Another time, another place

Last weekend I took a trip to County Wicklow, partly to carry out some family history research, and partly to check locations for my current novel. I’ve already written around two-thirds of the first draft, imagining the street scenes and roadways, backed up by miles and miles travelled on Google StreetView.

On the ground, however, I discovered that so much needs rewriting because my understanding of the history of the places was distinctly under par. The period of the novel I was investigating covered 1847 to 1921, and, of course, much has changed in the intervening years. Houses that I thought of as old, were actually new or didn’t even exist in that time. The landscape must have been different because the trees lining the fields, or forming huge woodlands, though large, were nowhere near 150 years old. Even the rural roads would have been different, with little or no tarmac, and the town layouts have changed beyond recognition.

I’m not dismayed by this, it’s important to get it right, and the experience of getting the feel of the places; seeing the way the light fell, hearing the sound the river made over the gravel and feeling the wind blasting down the mountain, made it all worthwhile. Even if I hadn’t been researching, it would have been pleasurable.

The hard task now is to translate it all on to the page.

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Adverbage

Two weeks ago several members of our writers group attended a day workshop on Editing Your Novel, led by Brian Langan of Transworld Press. The breadth of advice was immense and it prompted me to get back into gear with submitting my second novel to publishers – but not before a ninth edit.

I’ve written before about the excellent ProWriting Aid software (or is it ‘app’ these days?), and this was my first port of call – oh oh PWA would definitely pick that up as a cliché – and that one as an adverb. So, I ran the range of reports on my first ten thousand words and gasped at the number of adverbs, passive verbs and personal pronouns it highlighted. How could I get it so wrong?

Simple. We all use these devices every day in our speech, often as a kind of shorthand: clichés probably exist for that primary purpose, to avoid extensive explanations; adverbs help us avoid flowery imagery; passive verbs often sound more natural than their active counterparts in English speech patterns; and personal pronouns are almost unavoidable regardless of whether we’re writing in first or third person. I’ve given you seven personal pronouns to this point in this paragraph alone. However, I’ve dodged the cardinal sin here of repeating the same pronoun at the start of successive sentences.

Try a little test if you use Microsoft Word. Search your manuscript for ‘I’ (better to search for ‘. I ‘ – that’s: full stop, space, I, space – to avoid finding the letter as part of other words) if in first person, or ‘He’/’She’ in third person. See how many you find. If you miss out the full stop from the search you’ll be likely to find lots more.

Before going further perhaps a short explanation might be beneficial:

  • Personal pronouns are used to replace names and denote gender and/or number. Examples include he, she, I, it, you, they, them, us, and so on.
  • Adverbs are used to qualify verbs, nouns and adjectives. They tend to be frowned upon in creative writing. In most cases (or at least most cases I could think of) they end in ‘ly’. Examples include quickly, slowly, gleefully, quietly, etc, etc, etc.
  • Depending on where you use a verb in a sentence it can be active or passive. For example: ‘John throws the ball’ (active) or ‘The ball is thrown’ (passive). Both are valid but active verbs tend to give more movement and immediacy to writing.

Finding these little devils isn’t difficult, it’s fixing them that is. Sometimes we can avoid them, sometimes we can’t. A good thesaurus can often provide alternatives to adverbs, though we shouldn’t dispense with them altogether. They can be used in opposition to the verb to provide atmosphere where an alternative verb wouldn’t. For example ‘He laughed grimly’. The personal pronouns are like grains of rice dropped on the kitchen floor – you sweep and sweep but they still pop up days later where you were certain you’d got them all. Passive verbs can be so hard to fix – the ball was thrown and you don’t know who threw it, and you want to avoid ‘Someone …’ where do you go. Wholesale rewriting of the sentence is often the only option. Sorry folks, no easy options here.

So, I bounced into my novel, scanned the analysis from ProWriting Aid, wept a little, then set about reducing those low scores. The results, I think, are looking beneficial. Let’s hope a publisher thinks so soon.

 

Why do they do it?

Afraid this is just a rant – no insights into my writing habits in this one. A couple of hours ago I received a Whatsapp message from a friend warning me that the service is going to start charging from this weekend. I had a pretty good inkling that it was probably just a scam circulated by some fool who likes to clog up the internet or gets gratification from seeing how many people have been duped into circulating his/her nonsense.

It took me less time to check it out than it would have taken to send messages to all my contacts. And yes, it was a pathetic chain letter type message which has been circulating for at least three years and Whatsapp are not beginning to charge.

So why do people still circulate this stuff rather than checking to see if it’s real first? Is it due to fear or lack of knowledge on how to look it up? ( I use Hoax Slayer or Snopes, or even just a Google query).

Why does it bother me? Because every little bit of stuff circulating clogs up the internet and makes it slower. If someone sends a message to 50 contacts, and 10% of those then send to 50 contacts, and the same again, it works out, if my maths is correct, at over 3 million pointless and incorrect messages whizzing through hundreds of servers. One day it will all break down.

What’s the secret?

As a writer I struggle, like many others, with maintaining momentum. In fact, for weeks, I’ve written very little except when I’ve been in coffee shops, as I mentioned in my previous post. There are, of course, the usual distractions – Facebook, emails, cutting the lawn, etc – but there’s also something which, for me, always seems to put up a barrier to moving forward.

Stephen King, and a great many other writers, say that to write well you must read a lot. But how does that help when the books you read end up being poor – either poor prose, poor plot or poorly edited, sometimes all three? I’ve recently read three novels, which I won’t name because I think writing is hard enough without getting bad reviews, that had one or more of these attributes. One of them was in the top 20 sales on Amazon Kindle, yet I struggled to finish it because the writing was so bad. And I don’t think it’s just a matter of opinion. Last month I led a discussion on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, one of my all-time favourites, and other readers didn’t enjoy it as much as I did, though none of them said it was badly written, and I can live with that, we all enjoy different things in novels. Similarly, a friend recommended a book which I read and didn’t like stylistically, it just wasn’t for me, but I admired the way it had been written.

With bad writing it’s possible to pull out a couple of positives. Firstly to identify the things we should avoid, like inaccuracy, bad punctuation, ‘he said, she said’ sloppiness, and so on. It’s much easier to see these on the page than in some theoretical class. Secondly, I expect there is some comfort to be taken when you notice that the writing is poor – at least some of the lessons have stuck.

writers tears

However, the barrier for my writing in these badly written novels is that they’ve been published, so the punctuation, lack of historical/technical accuracy and plot holes should have been picked up long before they hit the bookshelves. Even so, they still seem to sell well. So what am I doing wrong? My first novel found a publisher after a number of rejections but my second has been turned down by lots (and I mean lots) yet I know, and I hope it’s not just arrogance on my part, that the writing is better than my first and better than some of the offerings I’ve read lately. Do I expect the world to be fair? To be just? No, I don’t. It’s only that I sometimes become discouraged and it makes me want to give up. Is it any wonder I feel like turning to the bottle – especially this one?

Where do I write?

Every time we sit down to write, our objective is to let those good old creative juices flow and the perceived wisdom seems to be that the more comfortable we are in our space, the more likely this is to happen. For many years, after the word-processor became accessible, my writing place of choice was at a desk-top computer. I usually had access to a laptop as well but this didn’t provide me with the discipline I was looking for. Perhaps it was due to me primarily writing non-fiction at the time, where I needed to be more structured in my approach.

Capture

That’s not to say that I didn’t find other places to write which suited me very well. My favourite, of all time I think, was sitting in the sun outside a waterfront bar in La Rochelle with a glass of wine, a notebook and pen, working on a draft guidance booklet for a Government department. Unfortunately, access to that particular space was limited to a couple of afternoons in the middle of my holiday.

Now, I have two main spaces where I work. Three years ago, increasing pain in my lower back caused me to abandon the desktop for a laptop (literally on my lap). I sit in a club chair in our ‘sun-room’ with windows onto the garden on three sides. The time I tend to write is between six am and eight am in the morning, with the first, and possibly second, mug of tea of the day on the windowsill beside me. I’ve always found early morning to be most productive. Once or twice a week I also find a table in a coffee shop, where I write longhand in a notebook, using a pen made from oak taken from the bog. It pleases me to think I’m holding a modern ballpoint encased in a material possibly 2000 years old and I find that even if I can’t get the words down on the computer, the old fashioned pen and paper usually does the trick.

Most of my researched material is stored on my laptop and I use a mix of Scrivener and Word. The former for organising and drafting, the latter for later editing. I’d like to use Scrivener for all of it but I haven’t quite got the handle on all the skills needed to get to the finished product. I have Scrivener synced to Plain.txt on a tablet so that I can dictate from my written draft – it is possible to dictate directly into Scrivener, at a cost, using something like Dragon NaturallySpeaking but I haven’t got round to making that investment yet.

It would be nice to hear where other writers find they are most productive.