February 16, 2013

Learn From The Best

Pixar is known for exceptional storytelling and emotionally impactful movies. The teams there have managed to create character after character that has depth, humour, pathos, and relatability. As someone who draws a lot from my experiences in the theatrical world into my editing, I was delighted when I stumbled across this image of 22 Rules for Storytelling by Pixar and thought they were exceptionally relevant for writers of any genre.

Read and enjoy!

December 27, 2012

Do the Rules Apply to You?

I have noticed a number of articles lately which are extoling the virtues of breaking writing conventions and grammatical 'rules' and I think a lot of them make a good point. Some of the best, or most lasting, writing can contain elements that strict grammar nazis or staunch followers of story development codes would find terrifying. But is that reason enough to throw the rules away? Can writers just toss these guidelines aside and be the better for it?

I would argue that there are few writers who should aim to break the rules - at least until they already know that they can follow them. This may be a contraversial statement, but a consious decision to subvert a rule is far more effective than simply ignoring them all for the sake of your 'style'. Problems that arise from the blatant disregard of these rules are usually far larger than the stylistic impact they may have on the whole. Unless you can justify each and every one, you should seriously think about tweaking that style of yours.

The rules are there because they are grounded in a massive amount of truth. You should not jump between tenses in quick succession. You should use dynamic language and active verbs to engage your reader. You should not use conventions that purposefully confuse or mislead your readers.

And yes, styles change. Conventions change. But the current 'rules' are usually there for a reason. They do not produce cookie cutter books or indestinguishable prose. They provide support and guidance for your unique story. And if you are determined to do away with some of them, at least make sure that you can stick to them before you throw them out the window. You never know, some of them might actually grow on you!

October 02, 2012

Problematic Words

As a writer, you get to pick and choose between the myriad of words in the English language when you tell your story. There are amazing options for any time, place, or character you can imagine. But as any new English student will tell you, it is hardly the most straight forward of languages. So it is easy to understand why so many people trip up over the accepted uses of certain words.
Whether you are writing a novel or editing it, everyone needs a little reminder every now and again. So here are a few of the tricky spots I often come across:
1) Lie and Lay - Ignoring the "not telling the truth" definition of lie, both of these words have something to do with things at rest. However, lie generally means to recline or get into a position of rest on a surface, where as lay generally is the same as "put" or "place".
- "Lie down and relax," said the doctor.
- "Lay the gun on the floor and walk away slowly," he said.
2) Than and Then - These two words are not interchangeable. Than is used for comparisons and then is used for an indication of time.
- I like blue better than pink.
- First I liked the blue one, then I liked the pink.
3) Bemused and Amused - These are often misused because bemused actually means to puzzle, confuse, or bewilder and does not have the positive connotation of amused.
- Sandra was bemused by her complex science homework.
- Sandra was amused by her little sister's antics.
4) Complementary and Complimentary - Complementary is the word to use when things go together well. Complimentary is when something is free. (Similarly, a complement is an accessory, while a compliment is a statement of admiration.)
- She wore shoes that were complementary to her outfit.
- Her job was to give out complimentary samples.
5) Affect and Effect - These two can be quite daunting at times, but if you remember that affect is the thing which causes the effect, you should be able to figure out if you are using the words correctly.
- They tried to affect the outcome of the voting.
- The effect of their interference was negative press coverage.

This is far from an exhaustive list, and it does overlook the more often cited "its or it's", "you're or your", and "their, they're, there" issues which I assumed I could bypass, but who really wants a long post on word usage?

September 25, 2012

Editorial Qualities

There are so many resources out there for Authors that it can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. One google search can pull up thousands of results about commas, or editors, or how to get onto review blogs. That said, one of the things that I love about the ease of access to this information is being able to share the good stuff when you find it.

There are a lot of Authors out there (in the Indie world especially) who debate the necessity or effectiveness of an Editor. Obviously, I am firmly on the side of the positives attached to having one, and any clarification of the Editor's job is one that I am interested in sharing. I stumbled across this article on the SPAWN website the other day by Patricia L. Fry. This article not only says what I firmly believe, but also lists some of the things that an Editor will do to your manuscript. It isn't short. But neither is the job descriptions for an Editor!

Of the points she makes in her list of 20 things an Editor looks for, some are obvious and some might be surprising. My personal favourites are numbers 4 (redundancies), 6 (too many sentences in the passive voice), 8 (qualifiers that weaken sentences), 11 (muddy writing), 17 (discrepancies in tense and person), and 19 (transitioning troubles). But on the whole I think it gives a well rounded view of what an Editor can and should do for your manuscript.

So regardless of your view on your baby's brilliance (and let me clarify, I am talking about your manuscript not your actual children), it never hurts to let someone else polish it up a little too.

September 17, 2012

Long Live Books!

There are so many discussions out there about the changing state of the publishing world. Some of them are looking at the flailing traditional publishing market and some are focused on the digital revolution of the industry.

What is good to see, though, is the debate. One of the best articles I have come across lately is this one about drowning in indie books. It shows a balance in its proofs that is often missing. It highlights major successes of both tracks as well as pointing out that neither avenue should be judged by the extreme successes alone.

The stigma attached to self-publishing or "Indie" publishing has always been that it removes the sieve from the market and allows a higher proportion of "bad" books to be produced. There is an assumption against the quality of the books and the care that may (or may not) have been put into them before publication. And to some degree, this is right.

What is forgotten, though, is the number of traditionally published books that no one ever hears about.

Unless you have a specific author or book in mind, how often do you actually find your next book by randomly searching through the shelves of the bookstore? More often, it is the books that are prominently displayed and showing their cover (which the majority of books in a bookstore are not) that will grab your eye and entice you to pick them up.

So what happens to all the short print run books or the ones that didn't have the huge marketing budgets? Or even just the books that have a very specific market that doesn't seem to be present in that store location? They are placed on the shelves for a month or two until they are returned to the publisher. Does that mean that they are any less worth reading? They did make it through the initial sieve. And what about the books that contain the same tired formulas peddled by the name of the author or character alone? The quality may not be there, but the power to draw an audience is - does that make them inherently "good" books? They have been published, after all.

The problem with print runs and traditional publishing as it has always been before now, is simply that the upfront costs prevent every book getting its fair chance. Publishers need to choose books that have a huge market appeal - sometimes even turning down great books which simply don't have the scope they are looking for. Like many other arts based industries, it is not always about the talent or the capability but rather who can fit the costume that already exists or what colour painting is going to suit the room.

The introduction of digital publishing has brought a wider range to the consumer. It has removed the barriers to public consumption. Therefore the influx of manuscripts of all kinds and qualities is inevitable. But instead of viewing this as a negative, I see it as something that shows that we are now the gatekeepers. We now decide what we want to read and what we don't. It allows a broader and more inventive market to be nurtured and developed. And instead of being the death of publishing, as many have claimed e-books would be, it is giving new life to readers and authors alike.

Long Live Books!

January 19, 2012

Show and Tell

Ever since childhood, the concepts of showing and telling are perpetually linked in our minds: bring something to class and tell everyone about it, draw a picture to illustrate the story, sing the song with actions included. The two concepts are joined in our understanding of how to get information across and we rely on them both to ensure that the whole story is told.

For Writers, however, this can cause a big issue. Readers don't want to be told. They want to figure things out for themselves, see the characters in action, make their own judgements, and be caught up in the world of the novel without a narrating voice telling them what to think. Unfortunately, the distinction between showing and telling can get a little blurry at times.

Far too often, Writers can get so caught up in their main action that they deem it necessary to simply state character traits or feelings without allowing the reader to see the results of those traits or feelings first-hand. They think they are being economical and keeping the story moving, but too much of this can distance your readers and make your characters feel boxed in. By creating the world of your story, your characters and situations should have the room to live, breathe, and prove themselves without your divine intervention. No one needs the ever present narrative voice hinting at a painfully obvious outcome or nudging you in the ribs saying, "Did you get that? Did ya?"

So be careful when writing to treat your reader with respect. They have a brain. They generally know how to use it. And if you let them, they will create a richer space than you could ever have dreamed you would have the power to create for them. But if you hold on too tight, you stifle their creativity and push them out of the world you have so lovingly created. And no matter how good your story, if you tell your reader too much, they will feel cheated and distanced. Make them part of the process, and show them instead.

A blog with a writerly perspective, and much better examples than I could have created, was what inspired this post, and I feel it is only fair to share it with you here.

January 09, 2012

Leave them wanting more.

It is absolutely integral that Writers are aware of the intricacies of their characters, their environments, and their plotlines. Knowing about all of these things is essential to creating a three dimensional story that will keep your reader engaged.

The problem sometimes lies in too much of this information being shared.

We have all read a story that looks like it is coming to a natural conclusion but then for some reason keeps going for an extra unneeded addition. Or maybe a piece that has a strong premise, but gets caught up in repetitons of the same thoughts but using different words. Or, my longtime example from a famous classic Writer, using 10 pages to describe how a character (not even the MC) got down three steps whilst drunk.

None of these things are terrible faults on the part of the Writer. They are often just over eagerness to show they know the world they have created and the people within it. It is easy to get caught up in a world that you are breathing life into on your pages and not see the necessary from the unneccessary.

Unfortunately, as far as the reader is concerned, these are pretty bad faults; which can sink a book and the writer in their estimations.

What the Writer needs to be able to do is take a step back. Easier said than done, and often said, I know. This is where beta readers (not just friends and family) and your Editor are extremely valuable commodities. Listen to the feedback that they give you - even if you have a reason to explain away each comment. Allow their fresh perspectives to enlighten yours. Do not worry that they are trying to change your manuscript into something that it isnt. Every person that reads your book will see it differently. That is the charm of books. (And the downfal of many movie adaptations!)

But most of all, know that your reader does not need to know as much about your book as you do. Just because you know something, does not mean it needs to be shared. Give your characters rounded personalities, absolutely! But we dont need to know every single meal they have had since childhood unless that is of particular relevance to the plot. Make your environments lush and intricate if that is your style, but know where they stop and your story begins. And most of all, make sure that all of your plot is not only relevant, but necessary. In many cases, the old addage goes a long way: leave them wanting more.

This is an over simplified set of statements, I know. But use it as a reminder. Ask yourself the questions. And dont be afraid if someone else asks them too.