WORD SEARCH with Adair Jones

Rules for Writers: Hilary Mantel

Posted in Fundamentals, Wanderings by Adair Jones on March 21, 2011


1 Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.

2 Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don’t really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, “how to” books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.

3 Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.

4 If you have a good story idea, don’t assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.

5 Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.

6 First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?

7 Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don’t notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they’re trying too hard to instruct the reader.

8 Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.

9 If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

10 Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules. Except number one: you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.

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From The Guardian.

Rules For Writers: Jonathan Franzen

Posted in Fundamentals, Wanderings by Adair Jones on March 20, 2011

1 The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

2 Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.

3 Never use the word “then” as a conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.

4 Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.

5 When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

6 The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more auto biographical story than “The Meta­morphosis”.

7 You see more sitting still than chasing after.

8 It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

9 Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

10 You have to love before you can be relentless.

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From The Guardian.

Rules for Writers: Margaret Atwood

Posted in Wanderings by Adair Jones on March 15, 2011

1 Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

2 If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

3 Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

4 If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.

5 Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

6 Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

7 You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

8 You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

9 Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

10 Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

 

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From The Guardian.

Writing fundamentals: steering clear of plot holes

Posted in Strangled Words by Adair Jones on February 28, 2011

Plot holes.  We’ve all experienced them.  Think of that moment in a cinema when you’re jarred from the film’s action by some detail that makes no sense to the story.  It might be as small as a change in the character’s clothing from one shot to the next.  Or the lighting is different—the shadows don’t match up with the sunset the characters are watching.  What’s been motivating the character inexplicably shifts. Or there’s a twist that adds nothing to the story. No matter how small the detail, if it takes you out of the story, it’s a problem.

Filmmakers accept that plot holes are likely in their highly technical, collaborative endeavor.  Most budget for a ‘continuity’ person, whose job it is to find these lapses in physical details, story logic and character motivation.

Unlike filmmakers, writers generally work alone.  However, since producing a novel usually takes a long time, we are just as susceptible to plot holes.  For those who start on page one and write sequentially through to the end, years may intervene.  A lot can happen to alter our original vision. Most of us, of course, don’t write this way.  We often work on the part that inspires us on a particular day, even if it happens to fall near the back end of the narrative.  Or we might rework an early section that’s been ignored for months.  Either way, there are endless opportunities for inconsistencies in the story.

How, then, do we keep the multitude of details in our minds and avoid those jarring plot holes?

One of the most basic steps is to know your characters.  Depending on the type of writer you are, much of this will happen as the process unfolds.  It’s a good idea to keep a separate record for each of your characters.  In the early stages, sketch out a character’s physical and emotional qualities on an index card.  Add motivations, personality traits, significant behaviour-shaping events, life goals.  It’s fun to find photographs from magazines to attach to this fledgling dossier.  Even if you veer from an exact likeness, perhaps the subject of a photograph reveals an attitude you want for your character—a steely gaze, or a tilt of the chin, an arrogant smile, or an expression of boundless sympathy.  Pictures are also helpful in identifying possible habits, quirks, and foibles.  The image of a birdcage from a home wares magazine might trigger the idea for a pet bird—one that happens to say embarrassing things at awkward moments.  Or the picture of a spotless room may suggest to you that your character is a hopeless slob, unable to organize any aspect of her life (which perfectly explains her present predicament).

What begins as a few dot points on an index card may end up being a fat, colourful file—something that can bring you back to your original conception whenever you stray too far off course.  Later on in the process, you might print out some of the more descriptive passages as they occur throughout the narrative.  Do any discrepancies appear in the character’s physical appearance?  Are there any unaccountable shifts in motivation? If the character is undergoing a psychological transformation, does this unfold coherently?

Another way to avoid plot holes is to do the proper research.  In The little red writing book, Mark Tredinnick says we travel the arc from chaos to order whenever we write.  One way to make the journey a smooth one is to be prepared for any question that might occur in the mind of the reader.  The more familiar you are with technical information, the more clearly you will write about it and the less likely the reader will stumble.  It helps to sketch the rooms your characters move around in: locate exits, windows, closets, furniture, steps they might trip over.

It’s important to find the right balance between showing and telling.  Too much telling can deaden the narrative, pulling readers out of the story and into the present moment, prompting them to skip pages or stop reading altogether. Too much showing, on the other hand, can be exhausting.  The reader is just as likely to be jolted from the story by having to make obscure connections, uncover clues, or act as a psychoanalyst.

Although a notebook is an essential tool for a writer, it has its shortcomings.  Sometimes it’s important to view your ideas in other formats.  It can be helpful—as well as a lot of fun—to create diagrams of intersecting characters and events on a giant sheet of butcher paper.  Or create a timeline in which you track your subplots against your main plot.  Does a subplot suddenly appear in Chapter 4 only to fizzle a few scenes later?  Think of your story as a jigsaw puzzle with scenes sketched out and colour-coded on index cards and then arrayed on the floor in front of you.  You might discover one of your main characters is ‘lost’ for a chunk of the narrative.  Or that too much happens early on.  Or the conflicts leading up to the climax don’t follow a logical sequence.

Awareness that plot holes are possible in any work of fiction is the first step in avoiding them.  The effort you make to steer clear of these inconsistencies will not only make your story more coherent, it will also enrich the reader’s experience of your beautifully-crafted work.

Article first published in Writing Queensland in February 2011.

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