Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Writing Tip or Two

Hope you enjoyed Friday's interview!  More surprises on the way, so "stay tuned," as they say.

Shortly after getting back from the Blue Mountains, it was time to put down the work on my mystery novel and start revising a children's book I wrote almost a decade ago.  (Once the publication time nears, I'll share more details.)  I thought I'd share several practical techniques with which the aspiring/perspiring writer may wish to experiment.

First, reading aloud is a great way to check general readability as well as the flow of the narrative.  Does it sound choppy or smooth, forced or natural?  Unless your aiming for a technical or academic audience, this technique works just as well with a children's book (intended to be read aloud) as with an adult mystery or fantasy.  In other words, it doesn't need to be a "read aloud" kind of book for this technique to prove helpful.  It's also helpful at times to have someone close to you read it aloud to you.  This let's the writer be even more ruthless in his slicing of the text.  Of course, reading it aloud to family and friends can also be useful--especially when the kids start giggling (at the right spots).

Second, try selecting and writing down the first three words of each consecutive sentence for two to three of your paragraphs.  When finished, glance down the columns to easily identify repeated sentence patterns. Sometimes this can also be used as confirmation to your auditory test of the material: does it read well?

Third, every author knows a phrase--e.g. passive verb constructions--or words that he has to avoid using too frequently.  (The perfect example of this kind of thing is a PE teacher in high school who mysteriously was selected to teach health.  His favorite word in the 1980s was basically.  On one of the more boring class days, I recall making a mark on my notebook every time he used it throughout the day's class.  I think he must have said that word close to fifty times by the end of the day; I began to really hate that word.  Oh, I think impacted was another favorite of his.  Moving on from the Ferris Bueller era...)  If you're a smart user of Apple products, use your Pages word search function to search for those dangerous words or phrases.  If you are sadly stuck with a Microsoft product, you'll just need to toss it and buy an iMac--and iWork's Pages software!  :)  Seriously, though, a repeated phrase or word in a book is just as annoying as a yawning teacher who's saying the same words aloud over and over; it drives the reader crazy.

Not to digress too much from my original revision and review theme, but remember one of the cardinal rules of writing: write what you know.  This has been very helpful to me in the writing process.  In fact, I tend to imagine the setting or environment of my story to be like a character in and of itself.  Not to put a plug in...but, if you look at Tristan's Travels, you'll see that there is a sense in which the ocean and the north Oregon Coast setting is like a mischievous character.  

Even taking photos or a short video of an important place can be helpful to you later in recalling the look, feel, and sounds of a particular setting.  Another good technique is carrying a small notebook with you for jotting notes when doing research trips.  If you choose to write about places and things you know little or nothing about, you will come across as someone who is not serious about his craft.

An aspriring writer recently inquired about some good books to read to become a stronger writer.  Everyone seems to want a shortcut, but, besides practicing writing as often as possible, I  really think READING the classics is one of the best things any writer can do to sharpen his skills.  In Sean Astin's book There and Back Again, he mentions Christopher Lee's practice of re-reading J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings on a continual basis as an actor because of its powerful epic qualities of myth and story.  When I'm actively writing, I also tend to crave good fiction like a thirsty person longs for cold water.  It's a kind of mental exercise that's helpful in training yourself how to write "right."  

That's not to say there aren't some great books on writing, too.  Two fine suggestions focusing on the art and mechanics of writing would be Eats, Shoots, & Leaves as well as Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  Although I'm not a particular fan of Stephen King, he's also written some excellent essays on the writing process. 

Well, I think I've thoroughly over-written this topic for today.  Sorry...  If you have other writing questions, feel free to pass them along.  I may choose to write (less) on them in the future. 

(Update)  If you want to check your dependence upon passive voice, try searching your manuscript for "ing" to pinpoint problem areas.  This, combined with other techniques, can stengthen the narrative.

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