out my other books on Goodreads. My new book, Quiet on the Set, is available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon.

Give Me A Dictaphone

Why is it the best ideas always come when it’s impossible to write them down?

In the past I used to take an MP3 player when I went running or to the gym. Like many people, I found something fast, with a good rhythm – and sometimes a dash of aggression – helped spur me on when otherwise I might have given up.

These days, for some reason, I seem to have fallen out of the habit of having a music player with me. Now when I go running, cycling or walking I find my mind wandering with no music on which to concentrate.

My ‘forebrain’ is busy with the basic stuff like where to put my feet and which way to turn, leaving the rest of my head free to go where it pleases. Sometimes the mental ramblings are inconsequential stuff about work/life/food etc. Quite often, though, I’m thinking about plot lines for my writing and inspiration seems to strike frequently enough to make the process quite productive. Many times, I can run through entire scenes – dialogue and all – in my head.

But I never have any paper or a pen with me! The trouble is, I know that I have good ideas for my stories and sometimes I remember them. My fear is that I can’t remember them all or in their entirety.

And if I don’t remember everything, what happens to my great ideas? Will all those neat solutions for plot twists that have been bothering me just evaporate and go back into the ether? Or will they re-emerge as ‘new’ ideas another day?

I think I’m going to have to get a Dictaphone. That way I might not lose so many ideas. Or do I need to learn some new memory techniques for recalling my thoughts?

Taking a Dictaphone out running might seem a bit odd. Once upon a time the locals might have thought me mad if they saw me running the local paths talking to myself, nowadays they’ll probably just think I’m some sad individual who can’t live without their mobile phone. (Not sure which scenario is worse.)

Let The Subconscious Steer

Personally, I’m not too hot on planning what I write. I’m too lazy/impatient/easily distracted by alternative story lines (delete as appropriate).


Random image – Danish sculpture

In other parts of my life – when it comes to holidays or what’s for dinner for example – I’m happy thinking ahead. But spending hours (weeks) working out the structure for a novel? Nah. What’s the point?

I’m currently getting close to the end of my next book. Well, the first draft anyway. I reckon that I’m about four chapters or 25,000 words away from the finish.

But I’d come to a bit of a halt recently so I shoved it to one side for a few days while I got on with a different project (something non-fiction I’m working on). Then, the other evening, I decided it was time to pick up the novel again so I just sat down and started writing.

I had no idea what was going to come out and found myself writing a scene involving three teenage boys throwing a dead jellyfish around. I liked the scene but it had no obvious connection with anything that had gone before or that might lead the book forwards.

The next day, though, I was off on a bike ride and it suddenly came to me – for some reason I find my brain is at its most productive when I’m walking or cycling. The new scene leads neatly into a situation that needs to be resolved and also helps set up something else that I need to work into the climax of the novel.

Planning? Pah. Throw away all those self-help, ‘how to write a novel’ books. Just sit down and write. You might have no idea what’s going to come out but you might be pleasantly surprised.

When it comes to the final edit, the scene with the dead jellyfish might get cut (probably not) but that doesn’t matter. It got me moving and on to the next phase. To my mind it’s a lot easier to sit down, write and then edit. By that stage at least you’ve got something to work with.

To me, planning seems like going about it backwards. You’re editing the book and then writing. Where’s the fun and spontaneity in that?

I have ideas in my head but one of the best parts about writing a book is discovering how I’m going to get there. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it comes completely out of the blue. What would I do with a plan? What happens if I come up with an idea for a scene or plot line that just doesn’t fit in?

I may not be the greatest novelist ever but that’s not the point. I’m a writer because I love writing and I love imagining and I love seeing what happens. I say no to planning. Just sit down and let the subconscious steer.