Essential writing skills: penning things “in the style of”

One of the biggest challenges any author has to meet is mastering the mechanics of actually writing. Only once that has been nailed is it possible to tackle the other challenges of content. A lot of aspiring authors, I think, try to handle the whole lot at once, and it’s difficult.

Close-up of the filter controls of my Moog - er - quantum healing device...

Seeing as we’re on to music, here’s a close-up of the filter controls of my Moog synthesiser.

But there’s a quick and effective way around it. Does anybody remember Rick Wakeman? Brit seventies prog-rocker better known now as a TV personality, Grumpy Old Man, and comedian. Writers can learn from him. Really, and not just because he’s written a succession of books. A couple of years ago my wife and I went to an acoustic concert he gave which consisted of Wakeman, a Steinway Model D 9-foot grand, and a lot of hilarious anecdotes. In the middle of it he played a medley of nursery rhymes “in the style of” well known composers: Mozart, Bartok and so on.

As he explained, he’d been taught the technique at the Royal Schools of Music. The point being that to compose in a particular style, you had to understand it. It’s a learning technique – and, as Wakeman demonstrated, also very funny. Ever heard Three Blind Mice as written by Rachmaninov? I have. Actually, you can too…

That’s true of writing, too. One of the fast ways to get ahead in the style department, to my mind, is to emulate others – not with the intention of ultimately styling like they did, but so you can find out how they did it. The act of actually writing like somebody else is also incredibly valuable, because it forces you to think about how the words go together.

Hemingway is a good one. Everybody thinks he wrote in short sentences. He didn’t – some of his sentences were very long indeed. And, by deliberate design, his writing was also un-ornamented, and not just by economy of adjectives. The intent? It forced the reader to work – and so to connect better with the story and the characters.

These are just exercises, of course – the writing can be thrown away. Don’t be precious about something you’ve written. But practise something ‘in the style of’ often enough, and you’ll find you have mastery. Perhaps suddenly. From there, your own voice will emerge.

Do you practise writing like this?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: three steps to capturing your readers

Want to know how to capture your readers? Writing’s all about emotion – about the author transferring their own emotions to the page, and perhaps creating new emotions in the reader. It can be exhausting. As Hemingway once said, you sit down at the typewriter and bleed.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The funny thing is, it’s true of non-fiction as well as fiction. Non-fiction also takes readers on an emotional journey – at basic level, the satisfaction of having information. But more usually non-fiction involves an argument, a pathway – and it is here that the emotion emerges. As Charles Darwin discovered, way back when.

Actually doing it, of course, is the trick:

1. Capture. The first task is to engage the reader at that emotional level. This is done by hook-lines and promises – the promise of that emotional journey and satisfaction. This doesn’t mean writing advertising slogans, but it does mean calling to the reader at a level other than that of the literal content. Readers are captured not by that literal content, but by the promise of what that content will do for them – how they will feel when reading it.

2. Hold. Next step – deliver on that promise. Keep the reader’s interest. One way to do that is to make small promises of emotional return along the way.

3. Punch. It’s not enough to carry the reader on an emotional journey – it has to be memorable. And the way to deal with that is to deliver a punch. This can be a multiple punch – giving the reader a series of little hitsies through the work, before finally delivering the KO at the end. It can be sharp – think of the way short story writers put a twist into the last sentence. Or it can be paced to suit the work. Think of the last chapter in Hemingway’s Farewell To Arms.

Ultimately the question writers have to ask, as they finish each sentence, is ‘what does this deliver to the reader? How will it make the reader feel?’

Where – in short – is the emotional journey?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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The greatest writing challenge of all

Writers never finish learning how to write. ‘We are all apprentices’, Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘in a craft where no-one ever becomes a master.’

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Too true.  It is an endless learning curve. Steep at first – as novice writers realise how much they have to learn, take their first unsteady steps into that world. Later it’s easier. But even those who have mastered the craft – who have achieved the 10,000 hour, million-word goal, cannot rest on their laurels.

There is no such thing as saying ‘I have learned how to write’. No writer ever finishes learning. The onus is on all writer, always, to push the edges – to sit down, as Hemingway also put it, at the typewriter and bleed.

My take? When you finish writing for the day, the question isn’t ‘what is my word count’. The question is ‘on what emotional journey have I taken my readers’?

And then you have to ask ‘how can I make that a better journey tomorrow?’

Take on the challenge.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: harsh sentences for authors

I posted the other week on the importance of getting the rhythm right when writing sentences. And on the incompetence of my high school English teacher, but that’s another matter.

Party time in Napier's main 'art deco' precinct, February 2014.

Rhythm’s important to writing – as important as music. Jazz, for instance (this being a jazz type picture).

Getting the rhythm right when you write is part of the essential framework of writing – it lends interest. You can draw the reader, sometimes, by rhythm alone. It applies, of course, to every part of writing – words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs and so on.

The other part of making sentences work is in the content, which is largely a matter of structure. In strict grammatical terms a sentence is a single idea, but it can often be broken up into clauses and sub-clauses.

In non-fiction, particularly – but also, sometimes, fiction – I often discover very long sentences, sometimes embodying more than one idea. They run on (this is a technical term). The reason is that the author hasn’t properly organised their thoughts. It gets egregious when the subject and predicative (‘what’ and ‘what happens’) parts are divided by long qualifying clauses. This can really obstruct meaning. ‘The queen, while sitting at dinner and feeling extremely hungry, but whose crown was extremely heavy and had fallen over her nose, told the king to pass the salt.’ Ouch.

The trick is to make sure the subject (what the sentence is about) and the predicative (what happens to the subject) are adjacent.  Sometimes a long sentence is better written as two or three short ones. In both fiction and non-fiction, it’s also useful to organise the ideas in each sentence – to get the order so the sentence leads the reader on a journey.

All this may sound like Writing 101, but it’s amazing how easily writers can get carried into their work. Familiarity breeds contempt – quickly. Yes, writers have to write for themselves first and foremost – but the reader has to be thought about too. One way to test that is to put the work in a metaphorical drawer for a couple of weeks and then re-read it. Does it hold your interest? If it doesn’t, then it probably won’t capture readers either.

The biggest challenge when writing – and one of the causes of long convoluted sentences – is the fact that we think in simultaneous concepts, but writing is linear – a single idea thread. The knack for writers when assembling sentences – and, for that matter, any writing – is to understand the issue and be able to disentangle that simultaneity.

It’s a question, in short, of understanding how people think.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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Essential writing skills: giving your style eyebrows

One of my favourite composers, Frank Zappa, used to refer to the interesting add-ons in his music as ‘eyebrows’. The unexpected bits that make you sit up and listen.

A picture I took in 2008 of a Katherine Mansfield quote on the Wellington writers' walk.

A picture I took in 2008 of a Katherine Mansfield quote on the Wellington writers’ walk.

It’s true for writers too. I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s well worth repeating. When you style your work, eyebrows are important. That doesn’t mean adding a writing gimmick (yes, Franz Kafka, I’m talking about YOU and your woeful dereliction of commas) but it does mean keeping the content interesting. Making it spark.

That spark flows from both the style, the content and the intent of your writing. But today I’m going to focus just on the stylistic part. My three key guidelines are:

1. Vary sentence lengths. A few short staccato sentences followed by a long one often works. Hemingway was a master at it – he’s often thought of as the ‘short sentence guy’, but actually he also wrote very long compound sentences, often a string of short phrases expressing the emotions of a character.

2. Content flows into the process: include a detail that stands out. This works for fiction and non-fiction alike.

3. Vary your vocabulary. Most books are written with a vocabulary of a few thousand words. But English has over a million available. Again, this doesn’t mean digging through the Thesaurus for the most obscure word you can find – instead, locate one that works with your style. It might be quite common.

All of this devolves to keeping the writing lively, interesting and well-paced – to holding the interest of the reader who, of course, you captured with the punchy first sentence…didn’t you… (OK, time to go back and revise that one now).

More writing stuff tomorrow.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Essential writing skills: the hidden key to writing

I’ve been posting for a few weeks now on the challenges facing authors. By far the biggest single challenge is the invisible one. The way we think.

Close-up of the former T&G Building (1936).

Imagine writing as a building. We visualise the outside – the finished result – but the design inside demands a LOT of work.

The problem is that we all think in simultaneous ideas – everything all at once, in effect. We think we’re being clear, as if material is written down in our minds – but it’s easy enough to show that it isn’t. How? Try writing the idea down.

If it was clear, like we perceive a conversation, you’d be able to blurt it out as fast as you could type, finished and complete. Sometimes – just sometimes – this happens. But not often.

The more usual process is one of iterations. First there’s the blank page, because you don’t know where to start. Then you get some phrases and sentences, but this one seems to work better there, or maybe there. And how does this fit in? And – and –

You get the picture. Even if you think you’re got a linear thread of ideas, the practical first expression of them reveals you don’t. That’s normal. It’s because we don’t think in written English. Some people don’t think in language at all – the ideas float in as shapes and patterns. But even the people who’re limited to words usually don’t have a written sequence in their minds.

What we are actually thinking of is the result of the writing – the emotional response, the intent and the aims of the material. It’s often expressed, mentally, in terms of phrases, words and ideas.  But not in the order it needs to be. Nor is it complete, though we often have the illusion of it being complete because our mind fills the blanks.

And that’s entirely normal. It’s how humans think.

You’ll guess from this that I’ve put a lot of thought into figuring out how humans think, in order to write better – and you’d be right.

If we understand this, we discover the key to writing – to writing fast, to writing well. And it begins, as I’ve trunked about relentlessly in this blog, with planning. Planning down to the last detail, if necessary – though often that isn’t necessary.

To plan effectively, though, you need to understand how that melange of ideas, phrases, notions and concepts gets honed, teased, combed and otherwise bashed into shape when being written down. How do we go from the one point to the other?

It’s not easy – but if you can master it, you’ll have mastered what’s needed to write swiftly, effectively and with quality.

More next week.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Essential writing skills: counting the beats

Welcome to the third post in a weekly series outlining some of the basic writing skills we need to get ahead in the business.

I have long thought that writing is a lot like composing music. Even down to rhythm.

My key-ring from the Raffles Writers Bar. Complete with the original wrapping (yes, I am a writing nerd).

My key-ring from the Raffles Writers Bar. Complete with the original wrapping (yes, I am a writing nerd).

One of the biggest parts of any writing style – of the mechanics of words – is the beat. We talk in beats. Poets write to specific beats with names such as iambic pentameter (‘I WANdered LONEly AS a CLOUD’) and dactylic tetrameter, which works quite well as an Irish jig (‘PARa diMETHyl AMIno benZALdehyde’)

However, writing also has other forms of beat. In fiction, the term is used to mean the key phrases that push the text along. Action points, you could call them. If you describe some action by a character, like stepping out of a car or tripping over, that’s a beat.

Beats work at larger scales too. The list of events-with-word lengths you need to structure your story properly, before beginning to write it, is known in the trade as a ‘beat sheet’.

Needless to say –like music – it’s important to get the rhythms right. Get the beats wrong and you’ll confuse or lose your readers.

That works on all the scales of beats, too. Identifying who spoke is a beat. But if you have a long string of dialogue and put ‘Watson said’ at the end of it, you’re missing the rhythm. By the time the reader’s got to that point, they’ll know it’s Watson, but they’ll have had to figure it out. Better to break the dialogue at the first phrase, insert the beat ‘Watson said’, and carry on. Or another beat could be used instead:

‘I say, Holmes, that was jolly decent of the Professor not to call me dense more than 38 times last evening.’

Similarly, you need to get the beats of the large-scale structure right. When building action to an exciting resolution, for example, you have to make sure the pace is right – that the reader is drawn into the story without getting bored. That’s done by beats.

Learning how to master beats is an essential writing skill. And, like all writing skills, the way to master it is to break the scales down from broadest to smallest. Start with the broad scope of what you’re writing; identify the pace and beats needed. Work down to the smallest level – the actual words – and make sure that’s got the right beats for that scale.

It all takes practise, but it’s certainly do-able; and once you’ve mastered the art of writing beats, you’ll be well on the way to the first big waypoint in the writing journey – making writing part of your soul.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Essential writing skills: giving your sentences that rhythm and twist

Welcome to the second post in a series exploring some of the mechanics of writing.

Deco. Jazz. Hemingway, They all go together.

Deco. Jazz. Hemingway, They all go together.

Writing is one of those fields where everybody thinks they can do it –not because it’s easy, but because they don’t know enough about it to know how hard it actually is.

The challenge is making the transition from those stumbling moments through to soaring mastery of the art. I outlined some of those challenges last week – check out the break-down.

This week – the No. 1 basic issue – sentence construction. With a twist. One that will, I guarantee, throw Word green grammar error underlines through your work – but it’ll be quite comprehensible to the punters. And it’s essential.

It’s the twist that makes people want to read it, you see.

Sentence construction is something hammered into most of us at high school, with the exception of me – my English teacher told my parents that no matter what I did, I would fail at it. Especially anything to do with English.

He never twigged that the actual problem was that he was boring and I usually switched off listening about 10 milliseconds into his classes.

When it comes to sentences you know the drill: the tenses have to match, the plurals have to match, and a sentence must have a subject and a predicate, usually in that order. For example, ‘I am laughing all the way to the bank’. The subject is ‘I’, everything else is the predicate, or the ‘doing part’ of the sentence.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It also has to be a particular length, though exactly how long is a matter of opinion. When I was at school, that English teacher ruled that no sentence could be more than 2.5 lines, for instance. An institutional silliness which masked the point that, by classical rules, a sentence can often be quite long. It’s meant to encompass a single idea, but that idea may be quite complex – hence we have a plethora of different devices to separate the clauses: colons; semicolons, commas, and Oxford Commas among them. (Did you see what I did in that last sentence, anyone…anyone?)

The problem is that a sentence written strictly by the rules is a writing equivalent of one of those Czerny music exercises. Strictly correct, but absolutely boring. That’s where the twist comes in. Writing that runs to relentless rhythm lulls the reader into thinking they’re back in one of those stupidly dull English lessons I had to endure at high school.

Follow the rules, sure – readers will likely have trouble parsing meanings otherwise. But be creative about it. And the creative part – from the point of view of mechanical construction – is to give the sentence an interesting rhythm. My how-to tips for that are:

1. Vary your sentence length. Hemingway was supposed to have written only with short sentences. Wrong. He also wrote very, very long ones – inevitably with purpose.

2. Don’t just vary your sentence length. Also vary the length of the clauses and components within it.

3. Also vary word length, by syllables ideally.

4. Don’t ever go to the high school I went to.

Try it. Read some sentences aloud. Try again – keep doing that, and you’ll see what I mean.

Of course, that’s not the only way to make sentences interesting. They also have to have the correct content. More on that next week.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

Shades of character grey and the lessons of Brit seventies sci-fi

Does anybody remember Blake’s 7 – a 1978 Brit sci-fi that ran for four seasons. As a kid I was quite a fan.

A completely fictional planetary scene constructed with the help of Celestia. Cool science software (cooler still because it's free).

A completely fictional planetary scene constructed with the help of Celestia. Cool science software (cooler still because it’s free).

Superficially, it was Robin Hood and his Merry Men in space, and it had every potential to be really bad. Actually, though, the show was utterly brilliant. Mainly because all the characters, including the good guys, weren’t exactly ‘good’. Especially Avon. It wasn’t ‘good vs evil’ so much as ‘complex dimensional self-interested and interesting bad vs really evil’. The characters were thoroughly brought to life by a cast who were all RADA trained actors. The dialogues between Avon and the chief baddie, Supreme Commander Servalan, were a case in point. I swear the two actors – Paul Darrow and Jacqueline Pearce – were sometimes improvising in character. The results were brilliant.

Against those performances, you could forgive the seventies-era SFX – cheesy spaceships made with kit-bashed Airfix parts and yoghurt pots, filmed with obvious depth-of-field problems and splatted into star-fields with hilarious blue-fringed PAL chromakey.

Blakes 7‘s shades of grey ran well beyond the usual ‘diamond in the rough’ SF character clichés of the period, exemplified for me by Han Solo, the bad guy with a heart of gold who turned up good in the end. Of course, the quality of the characterisation isn’t surprising. The show was created and largely written by Terry Nation – the same guy who invented Daleks.

I figure there is a lesson writers can learn from it generally. Not the one you’d think, though. These days it’s de rigueur to have those multi-dimensional characters. To have shades of grey – to look beyond the kiddie stereotypes of good-vs-evil and find the deeper humanity in everybody, in all its complex glory.

Years ago, Hemingway exhorted authors to write real people – not ‘characters’. And to some extent, that’s what we’re doing now. It has become the norm.

The point about Blake’s 7 was that it went well beyond the ‘norm’ of its period. Which is the lesson. These days, with the advent of self-pubbing and the mainstream publishing world becoming increasingly risk-averse, the onus is on writers to produce something that stands out. Creating complex characters in shades of grey isn’t enough.

Writers have to push beyond that now – to look for the next step, the next trend, and lead it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Essential writing skills: breaking down the learning journey

One of the biggest challenges aspiring authors face is the learning journey. I’ve seen it often enough. Writing’s taught at school, everyone can write – right?

My Adler Gabrielle 25 - on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.

My Adler Gabrielle 25 – on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.

Of course it’s much harder than that. There is so much to deal with. Fiction writers have to master all the intricacies of structure, characterisation, dialogue, plot and expression. Non-fiction writers have to know how to convey and sustain an argument across the length of a book, and to reduce simultaneity of thought into a linear thread.

That’s without considering the issues of style and voice – the mechanics of writing. One of the outcomes is that authors often learn as they go. The written style at the end of the first book differs from the style at the beginning.

The only fix there is to turn around and start again, re-writing to consistent form. But another is to say ‘I want to write, so I’ll have to learn first’ – and treat the first five books as a learning exercise, never to be published and, ideally, thrown away.

I pretty much guarantee nobody does that, though – in part because most aspiring writers don’t know how challenging it actually is before they start. I didn’t. I long for my teenage days when I could pour stories out, without a care in the world about content other than to know I was writing. And also because the motivaton when starting out is often the emotional journey of writing, the book (‘my novel’) becomes the baby, not a product or an exercise.

Unfortunately the only real way to get good, and to be able to write fast, is to practise. But the learning journey can be broken down. First challenge, to my mind, is mastering the mechanics of getting the words down. Once that becomes automatic, it’s possible to focus on matters of content.

Tackling the nuts-and-bolts of actually writing first means you’ll be more likely to first find – and be able to fully control – the voice and tone of what you’re writing. That is a huge advantage when trying to present content, whether fiction or non-fiction.

Mastery of the words also means you can control the length – and won’t get hooked up on word-count as a goal. It isn’t.

In the next few weeks I’m going to run through some of the ways of mastering the mechanics of writing. I hope you’ll join me on the journey.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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