What Did You Learn?

October 9, 2009

General Writing: Be Picky

Filed under: General Writing — Tags: , , , — ax20 @ 1:59 am

“Language has a feeling. Different words give different sense.” ~Melanie Braverman

This is sort of an extension of the Use Your Words post, with a slightly different focus. One of the things that I learned in my writing class is that words have power. (There’s a reason there’s the saying “sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.” It’s because names do hurt.) One of their powers is that they evoke feelings, emotions, images. The words a writer chooses to use play as important a role in the story as the story itself.

This is an area where poetry can teach you a lot about writing. In poems, each word is painstakingly chosen for the symbolism or image it invokes. In novel writing, your words should be considered just as carefully. You could write the same idea in more than one way but the way you write it changes your story. There’s a belief that no word is wasted in the Torah (bible). This is the way you should approach your book.

Some things to consider for your word choice: character’s mood, overall tone, age, personality. If you’re writing a scene from the perspective of a seven year old you shouldn’t be using big words because that isn’t their mindset. Unless that seven year old is supposed to be a genius, of course, then using big words makes sense.

The sound of a word plays as much part in the meaning and feeling relayed as the actual definition. They are what make up a lot of the tone and texture of the piece. “K” for example is a harsher sound while using a lot of the letter “S” may give things a snake-like sensation. Consider the following poem Dreams by Langston Hughes:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Both the lines “broken-winged bird” and “frozen with snow” portray something sad and empty but how does each one sound. Broken-winged bird is cumbersome while frozen with snow is softer. What feelings does each one invoke? While poetry and prose are not the same, the principle remains the same. Every word evokes something specific, make use of that and choose your words carefully.

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General Writing: Use Your Words!

Filed under: General Writing — Tags: , , — ax20 @ 1:08 am

“If I have included visibility in my list of values to be saved, it is to give warning of the danger we run in losing a basic human faculty: the power of bringing visions into focus with our eyes shut, of bringing forth forms and colors from the lines of black letter on a white page, and in fact of thinking in terms of images.” ~Italo Calvino’s Six Memos, On Visibility.

I was recently reading a manuscript for work about a woman learning to be okay with being in her fifties and loving life. The idea itself showed promise, it had some interesting moments, a deep back story. But the author had a particular problem: tell the reader what was happening. In other words, summarizing events rather than writing them out in detail.

It’s so important to show not tell your story. You need to give enough detail for the reader to be able to visualize the scene (but not so much detail that the reader cannot tell what is important). Don’t simply summarize large portions of time. Especially when something important happens.

How can you show it? Vivid descriptions. Use the five senses as much as possible. Include small things that make a person unique or distinct. Writing something as simple as “purple glasses” instead of simply “glasses” could make all the difference in whether or not a scene comes to life. It takes the vague image of a generic object or expression and makes it specific.

One of the great things about writing is the way the different genres feed into each other. You can learn about one type of writing by studying another. I took two screenplay writing classes, both taught by Marc Weinberg, and I learned more about imagery than from any of my fiction classes. In film, everything is visual. You literally have to show the audience everything. (Imagine a movie where someone just tells you what happened without seeing any of it!!!) Visual cues are embedded into the set and the behavior to give the reader information. Visual cues can be used in novel writing as well. Can be used, and should be! You want to give enough description so that the reader can picture themselves in the story.

So remember, when writing your book: show don’t tell!

General Writing: Don’t Be Wasteful!

Filed under: General Writing — Tags: , — ax20 @ 12:24 am

In one of my writing classes, called Memory to Craft, we talked about the length of your writing. By that I don’t mean a literal length; there was no specific limit that was the “ideal” amount. The professor, Melanie Braverman, gave us an assignment: take your current story and cut out 1/4 of the words, 1/3 if you can manage it. This was perhaps one of the best assignments I’ve ever been given in a writing class. It forces you to take your work and really pay attention to what you’ve written. You must look at the wording and consider if you’ve written it in the most precise and exact wording possible. This isn’t to say that you can’t have any long sentences or that you should force awkward sentences in order to hit the exact word number, but the point is, people tend to waste their words.

People have short attention spans. Putting in things that are long-winded and unnecessary are more likely to cause your reader’s mind to wander. Your point is also more likely to get lost amidst everything. The feel of the work becomes unfocused and scattered. (And when someone is reading a manuscript submission, it’s really frustrating to read a 600 page novel that would have been written in 300.)

In our writing class, we read the book Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino. It was probably one of the densest and most frustrating things I’ve ever read. I don’t think anyone in the class enjoyed it. At the same time, it was full of good points. One of the essays was titled exactitude which it defined as 1) a well defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question, 2) an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable, visual images, and 3) a a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination. Ironically, for a book that talked constantly about the needs for exact language, Six Memos tended to ramble on for pages, repeating its point over and over again. Nonetheless, it’s point was a good one. As Melanie said, “often writers are so concerned with getting the story right that the details fall by the wayside.” Don’t let that happen to you!

Finally, while reading other people’s work as well as my own, I’ve noticed that certain words tend to be thrown into sentences unnecessarily: just, even, that, whole, like, only. There are others of course, but these ones in particularly tend to be misused and pointless. “Just,” “even,” “only,” “so,” and “whole” tend to get used when stressing something but often don’t actually add any stress or meaning to the sentence. They’re also often misused. “Like” and “that” tend to just be superfluous. These are some easy ways to cut out some words but they certainly won’t be enough. “Very” is a word that I like to call a false modifier, in that often it actually detracts rather than strengthens your description and is often unnecessary. (For example, “she is captivating” versus “she is very captivating.” Captivating is already a strong word and using “very” in front of it only serves to take attention away from it. After all, would we otherwise think she was only marginally captivating? Can you actually be marginally captivating?)

My advice would be to go through your manuscript line by line (some even recommend reading one sentence at a time from the end of the work backwards to allow for concentration on the line itself instead of the work as a whole) and try to cut out at least 1/4 of the words. (For poets, try cutting out 1/4 of the syllables.)

Just remember, less is often more.

A Little Intro…

Filed under: General Writing — Tags: — ax20 @ 12:01 am

Any writing teacher will tell you that if you want to learn about writing you should read. What they don’t tell you is that you learn just as much, if not more, reading the bad stuff as you do reading the good stuff.

Whereas the other blogs I have talk about other people’s work (TV shows that I watch–Just About Every TV Show and books that I’ve read–What to Read), this is a little different. What I want to write about here are things that I’ve learned over time about writing.

What qualifies me to talk about writing?

I currently work at a literary agency in New York City (and before the worked at a publishing house) and one part of my job is reading submissions (query letters, proposals, and manuscripts), writing editorial reports evaluating them, and recommending or rejecting the work. Another part of my job is writing proposals of our own and sending them to bigger publishing houses for consideration. So while I may not be the most powerful person in the company, I’ve certainly learned a lot.

I have also done freelance editing for a handful of writers, where they send me their manuscripts and I read and evaluate their work to give them an idea of where and how to improve it.

I majored in English with a minor in Creative Writing at Brandeis University and am in the process of writing a novel (it’s middle grade fantasy but I also write fiction and creative non-fiction among other things), so I also have an academic and personal background. (And I read A LOT.)

This is not to say I’m an expert of course. There’s so much left for me to learn, but I find with my friends that sharing what you know is helpful (even if only for myself because it allows me to organize my thoughts).

Before this little intro becomes not so little, I’m going to end this post, but I hope you enjoy and that maybe some of what you read helps.

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