Posts Tagged ‘writing advice’

Don’t Leave Out The Music: Writing For Sound

In Writing on July 10, 2012 at 9:09 am

When I was an undergraduate I took a poetry class and found it to be pretty tough going. Mind you, I’ve never found poetry easy, but when I was just starting out I was so frustrated by how bad my writing seemed that I almost gave up altogether. I understood the technical aspects — stresses and syllables and meter — but nothing I wrote ever really sang.

I went to meet with my professor and told him I had no problem writing song lyrics (I was in a pretty cool band called Funk Bus in high school), but I couldn’t get a handle on poetry. He asked me a pretty obvious question, then — one that I should have asked myself long before, and one that completely changed how I approached my writing from then on.

“What’s the difference between lyrics and poetry?” he asked.

The obvious answer: lyrics go along with music, poetry does not. In other words, with poetry, the music has to be built in. Nothing I wrote seemed to sing because, so far, I’d just been writing words (trying to make myself sound sophisticated and poetic, of course) but I’d been leaving out the music.

Woody Words and Tinny Words

It turns out that, in poetry, the way the words sound is almost as important as what the words are saying (some would say even more important), and though I never really kept up with the poetry, I’ve found the lesson of writing for sound is also useful when it comes to writing prose.

There’s a funny Monty Python sketch where they talk about Woody Words (“Carribou. Gone.”) and Tinny Words (“Antelope!”).  And even though it’s funny it also hits on a truth: words have tone, and timbre and character.

Some words are sharp and crisp, while others are soft and warm, and they conjure up these feelings just by virtue of how they vibrate in our chests, how they shape our mouths and make us work our teeth and lips and tongues (just read that sentence aloud to see what I mean).

If you want to describe a comforting fire in a cozy hovel, you should use warm (even woody) words; as a matter of fact, the words comfort, cozy, hovel and warm all fit into that category.

You might want to use some words that accentuate the action of the fire, too.  The embers crack and hiss, pop and snap.

While you’re at it, maybe the wind outside is cold and biting, sharp and stinging. The snow may be crisp and bright. Shards of clear crystal hang from the frosty eaves.

You get the idea.

Sound’s Good (Sounds Good)

If you’re looking for a general guide, words that sound in your chest and stomach, or pull your mouth into an ‘O’ shape, tend to have a warm, deep character. (Think M’s, long O’s, W’s, voiced G’s). Words that make you use your teeth and lips tend to feel sharp and hard. (P’s, T’s, C’s and K’s).

That’s just in general. The real lesson here is that you should read your sentences out loud — not just to see how they flow, but also to see how they actually sound. (Who knew, right?) Listen for how well the timbre and tone of the words you’re using fits with the feeling you’d like to convey.

It may not be immediately intuitive — it may not even seem important at first — but I promise if you pay attention to the sound of your words and not just the meaning, your writing will improve.

What’s worse than writer’s block?

In Writing on June 4, 2012 at 9:00 am

overcoming writer's block - crumpled paper on ...

The Extended Family

A couple months back I posted some tips and tricks for defeating writer’s block. I wish now, though, that I had posted tips for defeating writer’s block’s more pernicious, vicious and malicious cousin: Editor’s Block. I could really use some strategies for that right about now.

Maybe I should call it “Editor’s Trepidation,” though, because the problem isn’t necessarily that you become unsure of what to write next, but that you become paralyzed with uncertainty about the quality of your work.

How it Starts

I’m about half way through editing my work in progress, Alberija, but it’s been at least a month (and truthfully probably more like two months) since I’ve had much of anything to do with it. My short fiction has kept me writing, but it’s the novel that I really want to get back on track.

The problem is, I put it down feeling good about it, take a break for a couple days, and then find I’ve lost some of my enthusiasm for it.  I wait a few more days, but then I start to wonder if it’s really as good as I originally thought it was. So I wait another week and start to worry that maybe the structure is all wrong, and the entire first half of the book has to go. Eventually I get to the point (roughly now) where I think I won’t be able to pick it up again without wanting to change everything — and that’s just no good.

The Solution (I hope)

Now, since I didn’t write tips and tricks for defeating editor’s block before, I guess I have to do them now on the fly. Here’s my four-step plan:

1. Rekindle the enthusiasm

Obviously this can mean different things depending on what gets your creative juices flowing. You could write vignettes like I’ve already done, telling a part of the story from the perspective of a new character; you could do some research related to your story, in hopes of finding the spark of inspiration that set you off in the first place; or you could read something in your genre, something really really good that gets you inspired (I’m thinking Fifty Shades of Gray).

For me, rekindling the enthusiasm means delving into the background and lore of my story world. I’ve got literally binders upon binders stacked up with information on the history, customs and culture of Alberija — complete with little vignettes of daily life in a few of the cities. Going through this stuff is probably a good way to remind myself why I had fun writing about Alberija in the first place.

It’s also a good way to remind myself that someone who isn’t a writer — but still has binders and binders of information on a fictional world — starts to look an awful lot like a  crazy person, so I’d better keep being a writer.

2. Get confident

Again, what makes a writer feel confident about their work is probably different for every writer. In my case, I have a couple chapters of my book in mind, already edited, that I really like — ones that just strike me as capturing the exact tone and pacing and voice that I want the entire book to have. I’m going to go back and give these a read to remind myself that, on occasion, I actually know what I’m doing.

3. Jump right in

The title of this step pretty much says it all. The biggest problem with editor’s block is it’s harder and harder to overcome the longer you have it. Your willpower is slowly sapped, until you almost can’t be bothered to write at all — but with help from step 1 and step 2, you can hopefully pick up where you left off and keep going.

4. Don’t stop again

To prevent editor’s block in the future, just don’t stop editing (sounds easy, right?). If you lose interest or enthusiasm or confidence, return to steps 1 and 2, but don’t stop! You can put your book down for an afternoon, maybe a whole day even, but any longer than that and you risk slipping back into a bad pattern.

Just keep moving forward and making improvements, remembering, of course, to save earlier drafts, just in case you become suddenly neurotic and worry you’ve ruined everything and wasted four years of your life and deserve to be trampled to death by the million cold, wet feet of a goose stampede. It happens.

So, that all sounds very good anyway (except for the goose stampede bit). Now to see if it actually works!

Avoiding ‘punchlines’

In Writing on April 17, 2012 at 7:22 am

After yesterday’s post, I thought it might be useful today to talk about a writing principle related to that story: the principle of avoiding ‘punchlines.’

What is a ‘punchline’ story?

We’ve all read punchline stories — stories where the whole meaning or effect hinges on a twist at the very end. Punchlines are the basis not only of jokes but also of mystery stories and spy thrillers and many a metaphysical mind-bender. These stories, just like jokes, are better or worse depending on how hard or easy it is to predict their final twist.

Read the rest of this entry »