Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Some Careful Advice on Writing

Yesterday I posted a silly little writing exercise inspired by a conversation with my three sons, but as I read back over it I thought it would be another fun exercise to demonstrate the method I use to write. Now your writing style is going to be vastly different. The name of the game is not that you mimic how I write, but that eventually you have finished, published stories under your belt.

An intuitive writer by nature and personality, I did not block out the story with an outline as some writers prefer. Instead, I considered the story for two days, pondering how I could take the elements of the challengethe humor of comparing an insipid drink with the banality of kissing one's sister—and create a hopefully amusing story.

I deliberately chose a Victorian setting because of its renowned reputation for sexual repression. I too easily could have turned the story into nothing but an obscene joke, but I personally do not care to write about sexual themes. Seriously, any hack can write porn, but to take a scenario and creatively write about an indirect sexual theme without coming across as nothing more than a sophomoric off-color shaggy dog story takes years of practice. It took me an hour to write the story, but it took me two days of pondering plot and research into Victorian England and thirty years of writing experience to write a story less than 900 words.

Here is a list of what I had to research to write The Tea Experiment:
  1. The life of Queen Victoria so with a throwaway sentence I could set the time of the story: ...we discussed Queen Victoria’s upcoming Diamond Jubilee... 
  2. Common names and surnames in Victorian England: Carl Addison and his sister, Violet.
  3. As Victorian England did not have caffeine-free, diet Pepsi, I had to research tea and the different types available: the East India Tea Company, Souchong, orange pekoe, and Bohea.
  4. A realistic reason for Violet to be living with her brother: a cholera outbreak in her village near the family estate.
  5. An insipid drink: Tea imported from Indonesia to America. 
  6. An accurate French phrase to add color to the Victorian English setting: “C'est juste une fa├žon de parler.
After I wrote the story came the hard part. Revision and correction.
  1. My narrator is attending school to become a barrister. In the original story I had him becoming a "banister," something altogether different. I only caught that on the third reading.
  2. Many words were repeated in the same sentence. As many readers internally read with a vocal voice, repetitive words must carry true impact. This sentence carries meaning with its repetition:
    “Beastly stuff,” he said as he once again picked up his cup of Souchong. “Beastly stuff fit only for a beastly people of a beastly country."
    In one paragraph I had the word "door" and "her" each mentioned three times. That only represents sloppy writing.
  3. I worked with some sentences on the cadence, reading the work aloud. If the sentence sounds good to my actual ear, chances are good that it will sound well to my reader's inner, mental ear. I have found that having alliteration, words that rhyme, and contrasting phrases in the same sentence creates a form of internal intonation (notice what I did there in those last two words?) that has become a strong part of my literary voice.
  4. Pondered for some time over simple word choices. English is rich in synonyms and some words carry more impact than others. I agree simple words are the best, but my story takes place in Victorian England where the verbiage was more complex. I wanted to convey my characters as enjoying a higher social class which makes it all the more surprising when Carl kisses his sister.
So, dangerous as it is, allow me to give you some advice if you wish to write:
  1. Write as much and as often as you can. Writing, like any art, is a muscle. If you use it, it strengthens itself. If you do not, it atrophies. This blog does not exist solely for your pleasure. The discipline of making at least one entry per week demands I write, write often and, write well.
  2. Read books on writing. I also own seven books on writing reference and grammar and I read them often. My favorite book on writing is On Writing, by Stephen King.
  3. Fall in love with words. Fall in love with sentences. A carefully crafted five-word sentence is more delightful than a sloppily written novel.
  4. Read, read, read. And read books that you are not interested in writing. I do not write romantic novels, but reading classic romance has added a delightful depth to my own work.
  5. Seriously, read that last entry aloud and hear its lyrical cadence with all the "r" sounds and the alliterative "delightful depth." That came from 30 years of writing. Do not bemoan your first experiments in writing. They are the steps toward finding your own voice. And your voice will not be mine or any other author's.
  6. Don't give up.
Good luck.


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