Lessons from the Fledgling Author: Listen to Your Own Writings

I came into serious writing accidentally. I’ve told this story before, so I’ll just summarize it now. I was working at home as a software developer. My brain got bored after hours upon hours of coding. It wandered. Right into a story that had been hiding in the shadows of my mind for many years. It pestered me and stole my attention at every chance. Once the story was given some time on the stage, it jumped right into the limelight.

I thought I could write down what I knew about it—some of the characters, the story arcs—capture the words and keep them safe, and, perhaps, it would exit stage left and be quiet again. That didn’t happen. It demanded a leading role in my life.

Once I got started writing, the story just flowed from my fingertips. Every time I took a break from coding, I was exciting to see where the story would go. I had a vague sense of who the main characters were—I had three children to send through the Hero’s Journey—and a final climax, and even a few story arcs to get there.

I had all my characters coming together—a lot of characters crept into the story—but not a good sense of their collective purpose. One day, I decided to introduce a vampire to the mix to add some conflict, and a challenge—how do you travel with a vampire?

Coltan was born.

It was fascinating to watch my new character grow. I fell in love with him like none of my other characters. I wrote his backstories and forward stories. I was happy when good things happened to him, and I cried when the things were bad—and there was a lot of bad. A need to hear his voice developed in me.

I started reading my stories out loud. This helped me to hear my character’s voices, and to hear the cadence of the writing. But, really, I needed it read to me. Aha! I have a computer with a microphone and recording software.

My next big leap forward was when I started recording myself reading my own writing. I could hear everything—repeated words; the flow of the narrative; when it became confusing in the dialog as to who was speaking; where I tripped over words; where the sentences and paragraphs and scenes were too long. And I could actually hear Coltan and the others with distinct voices. It was enlightening.

After my experience, I began to share this technique with other writers at my writing and reading groups. No one else I talked to records themselves.

One author, Joe Follansbee, tried it out and was pleased with the result, although, I’m not sure if he uses it to listen to himself reading out loud. The other advantage to recording what you write is you can then share it online in audio form, which I did, chapter by chapter, on SoundCloud.

At the same time, I was experimenting with releasing the book, in its beta form, on this blog, which Joe and I also discussed at length. The other major use of the internet is building a following, which we also talked about—Twitter, Facebook, SoundCloud and blogging on sites like WordPress.

I use a lot of modern tools when I write, including the keyboard on my computer and the tool I type the words into, Scrivener (which I seriously could not live without).

At one of my writing groups, they encourage the use of pen on paper, explaining it puts the writer more in touch with the act of writing. I get this. And I tried it.

I was unsatisfied with the results, beyond the pain in my untrained hand from the physical act of writing. It slowed me down, but I was told, that was a good thing; I had to copy my work into Scrivener anyway—it acts as my journal—and was again told this was good thing, that I could do the first edit while transposing the written words into bits and bytes; and, worst of all, I couldn’t read my handwriting and reading it back to my group was so difficult, it lost all the emotion I had written into it—I noticed this also happens to the other writers when they read their new words out loud.

I would encourage all writers to try, if not embrace, the wonderful tools we have available to us. My computer goes with me as readily as a journal goes with a traditionalist. I write, I edit and I publish, all on the go. It helps me with grammar and spelling, and mistakes to avoid. And, my favorite of all, it gives a voice to my characters.

Lessons from the Fledgling Author: The Choice of Prepositions Is Limited

As I worked my way through rewriting the many sentences that started with a gerund phrase in my novel, Tishta the Crystal Orb, I found myself turning them into boring subject/predicate forms. I frequently moved the action of the gerund phrase before or after an  “and,” or added a “then,” to string it together with rest of the sentence.

Here’s an example from the book:
Dropping her hand, she turned and walked away as quietly as she had approached.

It can be rewritten as:
She dropped her hand, then turned and walked away as quietly as she had approached.
Or:
She dropped her hand and turned to walk away as quietly as she had approached.

I returned to looking for ways to vary the cadence—that was the intent, in the first place, of using the gerund phrases. Aha! Prepositional phrases.

The example sentence already contains a prepositional phrase, which makes my work easier. I also changed the pronoun, “she,” to the noun, “the girl.” I just like the way this sounds when I say it out loud.
 As quietly as she had approached, the girl dropped her hand and turned to walk away.

I like this so much better.

As I started using more and more prepositions, they began to feel repetitive. I searched for a list of English prepositions. On Wikipedia, I found an article that lists them. It turns out, the list is fairly small and doesn’t really change over time. They call it a “closed class.” They are so basic in our language, and possibly in any language, that we don’t add new ones.

It makes me wonder how they evolved. I think they must have come before articles or verb tenses—noun, verb, object, location. “beaver swim under water,” “spear make hole in deer,” or “I put stick on fire.” Now, I want to research when children start using prepositional phrases. But, I digress.

According to the Wikipedia article, there are only ninety single-word prepositions to choose from. There are thirty-six two-word phrases and only four three-word phrases.  No wonder they started to seem repetitive.

I’ll need to ask my English major sister about why a word such as “when” is considered an adverb, even if it is used to indicate “at what time.” Perhaps, in this case, “at” is not a preposition either. Does anyone know the answer to this?

What are some of the other ways you have found to vary the cadence of your sentences?

Lessons from the Fledgling Author: Show Your Story, Don’t Tell It

Many times, I’ve heard, “make the action tell the story” or “show the story, don’t tell it.” It’s a vague concept, but I’m learning this lesson as I edit Tishta the Crystal Orb. Like most of us, before we learn the rules of authoring, I quite often fell victim to telling, not showing, in the first draft of my novel.

Here’s an example from Tishta. In one scene, I wanted to say why Toran was fighting. I wrote:
He missed Gillan. While waiting, he had enlisted to fight with the local militia against the neighboring fiefdom over a petty land dispute. He chose his side because they had owned the land without any challenge for many generations. And it appeared the other side had outside advisors guiding them and mercenaries fighting for them. Besides, it helped him stay in shape and eased the boredom of waiting.

In the next scene,  when Toran joins Gillan, I brought it up again:
After Kano laid down for the night, Gillan and Toran sat wrapped in their blankets, gazing into the small fire. When he shared about the land dispute, she told him to tell Criften when they got back together. Then, they just sat together quietly.

In both of these paragraphs, I’m telling, not showing. I’m definitely going to rewrite this. In the first scene, I’ll remove why Toran chose his side, and include it as dialog in the second scene.

Scene 1:
He missed Gillan. While waiting, he had enlisted to fight with the local militia against the neighboring fiefdom over a petty land dispute. It helped him stay in shape and eased the boredom of waiting.

Scene 2:
After Kano laid down for the night, Gillan and Toran sat wrapped in their blankets, gazing into the small fire.

“What did you do while you were waiting for me?” Gillan asked.

“Just like you guessed, I was fighting”—he broke into a radiant smile, then became serious—”It was strange. They were battling over a border that hadn’t been disputed for generations. I think the neighboring fiefdom had outside advisors guiding them, and maybe mercenaries fighting for them.”

“That is strange. Be sure to tell Criften when we meet up with him.”

Gillan scooted closer and Toran wrapped his arm around her. Then, they just sat together quietly.

I like this a lot better. The characters are telling the story, not the narrator.

Some of the other ways we tell instead of show are more subtle. Two that surprised me were overuse of exclamation points and of the word “suddenly.”

In the discussions I read about these, there were many opinions, but I noticed some of the more seasoned authors saying they never use exclamation points or start sentences with “suddenly.” The words an author uses should be enough to convey the surprise of the action. A general rule is to only use them in dialog, and then, only sparingly.

When I reviewed Tishta for these two, I found a fair number of both. I removed all the exclamation points from the narrative, and most of them from dialogs. I did leave a few uses of “suddenly” only because I think it reads better with them left in. But, if my editor balks, I wouldn’t be averse to removing them all.

Like all the rules I’ve been discovering, they’re really just guidelines and meant to be broken on occasion. I like rules. They give me structure. As I’ve applied them to my own work, I’ve found I really do like the updated versions better.

Lessons from the Fledgling Author: Starting Sentences with Gerund Phrases

I am in the midst of a major rewrite of my first fantasy novel, Tishta the Crystal Orb, after sending it off to an editor to review. The lessons I’m sharing today are: starting sentences with gerunds is not a good idea, in particular; and, gerunds can be tricky to get right, in general.

Once my editor, Anne Bean, pointed out this guideline, I went back through my book looking for them. I had been using gerund phrases frequently to change the cadence of sentences. There were A LOT of them.

I researched online to find explanations of why the rule exists, and opinions about how rigorously to follow it. I found a lot of opinions. In reading through them, I came to the conclusion that the seasoned authors were the ones urging its application.

After reading some of the examples, I found the reason for the rule. It’s not really an issue if a gerund is being used as the subject of the sentence, e.g., smoking causes cancer. It gets tricky when it is used in a gerund phrase.

Here’s an example from my own writing: Wiping his hand over his nose, it came away bloody, so he pinched it to try to stop the bleeding, worried he had left a trail of blood for his brother to follow.

Well, there are many things to fix in this sentence, but the point is, “wiping his had over his nose, it came away bloody” is awkward, at least. Is it the hand or the nose that came away bloody? It is especially unclear since the sentence continues with the nose being the subject of the next phrase.

To rewrite it, first, I’ll break it into two parts at the second comma.

For the first sentence, I’ll give two versions.

Here’s one: His hand came away bloody after he wiped it across his nose.

Or maybe: After wiping his nose, his hand came away bloody.

This second version actually points out an easy solution to many of my gerund phrase issues. Add a preposition to the beginning of the phrase. But, I still like the first one better.

For the second half of the original sentence, I’m going to get rid of the gerund phrase after the final comma. It’s an example of how gerunds are tricky, in general, to get right.

I like this much better:  He pinched his nostrils together and hoped he had not left a trail of blood for his brother to follow.

So, the whole thing becomes: His hand came away bloody after he wiped it across his nose. He pinched his nostrils together and hoped he had not left a trail of blood for his brother to follow.

I’m starting to understand why this sounds a lot better to me. It is clearer, but also feels less passive. More direct.

I’d be interested in hearing from others about their successes and failures with gerunds.