Monday, 13 January 2014

Some Advice for Budding Writers, by Ian Watson

From Ian Watson, chairman of the Northampton SF Writers Group

When I used (past tense) to visit places to give workshops for just an hour or two, here is some of the advice I would give....

Write about a violent incident (robbery, fight, quarrel, accident, or whatever) from the point of view of a blind person – because we often ignore the senses other than vision.
Smell, touch, sound, etc.   The other senses are important to add flavour, though we don't want to go over the top.

To practice compression and leave out irrelevancies, write a story that is exactly 100 words long (excluding the title).

“16 year old John, an only child whose father had just died, was knocked down by a bus.  An ambulance rushed John to hospital, where he needed an immediate operation.  As John was wheeled unconscious into the operating theatre, the surgeon looked down at John’s face and exclaimed, `Good heavens, it’s my son!’”   How could this be?  Write similar stories that reveal latent gender expectations.

The author knows what she means but the reader only has the words on the page.  What is vague to the reader?  What is confusing?  What is ambiguous?  If you reread your own story after a few weeks and feel the slightest momentary hesitation somewhere, something is wrong there.

English words can often mean more than one thing.  This can cause unintended ambiguity, which the writer doesn't notice because she knows what she means.  “The woodpecker is a boring bird,” said so-and-so.

"She flew in from London..." —in an SF story anything can be literally true.  This can cause temporary misunderstanding of the text.

Get events in the right order.  People often write down an event than add on something additional they think of.  “He tiptoed into the room after taking off his shoes.”  The reader's mind has to jump back.  This is irritating after a while.

Choose 3 words from a dictionary by opening at random and sticking your finger on the page, and write a story logically but subtly linking the 3 words.

Be specific, to give a feeling of reality.  “He walked through the park.  Flowers were blooming.”  What sort of flowers?  What colour?
However, one specific item implies a whole context.  If the flowers are daffodils, the story must take place in Spring.  (And therefore you do not need to state that is Spring.)
At the same time you don’t want to cram a story with irrelevant details.  Ideally everything mentioned should help the story along, as setting or atmosphere or part of the plot.

Can the viewpoint character actually hear and see what is being described?  Just because the author knows does not mean that the character is aware of something.
A writer sits still and describes action.  Sometimes the action is physically impossible.
Act out in your mind instead of just writing words.  I have read total rubbish by published authors who not only don't know how to change a tyre (fair enough) but seem never to have been in a real car on a real road in the country they themselves live in.  A story must be thought, and felt, not just written.

If you have a viewpoint character, don't suddenly veer to a different point of view for a while, or include a different character's point of view however briefly within the narrative.

Unless you are writing in the first person, keep your own personal likes and dislikes out of a story.  The reader won’t necessarily like and dislike the same things as the writer.  Though we are interested in the likes and dislikes of the characters.

Vary the structure of your sentences.  Instead of: “I walked down the High Street.  I went into the chemist’s…”  try: “The High Street was busy.  I went into the chemist’s…”   Do not start successive sentences with the same word or phrase, unless for special emphasis, or you will be monotonous.

Prefer active to passive constructions.  Instead of “The field had been flooded by rain” – “Rain had flooded the field.”  This has more immediacy.  

Never misuse "careen" to mean "career" as in "he careered along the corridor".  To "careen" is to turn a boat on its side to scrape off barnacles, for instance.

Never misuse "actinic" to mean a lurid, eldritch, achingly blinding light.  It only refers to the action of sunlight upon something, which is usually very minor.

If you don't know for sure exactly what a word means, even though it seems suitable, look it up.

Long sentences, with many parentheses and multiple synonyms for nuance (such as "it was boring, tedious, and mind-numbing") are the norm in most Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian etc) and seem more sophisticated to the reader of those languages.  In English these are waffle and lack focus.  English has a bigger vocabulary than, say, French, and can usually provide a single perfect mot juste.

Wage war on the word "it" which is almost meaningless.  Prefer a noun where possible.  Count your "it"s and get rid of as many as possible.

Likewise wage war on "There is/are/was/were" as a starter for sentences.  "There was a blazing fire in the hearth" is lazy and abstract compared with "A fire blazed in the hearth".

"with" is often a meaningless connective.  "A man with red hair came in, with a red scarf around his neck" " should be "A red-haired man came in, a red scarf around his neck".  Purge unnecessary words.

Have fun!

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