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Posts Tagged ‘Writers Resources’

Photo credit: Mait Jüriado (Creative Commons)

Have you ever killed a story? A story that you are trying to tell. I bet you are thinking, why on earth would I want to kill my story? Really, WHY? Yet, many people do that every day. They write their stories (articles, news releases, novels, reports, essays, blog posts etc.) and kill them on the spot.

There are so many ways to kill a piece of writing, it would take a book to discuss all the killing implements and methods. But the most common one is death by drowning. Drowning in verbiage.

Guess, how I know that. Correct. Guilty as charged. 🙂 My excuse is, or rather, was – I tend to overwrite. In the creative writing course I am currently taking, my weekly assignments are limited to 500 words, and sometimes 250 per piece. Up until now the very idea of a word count limit in creative writing made me cringe, because like many beginners I mistook verbosity for eloquence.

From discussions with my classmates, I gathered that most of them were also wrestling with the word count limit. So I decided that “overwriting” wasn’t such a big deal and my pieces were fine. Then I read a comment from another classmate who said,”I am actually enjoying the challenge of the word count.  I am finding that the word count pressures me into finding the “best” word possible.  Additionally, I suspect that it mirrors how writing for publication in the real world works!

That little comment hit home and got me thinking. I re-read what I’d written and found that my stories were not that interesting after all. They lacked panache. They were ridden with run-on sentences and wordiness, and I’d exceeded the word count limit before bringing the story to its conclusion. So, I re-wrote my pieces cutting ruthlessly everything that didn’t add to the story or the character and found better words and metaphors. Doing just that improved the flow and made the narrative a lot more entertaining and dramatic.

As I am not ready yet to share my pieces here, I thought I’d share a short short story that our instructor posted on the discussion board, to demonstrate how much can be said with fewer words. Enjoy!

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CRAZY GLUE
by Etgar Keret (700 words)

She said, “Don’t touch that.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s glue,” she said. “Special glue. The best kind.”

“What did you buy it for?”

“Because I need it,” she said. “A lot of things around here need gluing.”

“Nothing around here needs gluing,” I said. “I wish I understood why you buy all this stuff.”

“For the same reason I married you,” she murmured. “To help pass the time.”

I didn’t want to fight, so I kept quiet, and so did she.

“Is it any good, this glue?” I asked. She showed me the picture on the box, with this guy hanging upside-down from the ceiling.

“No glue can really make a person stick like that,” I said. “They just took the picture upside-down. They must have put a light fixture on the floor.” I took the box from her and peered at it. “And there, look at the window. They didn’t even bother to hang the blinds the other way. They’re upside-down, if he’s really standing on the ceiling. Look,” I said again, pointing to the window. She didn’t look.

“It’s 8 already,” I said. “I’ve got to run.” I picked up my briefcase and kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll be back pretty late. I’m working –”

“Overtime,” she said. “Yes, I know.”

I called Abby from the office.

“I can’t make it today,” I said. “I’ve got to get home early.”

“Why?” Abby asked. “Something happen?”

“No . . . I mean, maybe. I think she suspects something.”

There was a long silence. I could hear Abby’s breathing on the other end.

“I don’t see why you stay with her,” she whispered. “You never do anything together. You don’t even fight. I’ll never understand it.” There was a pause, and then she repeated, “I wish I understood.” She was crying.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Abby. Listen, someone just came in,” I lied. “I’ve got to hang up. I’ll come over tomorrow. I promise. We’ll talk about everything then.”

I got home early. I said “Hi” as I walked in, but there was no reply. I went through all the rooms in the house. She wasn’t in any of them. On the kitchen table I found the tube of glue, completely empty. I tried to move one of the chairs, to sit down. It didn’t budge. I tried again. Not an inch. She’d glued it to the floor. The fridge wouldn’t open. She’d glued it shut. I didn’t understand what was happening, what would make her do such a thing. I didn’t know where she was. I went into the living room to call her mother’s. I couldn’t lift the receiver; she’d glued that too. I kicked the table and almost broke my toe.

And then I heard her laughing. It was coming from somewhere above me. I looked up, and there she was, standing barefoot on the living-room ceiling.

I stared open-mouthed. When I found my voice I could only ask, “What the hell . . . are you out of your mind?”

She didn’t answer, just smiled. Her smile seemed so natural, with her hanging upside-down like that, as if her lips were just stretching on their own by the sheer force of gravity.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get you down,” I said, hurrying to the shelf and grabbing the largest books. I made a tower of encyclopedia volumes and clambered on top of the pile.

“This may hurt a little,” I said, trying to keep my balance. She went on smiling. I pulled as hard as I could, but nothing happened. Carefully, I climbed down.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll get the neighbors or something. I’ll go next door and call for help.”

“Fine,” she laughed. “I’m not going anywhere.”

I laughed too. She was so pretty, and so incongruous, hanging upside-down from the ceiling that way. With her long hair dangling downwards, and her breasts molded like two perfect teardrops under her white T-shirt. So pretty. I climbed back up onto the pile of books and kissed her. I felt her tongue on mine. The books tumbled out from under my feet, but I stayed floating in midair, hanging just from her lips.

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Photo credit: crol373 (Creative Commons)

In his recent newsletter, Jeff Goins, writer and blogger, whose blog I follow, had a statement that made me pause. “Nobody wants normal anymore. We all want weird,” he said. The Internet is a noisy place; if you whisper, no one will listen; if you follow the norm, you’ll miss the boat.

Assuming I was also lumped into the royal “we” who wants weird, I put the statement to a test by examining my reading tastes and habits. I asked myself, as a reader and consumer of printed and online word, do I want normal or do I want weird? My thought process stumbled at yet another question: what is “normal”? And what is “weird”? Then a phrase by Kelly Cutrone came to mind: “Normal gets you nowhere.” This business of figuring out some abstract normal and no more specific weird is quite a doozy, I tell you. What’s normal to me, may seem weird to you, and vice versa. So I’ve finally given it up, for pure lack of abstract imagination.

But the question remains, do I want normal or weird? How weird does it need to get for me to start paying attention? In my interpretation, it means “how itchy and scratchy do I need to get, or how out of place do I need to feel.” As far as I am concerned, I think I’ll stick with normal, whatever that means. I like relevant topics and pretty pictures in blogs, and good plot, characters and dialogue in fiction. Above all, I value good writing that reflects author’s individuality. I like when imagination takes flight, but there is still a sense of reality, at least some reality that follows its own logic and makes sense within its own constraints. And I think what Jeff actually meant by his phrase was “we want individuality and originality, and not some run-of-the-mill mediocre verbiage that is so shopworn, it makes us want to puke.” He just wrapped this long-winded phrase into something punchy, pithy, and … weird. And he got my attention. How cool is that?

Now, what do you think? How weird does it need to get before you start paying attention?

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This book is an excellent resource for everyone who is writing professionally. Based on the book, I’ve created a 28-point list that I use as a reference/reminder in my on-the-job writing and editing, as well as other types of writing. I do a quick refresher every once a while by going through all points, and once in a while I re-read the entire book or select chapters. I suggest you take the time to read the entire book.

Here is my 28-point summary:
1. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs
Make meaning early, then let weaker elements branch to the right. Place subject and verb at or near the beginning of each sentence. For suspense and tension save subject and verb of the main clause until later.
2. Order words for emphasis.
Place strong words at the beginning and at the end. Put the weakest point in the middle, strongest at the beginning and end.
3. Activate your verbs.
Strong verbs create action; save words, and reveal the players. (active voice) Avoid verb qualifiers (adverbs), use the most appropriate verbs that convey the right meaning.
4. Use both passive and active voice.
Use passive verbs to call attention to the receiver of the action. Active verbs move the action and reveal the actors. Passive verbs emphasize the receiver, the victim.
5. Watch the adverbs.
Use them to change the meaning of the verb. Do not use them if they repeat the meaning already contained in the verb. E.g. “He listened surreptitiously” to “He eavesdropped.”
6. Take it easy on the –ings. (verbs with –ings resemble each other, extra syllable, diluted effect)
7. Fear not the long sentence.
Tips: It helps if subject and verb of the main clause come early in the sentence.
Use the long sentence to describe something long.
Chronological order helps.
Use the long sentence in variation with sentences of short and medium length.
Use the long sentence as a list or catalogue of products, names and images.
Make every word count.
8. Establish a pattern, then give it a twist. Build parallel constructions, but cut across the grain.(perfectly parallel “boom, boom, boom”, with a twist “boom, boom, bang”. E.g. “truth, justice, and the American way”.
9. Cut big, then small. Prune the big limbs, then shake out the dead leaves. (Make every word count.)
Cut any passage that does not support your focus.
Cut the weakest quotations, anecdotes and scenes to give greater power to the strongest.
Cut any passage you have written to satisfy a tough teacher or editor rather than the common reader.
Eliminate every element that is not doing useful work.
Targets for cuts:
Adverbs that intensify rather than modify
Prepositional phrases that repeat the obvious
Phrases that grow on verbs: seems to, tends to, should have to, tries to.
Abstract nouns that hide active verbs. (consider vs consideration)
Restatements: a sultry, humid afternoon.
10. Prefer the simple over the technical. Use shorter words, sentences, and paragraphs at points of complexity. (defamiliarization, familiarization strategies to achieve a certain effect). Avoid using longer words where short ones will do.
11. Give key words their space. Do not repeat a distinctive word unless you intend a specific effect. (avoid repetition, unless intended)
12. Play with words, even in serious stories. Choose words the average writer avoids, but the average reader understands.
13. “Get the name of the dog”. Dig for the concrete and specific, details that appeal to the senses.
14. Pay attention to names. Interesting names attract the writer – and the reader.
15. Seek original images. Reject clichés and first-level creativity. Use straight language instead of a cliché
16. Riff on the creative language of others. Make word lists, free-associate, be surprised by language.
17. Set the pace with sentence length. Vary the length of the sentences in paragraphs.
18. Vary the length of paragraphs.
19. Choose the number of elements with a purpose in mind.
One for power. E.g. The girl is smart.
Two for comparison or contrast. Eg. The girl is smart and sweet.
Three for completeness, wholeness, roundness. Eg. The girl is smart, sweet and determined.
Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, and expand.
20. Know when to back off and when to show off. When the topic is most serious, understate; when least serious, exaggerate.
21. Learn when to show, when to tell, and when to do both.
22. Learn the difference between reports and stories. Use one to render information, the other to render experience.
23. Show characteristics through detail, scenes and dialogue.
24. Juxstaposition. Put odd and interesting things next to each other. Help the reader learn from contrast.
25. Foreshadow dramatic events and powerful conclusions. Plant important clues early.  (Chekhov’s Gun: “one must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it”)
26. To generate suspense, use internal cliffhangers. To propel readers, make them wait.
27. Build your work around a key question. Stories need an engine, a question that the action answers for the reader.
28. Place gold coins along the path. Reward the reader with high points, especially in the middle. (journalists – top heavy – most interesting points go to the top). In other words, place shining pieces strategically, to engage the reader and fan her interest.

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