The Riches of Words

Words are wonderful things. They have a tremendous power to produce reactions, ideas and emotions. Better yet, for those of us who write in English, we have the advantage of working with one of the richest languages in the world.

This allows us the luxury of being able to make our writing clear and sharp, painting vivid pictures for our reader’s imaginations. Unfortunately, it also means that it is very easy for laziness to make our writing mushy and vague.

In short, English is the perfect language for both the poet and the politician, able to convey the sharpest of images and to obscure meanings, sometimes both at the same time.

As writers, we must make sure that our writing is as clear as possible. This means that the first stage of editing – long before you worry about spelling mistakes or missing commas, is to go through your work word by word. Check each word carefully, and ask yourself one question – “Can my story survive without this word being there?” If the answer is yes, cut it out.

This is a painful process. I know that it is, having done it several times for my own work. The words you are cutting are invariably among those you feel are the best. To help cut down on this pain, I would strongly suggest that you should edit by creating another document, leaving your first draft intact. This means that you aren’t completely deleting those shining paragraphs, you’re just taking them out to check if the work really needs them. If necessary, they can always be returned later.

From my experience, most of the time it is better to leave them out, though.

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Weak Words and Strong Sounds

Any craftsman will tell you that you have to know the tools of your trade very well. For writers, the most basic of these tools are the words which form the basis of everything we do. It can be useful sometimes to stop and think about the strengths and weaknesses of the words you use in your writing. Sometimes this is easy. There is an obvious degree of difference between ‘fear’ and ‘terror’, for example. Quite often, given how rich the English language is, the difference is much more subtle. It is much better to say ‘the clock’ than ‘the timepiece’, for example. If you don’t mean ‘clock’, use the concrete noun for whatever it is you are using – unless you are deliberately needing to be vauge about it for some reason.

Words which apply to a special kind of person or thing within a group are stronger than the words which apply to the group. As an example, ‘oak’ is stronger than ‘tree’.

Another thing few writers really look at are the gerunds. These are the ‘ing’ words, and using too many of them can lead a writer into some really weak sentences. Gerunds are useful words, but they are there to describe something which is in course of happening, which makes them weaker than a more direct verb which describes a direct action.

It is very easy – and lazy – for writers to use the passive voice. The problem with them is the fact that passive writing tends to lead to passive readers. Use the active voice wherever possible. It will make your writing much more vivid, and help to gently guide your readers into your world without them really being aware of what is happening.

Plot or Character

This sounds like the chicken and egg question, but thankfully for those of us who aspire to climb the lofty heights to being published, for authors this one is a much easier question to answer. Characters come first, every single time.

I know that there are people who plan a good deal more than I do – for me, the first draft is used as a form of ultra-complicated outline – but even for those truly disciplined souls who can ignore the story for long enough to plan everything out in detail I would argue that the characters still have to come first. They stand at the heart of the story, and it is their actions and words which drive the plot forward. If your characters fall flat, then the plot will, too.

For those who read this in horror, I ask you to look critically at the last work you read. Was it really the plot which carried you through to the end, or was it wanting to know how the characters would react to the escalating tension? I would strongly suggest that it is the latter, and the ability to pull readers into the world of our characters relies on them being strong enough to grip the reader’s mind in just a few words.

That is not to say that the plot is not important, of course. It is just as important as the characters – they just need to be there and grown to the point that they are strong enough to withstand the pressures that it will put on them before they are introduced to it. For my part, getting to know each new main character takes a few weeks, although thankfully their friends and family are usually much less demanding.

What do you think? Do you start with plot, characters, or somewhere in between?

Catching the Cliché

Clichés are words and phrases that have been used so often that they’re no longer interesting or effective. Using them generally just makes your writing seem flat and uninspired. The problem is, clichés are part of day to day speech. We use them so often that it can be a challenge to avoid using them in our writing.

What’s wrong with that?

Well, using a cliché can be irritating to some readers. Some even tune out of what you’re saying altogether, which is going to make them miss the point of what you’re actually saying.

How to avoid them

If you spot a cliché, then you need to go back and look at what you are actually trying to say. Look at the true meaning of the cliché, and see if you can find a better way of saying the same thing.

Sometimes clichés are used as fillers – things to pad out what you’ve written. In these cases, the answer is much easier. Cut them out. You don’t need to include overused, flowery pieces of prose. In fact, they make your writing less interesting.

Just in case you were wondering, here’s a list of the clichés that crop up most often in my writing:

  • Back on track
  • At this moment in time
  • Avoid someone/something like the plague
  • Hive of activity
  • A level playing field
  • Few and far between
  • The fact of the matter
  • A cruel twist of fate
  • As quick as a flash

Why Do You Write?

Answering this question is a good place to start if you are one of those people who want to write but struggle to find topics to write about. I find it much more profitable to ask this rather than to hand out the advice of ‘write what you know’. While I will never know exactly what it would be like to live as a maidservant in Tudor England, I know exactly why I want to write that story.

There are several reasons you might want to write, and I can’t promise that this article will cover the reasons you have. But they are my most common responses to the question, and I hope they will help you focus your attention on your own stories.

A Record

Keeping some record of the things that happen to us is a normal impulse, and writing is the best way that I have ever found to sort out exactly how I feel about new experiences. While this sort of writing can be far too personal to consider publishing, a good many people make a reasonable living publishing memoirs. It is a fact of life that people enjoy looking into the lives and experiences of others, and reading a memoir or biography is an easy way of doing so.

Teaching

You can teach a lot without having to write school textbooks. Think of the stories you have read which have taught you valuable lessons, or the last truly engaging non-fiction book that you read. To write these, ‘write what you know’ comes into play, but I can almost guarantee that there is something that you have enough passion about to put your passion into words.

A Challenge

Sometimes, setting yourself a challenge is the ideal way of getting you to get that first draft done. This is the entire point of NaNoWriMo, and I would strongly advise anyone who struggles to get to the end of the first draft to consider joining this month of cafinated madness. It helped me reach the end of Prophecy’s Child, and let me meet a good many really good friends along the way.

To Escape

Sometimes, I need to escape from reality for a little while. The fact that I can, at will, step into an entirely different world or time period is a great relief to me. It lets me swap the problems and issues of my reality for those of someone else’s. This has the effect of putting my problems into vivid perspective, and helps me know that I’m not actually all that badly off, really.

So there you have it. Those are my biggest reasons for keeping on writing, in spite of everything. I’d love to know what keeps you writing – comment on it below.

Bad Guy Blues

It can be much easier to create the ‘good’ characters than the ‘bad’ ones. I have certainly always found this to be the case. The fact that every story needs a powerful antagonist is a very important point that too many new writers (myself included, a year or so ago) overlook.

It is easy to fall into the trap of making your good characters completely good and your bad characters completely bad. Even worse, in my first attempt at a novel, I mistook ‘evil’ for ‘stupid’ and had the main antagonist do some breathtakingly stupid things just to show off the brilliance of my group of protagonists. That was not my only mistake in that book, but it was one of the biggest.

A good way of avoiding this, and making sure that both your protagonist and your antagonist are well-rounded and believable is to write the story from the point of view of both of them. Sometimes, you find that the antagonist, for all their questionable morals, actually has a better story than your original protagonist. This is a very good thing when it happens, so don’t overlook it.

I really believe that a villain needs to be at least partially sympathetic. Even in the epic ‘good vs evil’ battles, the actual conflict rarely comes from directly fighting something that is completely evil, and your readers are likely to be far more enthralled by the conflict if they can at least partially see both sides of it – even if they agree that the actions of the antagonist are unjustified.

As I have said before, the groundwork of any story lies in the characters – the more believable you can make them, whether they are good or bad, the richer the experience you’ll give your reader.

Have a go at writing a scene from the point of view of your current protagonist and antagonists, and then flip it. It might give you a much richer understanding of what’s going on in your antagonist’s head.

How Writing Changes Everything

After having a long conversation with an old friend, I have yet again been reminded that far too many people think that writing is a hobby, rather than a career. Being asked when I am going to find a ‘real’ job is a little off-putting, given that I know how many hours I put in to writing and marketing my writing on a daily basis, and it’s a lot more than I ever gave to a ‘real’ job.

So I started thinking fairly seriously about why I write and what I wish the world outside of the writing community would understand about the job we do and how incredibly important it is to our day to day lives. This article is the result.

Writing Creates

Not just the fantasy fiction which I am fondest of both writing and reading, but all writing creates something from very little. You start off with nothing but paper and ink (or a screen and keyboard), and by filling that space with words you create a pathway into your mind that others can follow.

Even non-fiction is a work of pure creation. It is merely an ordered form of creation which allows other people to easily learn from the writer’s experiences.

Writing Challenges

The best writing offers its readers a challenge. Whether that challenge is to learn a new skill, to challenge a belief system, or to offer a new way of seeing the world. In the ideal circumstances, writers alter the very bedrock of society. Look into history and see the wonders that happened once the printing press made writing easily accessible to people for the first time.

Writing Offers Hope

Particularly after the recent events in France, I find that everywhere there are blogs and posts on social media offering hope and support. This is just the most obvious current example I can think of, but look at how many people find hope in the writings of Anne Frank if you prefer a more historical example.

Writing is Magic

Writing is the closest I have come to encountering true magic. It is creating something out of nothing. In the case of my fiction writing, while none of it is currently published I have nonetheless created and populated two and a half distinct worlds, each with their own systems of commerce, civilizations, species, etc. No other career would offer me anything close to the wonder and magic of creation in this way.

So, to all of my non-writing friends, I ask that you stop and think. I build worlds for a living. Can you say the same for your nice, safe, ‘real’ jobs?