“Everything must Advance Plot and/or Develop Character”

So I’ve been wanting to do a post on Subplotting for a while now, but I realized that I couldn’t without addressing a component issue first:

Namely the advice, or some variant of: Everything must advance plot and/or develop character

I happen to agree with this advice, however like many of the pithy sayings about writing that get thrown around, its more complicated/challenging to fully grasp and explain. Some have rejected the idea thinking the suggestion is that a novel must move at breakneck speed and pacing, which anyone who has read a book knows is not the case.

But what does it mean then?

My theory is that every word in fiction needs to serve the story. I ‘ve  melodramatically underlined the word because I think the term serve is provides far more guidance than advancing plot, or developing character. My problem with the former is that “advancing plot” feels very cloistering, very constricting, like you can’t depict anything that doesn’t shove events towards a conclusion (more on the latter in a second)

Now I will say one thing about plots – they do need to move ever forwards. Pointless flashbacks, repetition and irrelevant ‘side-quests’ are deadly for a strong novel. That is not to say a story must storm forward with the momentum of a charging rhino, but that backwards is not the way to go.

Things can happen however that don’t ‘mechanically’ drive the story further, like adding depth to a character, exploring subplots, and stuff that while it doesn’t ‘advance’ the plot, it may deepen it by making the characters more relatable making the fictional world feel more authentic and so forth.

Which brings me to the latter: developing character. I actually feel like this can be misleading in the opposite direction to my last rant. Not all character development is necessary for a story. I think that depicting the vital parts of characters and their development is one of the hardest parts of story-telling.

And that’s why I’m focusing on the phrase serving the story (BTW I nicked the phrase from a bass player who talking about ‘serving the song’) I do believe that as writers we need to scrutinize our words and why they are there, but I feel its far better to consider what purpose they serve. Words can serve many purposes within a story, they may work to draw tension out, to heighten the tension of an individual scene to advance plot or relevantly develop character.

To round off my point, an example.

Lord of the Rings (specifically The Fellowship of the Ring)

I love this story, but even I have to agree that Tolkien spent a hella lot of time in the Shire. For those only familiar with the movies and not the books, Frodo and his crew visit at least twice as many places within The Shire and spend considerable more time (like 17 years more time). In many respects this doesn’t advance plot, after all the plot is all about the ring, Sauron, Mt Doom etc, who cares about all these Shire-folk. It doesn’t develop much character either, yes it shows Frodo’s interactions with his people which is very important, BUT what all this Shire-centric stuff does it put incredible stakes on the story.

You in many respects The Shire is the point of Lord of the Rings. The hobbit’s motivation that powers them all through their individual tales is wanting to save and preserve The Shire. As a big fan I could go on and on, but my point is even thought The Shire has very little to do with the plot of LoTR, it has a lot to do with deepening the story.

I guess my ultimate point is: there is a lot to cover in fiction, especially novels – while it is true that many novice errors in writing can be attributed to pointless words, it’s also true that their is a wide variety of purposes for words to serve in a story. Just a caveat, this isn’t a half-ass excuse to justify crappy writing (uh uh this lengthy description of weather represents the brooding heroes mood) but an attempt to make sense of a piece of writing advice that on first brush appears contradicted by the meandering process of story-telling.

So all of this was actually in service of my next topic which is subplots. A topic which has been confusing me for weeks. The reason I had to smash this thesis out first is that again serving the story is exactly what subplots should do too – crap did I just spoil my own blog post?

What are your thoughts on the subject – have I missed the mark, or does the mark need some more development?

Would love to hear your thoughts…

 

 

 

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Serving the Story one pig at a time

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Why Editing Sucks Butt

Illustration depicting graffiti on a brick wall with a hopeless concept.

So after feeling pretty proud of myself over the past 1-2 months of actually having a good writing routine and consistent production things have come to a bit of a screeching halt now that it’s time for draft number 2. (This is despite all my other posts about editing, for shame Thomas, for shame)

Turns out that productive writing habits don’t necessarily equal productive editing. A few folk I’ve chatted with online have found a similar thing.

So in true procastinatory fashion I ruminated on the whys and wherefores of this issue to blog about it.

I guess first of all it helps to point out some ways that completing a 1st draft lends itself to a regular routine, especially if you use my strategy of ‘vomit drafting.’ Vomit/crappy/dirty drafting is basically where one conquers writers block and anxiety but simply allowing oneself to write anything and everything towards just getting stuff on the page. The theory is its much easier to rewrite well than write well (HAH!)

The main reason I find drafting to be somewhat easier than editing is you can use word-count as a measure of success, and being able to see your progress is a great way of keeping motivation alive.

So that’s pretty much the first reason editing blows. You can’t really go on word count, often with editing you’re destroying words, but obviously you can’t measure progress by words deleted (although systematically deleting everything does have some temptation). One can spend an entire session on a couple of lines in editing (and hopefully make a significant improvement) and the lack of visible progress makes one feel like a slouch.

The next challenge is you can’t really ‘vomit’ anymore. You’re editing you’re supposed to be writing good well now. To be fair, I know that a 2nd draft isn’t going to be ‘the one’ but it’s hard to find that balance between freely writing whatever, without becoming paralyzed by high standards of editing.

Another subtle barrier is that writing and editing are quite different activities, and like anything else our stamina for each needs to be developed. I’m thinking back to when I first started plugging away at writing first thing each morning, the first few times where like trying to run (at all [I hate running except towards pizza or pikachus]). After a while I found that I could manage about the twice the material at the same amount of effort. I’m hoping here that editing is the same, because at the moment I’m managing a few paragraphs of work before I decide to start blogging about how shitty editing is.

I’m quite sure there are some more reasons – I was particularly interested  in exploring why the transition from drafting to editing was such a slog, I suppose there are all those emotional reactions too like realizing that your dream of being published is still a ways of (assuming this is the piece too)…

 

What other ways does editing blow chunks?

How you do combat the slog the rewriting?

 

The Rationale Behind Common Writing Tips

We all know them:

  • Show don’t tell
  • Destroy adverbs
  • Give your characters goals
  • Don’t infodump

Those slightly glib, but popular pieces of writing advice that float around the internet and beyond. A complaint that I see appear time and time again is the lack of rationale, or critiques given using such comments without an explanation to back the statement up.

So I’m going to try and tackle the reason that these tips are good advice. I’m sure there are more pointers out there than the above list that deserve the same treatment. I’m also not going to tackle every angle or caveat for these simply for the sake of sanity (mostly my own) and brevity I’m simply going to provide my rationale for why these pieces of advice lead to good writing.

Show Don’t Tell

Probably the most used line around writing circles, I’ve spoken about it before and there are probably several articles worth of posts on the topic. I’m just going to stick with why ‘show don’t tell is important (IMHO)

First of all ‘showing’ creates a more vivid experience for a reader. A character saying “I’m angry” is straightforward, whereas a character clenching a fist prompts an image of that action. It’s not just about imagery however, showing provides an authenticity to a story. Being told stuff creates and experience of being spoken to by a narrator, not always a bad thing but it creates a feeling of a ‘take my word for it.’ The more a written work tells – the more capital the author uses in presenting information to the reader whereas showing simply provides the (fictional) evidence.

That last point probably seemed a bit abstract, so here’s an example. In the classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale does the story ever tell the reader the story exists in a sexist society that enslaves fertile women? (well not that I remember) No the world is shown through what happens in it. Basically suspension of disbelief, and sense of realism is better achieved through ‘showing’

Destroy Adverbs

Another commonly spouted and oft debated one. I actually find this topic tricky to dissect. Just what is it that’s so bad about adverbs, and whats so great about avoiding them.

In my ponderings I’ve come up with two main points:

First in writing powerful words are your friends. Despite what many people think fiction isn’t really an art that you can flub your way through with mediocre prose. Adverbs don’t necessarily leap out of the page and strangle the reader when their eyes set upon them, but more often that not an adverb signals a moment when a much stronger verb could be used instead.

The second point is more cerebral. Adverbs by definition modify a verb, so rather than saying Toby ran, I might say Toby ran quickly. Now in that simple sentence there was probably barely a split second as you read that to pick up the ran and quickly to put them together in an image, however sometimes a split second is all an imagination needs to have a slight hold-up in the experience department. When a word modifies another word it can create a sort of two-step process to finish the image which is annoying in itself (i.e. its much more efficient just to say Toby sped) but if you allow the straw-man imagine a sentence like: Toby ran across the grass field Clumsily. That sentence is sure to prompt an imagine of Toby running across the grass before interrupting with a ‘clumsily’. At best the reader has to wait till the end of the sentence to picture the scene, at worst the reader has to edit their imagination to fit the new information – by which point they won’t be enjoying themselves.

(the same sort of argument can be applied to adjectives, which are often frowned upon in fiction too.)

Give Your Characters Goals

Again I think this common advice has two key points. It’s such a ubiquitous piece of advice it almost seems like common sense – but it always good to examine such things to better understand and apply them (hence this entire blog essentially)

Firstly goals create a natural sense of potential action and tension. Drop an unmotivated character into a scene and at best people wonder what might happen to them, pop a goal into the mix and we automatically keep reading to see whether they get there or not. Tension is heightened when we know characters want something because is asks the question of what they are willing to do to get it, and creates a ‘stake’ in the story to worry about.

Secondly is the relateability factor, for the most part we can all understand wanting something. Even if the thing itself isn’t something we would go for, the desire for it makes sense. Trying to use random characteristics to create reader empathy will probably backfire as much as it will succeed.

Don’t Infodump

Confession time. It took me far too long to understand this advice. I was always like ‘how are people supposed to understand the story if they don’t know that human’s are replacing their loved one’s with AI programmed robots with the same personalities?’

The main problem with info dumps is actually pretty simple – it’s show don’t tell all over again, but I want to dive into a slightly more nerdy analysis of the problem with info dumps…

In fiction there exists context and subtext (don’t panic its not as Freudian or overly complex as people make it out to be). If I gossip about a workplace affair, the context is who, what where and for how long, the subtext is I’m telling you a secret about two people doing something they shouldn’t be.

Now subtext without context is pretty dull – imagine if I attempted to entertain you by saying ‘Did you know there are two people doing something they shouldn’t?’ Well it might start the conversation but its not going to fly on its own, I need to add context (It’s Bob and Bobette GASP) to fully present an entertaining story.

An infodump is the opposite problem – overdosing on context. There are only so many details a reader needs to support the subtext before things start to get boring and one loses buy in. I might be interested to know that Bob is Bobette’s boss and is currently on marriage number two, but its gets pretty dull when I have to learn about the audit work had last thursday.

Good works I find have a very ‘need to know basis’ for their lore/info/context. The reader is provide with what they need to know to enjoy the story, not more or less.

 

So that is that

Do you have any common advice/tips you’d like to see given the same treatment?

 

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Grabbing Your Reader’s Attention From the Beginning of Your Novel — Author Don Massenzio

This is a topic I have been thinking a lot about since I decided to venture into the Kindle Scout program. Since you are required to provide an opening to your book and try to entice them to vote for your book based on what they see in that brief extract, being able to obtain […]

via Grabbing Your Reader’s Attention From the Beginning of Your Novel — Author Don Massenzio

On 0-5 Star Ratings

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I’ve read a lot of other book reviewer’s posts who have talked about what their star ratings mean (places like Amazon do oddly have their own caption for each number of stars but does anyone really follow that?). Some folk don’t give anything below 3 stars, some folk only rate but don’t review below 3 stars, and many people have their own little system for each number of stars.

I confess a lot of my ratings are either purely subjective WOO I LOVED IT, or YERCH 1-star for you, yet everything inbetween (2-4) has been a carefully thought out rating based on what I thought readers/the author will respond best to (so sue me).

Thusly I hadn’t really thought much on the subject until recently when I realized the above strategy was pretty inconsistent, and I also noticed that a lot of my ratings depended heavily on context. A piece in a series from a brilliant author might receive a low rating, whereas a self-published book that was unpolished but I found a sense of enjoyment reading might be high. Looking at the comparisons between books I’ve reviewed in the past offers no reprieve, the rhyme and reason is absent.

Granted its not that easy. Is it really possible to compare a decent but un-original work of non-fiction, to a well-written biography for a celebrity I hate, and then across fiction genres. Does a short story really compare to a 1000 page fantasy epic??

Anyway, the point is I’m turning over a new leaf – I’m going to embrace the subjectivity and chaos and not even bother with fairness. My rating system will have no categorization, and be entire based on my judgement of the author and piece and what I think they deserve. Self-published, decent, but not quite trad quality? 5-stars for being better than the dross. Great but obviously lazy non-fiction work? 3-stars. I had a migraine while I read your work? Random selection.

I guess this is somewhat of a Jokeresuqe approach to rating, but to be honest it probably won’t change much of how I rate books. What I’ve found lately is there is so much pressure on reviews sometimes, write well, don’t offend, read the ‘room’ in terms of how a book is going, be authentic, back up your opinion, a star rating really doesn’t do any justice to any of that – and since websites basically use the star system to ‘reward’ products by their rating, I will too.

For other reviewers out there, how do you handle this issue?

 

In Defense of Prose, part 3

Welcome to part 3 of my posts ‘In Defense of Prose,’ or as I like to call them ‘those blog posts I’ve been doing instead of editing my actual work’

o_O

For serious though check out the following links for great resources on the subject:

ShaelinWrites for videos on a variety of prosey (prosaic?) topics and beyond

Daniel David Wallace for an excellent freebie on sentences

David Michael Kaplin on writing prose with power and punch

And of course Part 1 and Part 2

So today I thought I’d round this topic off by actually talking about what makes good prose.

Before we begin I’d just like to add my usual disclaimer, I’m no expert, teacher or great authority. The purpose of my blog isn’t to peddle advice, but rather to explore topics because its the way I learn best (other than walking around in a dense day-dream ruminating on the subject).

I also realize that much of my discussion of the topic has been a little, well ethereal, as in rather than talking about stuff of concrete substance I’ve been defending the ideas of prose, I can’t promise to stop doing that but I am planning to try to touch on specifics in this post – again as above my plan isn’t to provide an exhaustive list of how to write good prose but to give the topic at least a rigorous shake and discuss.

Anyway…

What makes good prose?

There seems to be two schools of thought on this subject. One follows the idea of ‘invisible prose’ where the purpose of fictional words are to plug directly into a readers brain and hijack their imagination, thus the less said reader even notices the prose the better. The second posits that words can be quite beautiful in an of themselves and aims to impress with the quality of wordcraft before the reader.

One first brush these two thoughts seem completely incompatible, equal and opposite. However in all my study into good wordsmithing, it seems the same skills and techniques within writing can underlie both approaches. How? As best I can figure the elements of good prose provide a solid foundation by which can author can either create add an artistic flourish to their words, OR focus on creating a seamless expression of the content of the story.

What I’m trying to say is good writing achieves what it aims to achieve (small caveat, sometimes in art there is that weird phenomenon where an artist creates something that has a totally different impact to what is intended but is still considered excellent but we won’t go down that road today)

So finally, I’m going to dive into some of the  objective ways that I think prose can be done well to support the author’s intentions:

Clarity

What what? Aren’t writers supposed to be subtle? Isn’t ‘show don’t tell’ the most well-known advice out there? What about mystery, and isn’t writing supposed to be open to interpretation?

Yes, yes, yes and YES!

But hear me out. A good story will raise questions for a reader, but they’ll be compelling within story questions, who did it? What’s going to happen?

If a reader is asking questions like: what the heck did that mean? What does Esoteric mean? You’re started to lose them.

There’s nothing wrong with presenting ambiguous action within a story, but good prose is precise, even if the words mislead the reader (intentionally) there shouldn’t be a lack of clarity in what is being presented on the page.

Sentence Structure

There’s screes to be said on this subject I thoroughly recommend checking out the ‘Write Better Sentences’ link at the top of the post (and right there) on the subject, suffice to say some main points are: position the key action – i.e. what the subject does to the object – near the beginning of the sentence with as much clarity as possible and place content you want the reader to notice and remember at the end. for example (not of excellent writing but of the theory)

Hamish pushed Sandy to the ground, feeling mighty and strong, until he noticed the teacher watching

Hamish pushing Sandy is the subject and the object interaction, and the teacher watching is an important point placed at the end. David Wallace isn’t advocating for the same sentence structure to be used again and again, but rather how to intentionally organize words for effect.

Cut Clutter

If you look at the above example you may notice that I have a problem with this. Pointless filter’s like “feeling” and possibly even “he noticed” often fill up sentences with stuff that a reader will already know. For example “I watched Marie walk down the stairs one step at a time” might seem like it’s telling you what “I” did, but “Marie walked down the stairs one step at a time” already implies the narrator is watching because that’s what is being described but them.

Something I’m also terrible with is weasel words. I’m constantly putting adverbs, somewhats, seems, particularlys, and whatnot into my writing. Weasel words are called such because they tend to soften prose, essentially giving a writer plausible deniability “I said she seemed ugly” the problem being typically you want powerful clear messages, not a book that suggests a strong story to you.

Now I’m going to finish there, partly because I’m out of time, but also because I promised broad enough items that could support both invisible, and visible prose, is suspect both could evoke whole books on themselves, personally I aim more for the former and the actual specifics of the latter are somewhat beyond me (another reason to stop here) However I thoroughly believe that attention to detail on the prose/wordcraft level is vital for good writing and its a topic worth talking about.

What there other goals of prose that I’ve missed?

Do you prefer invisible or visible prose?

What did you think about the linked resources, helpful, distracting, non-helpful?

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In Defense of Prose, part 2

In Part 1 I basically started my argument/mild rant for how important the quality of prose is in writing fiction, and in this section I want to rebut some common counter-arguments and misconceptions on the topic.

For a good resource see ShaelinWrites

Isn’t style completely subjective?

This is a tricky one. I see a lot of people come to this conclusion after comparing successful author’s writing seeing that their style is different, and deciding that it’s all a matter of opinion.

Not to be judgy and snobbish but my advice to such a stance is to compare some unpublished or poorly self-published work to more successful. The problem with comparing across good books is that you are comparing the largely subjective parts of prose without realizing that even though works can appear vastly different in style, there will be some solid foundations in common between them (more on what those foundations are later)

What I’m trying to say is yes there is considerable subjectivity in writing, but there are also significant parts of the craft which are relatively well established as important and useful towards strong prose. I realize that music is my go-to for analogy (but if the shoe fits run in it) however its like how all musicians must keep their instrument in tune – sure some use unconventional tuning, or play around with non-western musical tones, but not even the most experimental musician ignores their instrument’s tuning.

Don’t lots of people who get published have ‘bad’ writing?

So this is somewhat related to the above. People love to criticize or point out the flaws of successful works. And this seems to fly in the face of what I said in part 1 about the idea of a good story shining through bad writing.

In reply to that I’m going to say sort-of. Something I hope to establish in this sequence of blogs is that good writing doesn’t necessarily mean intensely skillful prose that the mere words of rock people out of their seats, my philosophy of writing is that prose does what it intends to do.

Let’s take two pretty successful but generally slammed works:

1st Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. The DVC is one of recent times most commercially successful works of fiction. What a lot of people don’t know is the Brown had actually written (I think) 3 previous books will with such mediocre sales his publisher was considering dropping him, he’d even written Angel’s and Demons, the first Robert Langdon book prior to DVC. The point is he wasn’t exactly hitting it off as a writer, and a lot of critics point out that the writing is not exactly brilliant in DVC either, its basic, repetitive and kind of written so that you can follow the plot even if you’re completing a Sudoku and watching Inception at the same time, i.e. It’s explained like you need a classroom lesson in following plotlines.

Despite these criticisms I wouldn’t necessarily say the prose of DVC is bad, its just a particular style that isn’t aiming to entertain through words – but the content of the words.

Similarly for no. 2. 50 Shades of Grey is perhaps even more intensely known for being a very big selling critically harangued work. Reading the piece feels like the author is purposefully snubbing their nose at all the writing advice in the word (the first paragraph is the MC looking into a mirror complaining about their plain looks). But again the words do what they’re meant to do – drop the reader into the word of Anastasia and Christian.

What I’m trying to say is not that my argument is pointless but that there are multiple ways for prose to be good, whether its in serving a popular story or wowing readers with the poetry of the work, this doesn’t make learning about good writing redundant, it in fact makes it all the more vital.

But writing rules are all just guidelines not rules right?

This is something that ShaelinWrites addresses in her video linked above. She makes a great point that (at least the rules she refers to) are better considered rules as while there are exceptions, they are somewhat distinct, rather than being considered a guideline where it may apply or it might not. Shaelin’s rule is basically if it strengthens a sentence (more on what that even means later too) then break the rule.

What I hope to do in my next post, when I go into some of the specifics in convince you that there are vital parts of writing prose to learn that are beyond just ‘writerly guidance’

But of course:

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Are there any criticisms or rebuttals of focusing on prose you have heard or even have yourself (don’t be shy)?