LESSON THE TOOLBOX

Discussion in 'REFINING WRITING' started by Asmodeus, Jul 25, 2010.

  1. 1. THE WRITER'S TOOLBOX


    As a first tutorial for those interested in improving their writing, I'm going to start with the tools before the trade. There's no point diving ahead into genre, narrative or chrono-plotting if we don't have square one covered. You may have a million ideas, but so do most people in this life. A true artist crafts those ideas.

    And every craftsman needs their tools. Writers are no exception.





    Tool 1: VOCABULARY
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    Vocabulary is your top tool. You need to know words - as many as you can. And I don't mean obscure words. I mean the words we see and hear in day-to-day life. You need to know the difference between running and fleeing, the difference between sight and vision - where these words come from, how they were used before and how they are used now. There must be dexterity in your language, so that every sentence is a delight to the reader. Start reading, start listening. Get to know this language you're using.



    Tool 2: GRAMMAR
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    I'm not going into grammar. You either have it or you don't. Most people aren't taught grammar properly, unless they went to a stuffy university, and most people don't remember the lessons. Grammar is something that hardwires itself into your brain, and only certain brains accept the programming. The English language is incredibly complex, with contradictory rules, established fallacies and points of contention. Grammar is a game of memory. You remember the rules or you don't. Here endeth the lesson.



    Tool 3: THE LIVING WORDS
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    Do not talk about the dead. Talking about the dead makes things dull. Use the alive words, the active verbs and the personal nouns. Writing should be an emotional experience, where every sentence is focussed on the moment of importance. Here's an example of a dead sentence:
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    The rope was thrown by the hero and then he ran and jumped.

    In this version, the rope is the star of the show, and the running seems just as important and just as exciting as the jumping. Plus everything happens methodically, one after the other. Every part of the sentence is equally weighted, and as such it falls flat.

    This is the same sentence, brought to life:

    The hero threw the rope and then, running, he jumped.

    It starts with the most alive component - the hero - this living, breathing dude who we're all rooting for. The rope didn't just suddenly leap into life - this motherfucker threw it! And THEN, he's running! He didn't choose to run as his next action - he's already fucking running. He didn't even take the time to make the decision, because he's such a goddam hero! And then, the big climax... far more important and exciting than that running shit... he FUCKING JUMPS! Any pussy can run. But this bastard jumps - he puts his life on the line, and he jumps!

    So yeah, there's a rather extreme example for you. Although it's good to mix up the way you write your sentences and shift between viewpoints, you should never forget the arc of your sentences. Each one is a minature adventure and needs to hit the reader in the right spots. Don't tell us he ran - tell us he's running. Don't have inaminate objects do things of their own accord - show the beating heart behind those actions. Nobody gives a shit about objects - we want to know about the people and the extraordinary actions - the man who jumps and not the man who runs.



    Tool 4: THE ADVERB WHACKER
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    I cannot stress this point enough...
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    ADVERBS ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS.

    Seriously. Use them as a last resort and only if you cannot get the message across in any other way. Adverbs are the undertakers between the living and the dead parts of the sentence - they just get in the way and leave a bad taste in the mouth. Here's some examples of unnecessary adverb use:

    She ran quickly down the street.

    Tiredly, he slowly picked up the box and put it carefully on the shelf

    The loud noise sounded deafeningly and echoed all around.

    Here are the same sentences trimmed down, with exactly the same message, and a lot less pain for the reader.

    She fled down the street

    Yawning, he hauled the box onto the shelf

    There was a mighty noise.

    In the first example, you reduce two words to one. The beauty of the English language is that you can usually find a single word to sum up a verb/adverb couplet. In the second example, you start with a personal, human action. Telling the reader that the guy is yawning communicates everything they need to know - he's tired, he's moving slowly. And in the third example you just use common sense. If the noise is loud, it's probably deafening and it will probably echo. You don't need to tell us every goddam detail - readers are smart - they can work it out. Don't underestimate them.

    Fear of misunderstanding is the root of all bad writing.

    We all know you're intelligent - that's why you come to Iwaku every day and why you write things. The very fact that you've put stuff down in a story should be proof enough that you have something to say. Don't try to prove it by using words like "extraneous" and "discombobulated". You are not Shakespeare and you shouldn't try to be Shakespeare. He was a playwright, and people liked his words for the way they sounded and the way they were performed. It had nothing to do with the number of letters or syllables in them. If the word is short and delivers the punch, then use it. Language is a rapier; not a sledgehammer.

    Don't "run quickly with a sense of urgency". FLEE!

    Don't "feel the tears welling up as a dry shudder courses the length of your body and taps the reservoirs of grief in your deepest chambers". WEEP!

    Don't "fire your gun determinedly at the enemy." SHOOT AT THEM!

    If you think that a short description isn't enough, then you've either chosen the wrong description or you're feeling insecure about your story. If you've hooked your readers with the story and with your characters, then you shouldn't have to beat them to death with words. When your characters "WEEP", the reader should react.



    Tool 5: THE MINIMAL METAPHOR
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    Description begins in the writer's imagination and ends in the reader's. The art of good writing is to cross that gap in as few words as possible. That way, the reader is not piecing together your prose like a forensic doctor, but rather he/she is experiencing a series of emotions and reflections as you draw them into your story.
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    This is where metaphor comes in. Metaphors are gifts sent from heaven to make wirter's lives easier. Like a picture, they can paint a thousand words. And if you're very, very good, the right metaphor can trigger the reader's imagination so that their own brain starts telling the story for you.

    For example, in my next novel, Pennyblood, I describe my main character with a single simile. His name is Rip and he's a scrawny street urchin with mad hair and big, dark, staring eyes that are constantly nervous. In the one sentence that I give over to his description before the action starts, I write that Rip looks like has been...

    "...dragged backwards through a chimney of ghosts"

    ...

    Some of you may argue that it's a shit simile. But with this metaphor, three things happen:

    First, you imagine him in a chimney, like a Victorian chimney-sweep, so you instantly get an idea of his scrawny, pale, ash-covered and undernourished figure, plus the raggedly clothes that chimney-sweeps used to wear. Then, you read the part about being dragged backwards, and you imagine how that would ruffle the clothes and make the hair stand on end. It also brings up the idea that Rip has been manhandled all his life, dragged through darkness and abused by others. The chimney defines Rip's theme as one of blacks and greys. Then, finally, you read about the ghosts and you imagine how terrifying it would be to be locked in a small space crammed with ghosts. You also imagine the paleness of ghosts and the whiteness of terror. Hopefully, some of you are already imagining a young Johnny Depp from Sweeney Todd. This completes the image of Rip with all the terror and dishevellment that I want readers to feel when they imagine him.

    Not bad for a seven word metaphor.

    Okay, so that was a little egotistical of me and you probably didn't imagine any of that! But the point still stands. A good metaphor can put the reader EXACTLY where you want them. This is why poetry works, and this is why 3-minute pop songs are some of the greatest forms of communication ever invented. When John Lennon says "[/i]Imagine there's no heaven...[/i]", we know what he means. He means "Imagine there's no artificially-created concept of an afterlife and an all-knowing judgmental paternalistic deity to which our every action must be held accountable and upon whose supposed dictates the civilised and uncivilised nations of the world perpetuate violence, suffering and racial hatred."

    But he doesn't need to say that. He says "heaven" and we all know what he means. Because, when we hear that word, we feel that sentiment too.

    And using a metaphor to tap into what everyone, as a species, feels... that, my friends, is the work of genius.



    Tool 6: THE SYMBOL BLINDFOLD
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    As Stephen King himself confesses, symbolism and themes usually come at the end of writing, and usually without any conscious thought. Setting out from the start to make something symbolic or to explore a theme is usually a bad idea. That stuff gets in the way of the story and is just self-gratification. Have sympathy on the reader and leave it out. If they want to see themes and symbols, they will see them. And if you really need them, you can build them in afterwards.



    Tool 7: THE IDEAL READER
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    I won't go into this too much in the first tutorial. But it's always good to know your audience, at least in some respect. Have an idea of who your perfect reader is, and give them what they want. When I write action posts, I imagine hormonal 40k fans who are looking for the epic and want to raise their fists as they read. And when I write comedy, I imagine teenage girls giggling and struggling to breathe as one joke piles upon another (either that or Monty Python-loving intellectuals). With every sentence you write, think about that ideal reader and how they nod and smile.
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    That's one of the reason's why I write so much on Iwaku. I imagine Diana laughing at the clever jokes. I imagine JackShade nodding at my metaphors. I imagine Palonis rolling his eyes at my crazy explanations. I imagine Ryker double-checking my military descriptions. I imagine Sakura giggling at my stupid moments. I imagine Tegan getting pissed off with my hijacks. I imagine CoffeeCakeSadist smiling at all the in-jokes. If you know that someone is there, hanging on your words (or at least vaguely clinging to them!), it makes a hell of a lot of difference to your confidence. And confidence is what you need...



    .... confidence, and a good tool box.



     
    #1 Asmodeus, Jul 25, 2010
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 1, 2013
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  2. I have to say Tool 3 and Tool 4 were the most useful for me! Living sentences was one of those things I remembering picking up in school but for some reason I forgot it along the way. AND ADVERBS! They've always been tricky, but had no idea how to get around them sometimes. Definitely going to be trying to apply those two lessons. >:D
     
  3. This is pretty schnazzy. I'll have something for the challenge. . .sometime. >_>
     
  4. Gmm... This was really awesome! Thank you very much Asmupuu :D

    I think I use adverbs, wayy too much. And sometimes, I waste words x.X
    I was reading "Pen Commandments", where Steven Frank writes about politicians being the greatest word wasters there are, saying: "It's a wonder stop signs in Washington, D.C. don't read AT THIS TIME IT IS ADVISABLE FOR YOU TO REDUCE YOUR TRAVELLING SPEED TO A RATE OF 0 MILES PER HOUR."

    I like the idea of metaphors 8D Your example was especially entertaining! :D
     
  5. I have a question about "Tool 4"

    What if it's the INTENT of the writer to take a brief pause from the story, and take the time to show emotion, mood, and lessen learned. To sketch a picture of the situation as a conclusion to a particularly harrowing chapter. Is this tool still in effect at that point?

    For reference, one of my own posts that I believe goes drastically against Tool 4 is when Myrn is left alone in his chambers in Shapeshift Town (In IW of course.) and he weeps. I went a little overboard with my descriptions there, but I 'think' the overall effect was great. Should I have trimmed it down?
     
  6. THIS POST SHOULD NOT BE BURIED, EVER >=(
     
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