Simple edits

I wrote a 12,000-word story over the summer and I’m coming back to edit now. I tend to do one edit immediately after finishing, then leave it for a few weeks before doing a fresh-eyes edit. I had thought I was managing to remove a lot of the fluffy or superfluous phrasing in the immediate edit, but am noticing a lot I’d missed.  Thought I’d give some examples.

Word changes to make the language more interesting:

  1. Elle sat numb… in the chair → Elle lay numb… in the chair
    (she is, actually, sitting, but very much reclined and drained, so I think the less standard word works)
  2. … let out a long sigh → … let out a nasal sigh
    (It was this, or just remove ‘long’–such a boring adjective)
  3. …with full lips pursing round every word → … with full lips pouting every word
    (quicker, easier to read, more evocative)
  4. Imaging you want to kill him. How would you do it? → … How do you do it?
    (This one isn’t to make the language more interesting, but to make it more real and immediate… suggestive of what comes later)

Striking out verbs/phrases that do nothing:

  1. “Anyway,” Elle continued with a grin, “you would… → “Anyway,” Elle grinned, “you would…
    (The list of words to (almost) always delete: really, very, still, just, only… I’m adding ‘continue’ to this.)
  2. Such thoughts made Charly wonder… → Charly wondered…
    (I’ve read somewhere that you should try to remove every ‘make’ from your writing. From my English teaching days, I know just how many different meanings ‘make’ can have (a few here). I tend to agree.)
  3. Charly knew not why, but Jeremy had become distant →Jeremy had become distant
    (It’s Charly doing the thinking here, but the focus is on Jeremy.)
  4. the big thick-rimmed plastic shades that swallowed a full third of her face → (‘big’ is both pointless and boring, considering that relative clause)
  5. it did give her satisfaction to… → it did satisfy her to …
    (‘give’ is maybe a bit like ‘make’. I’ll have to keep an eye on this.)

That little bunch certainly isn’t the whole lot from the story, but all I can be bothered with now.

If this is interesting to you, you might care to try out the Hemingway editor site. It’s a free website that you paste a lump of writing into and it suggests improvements for conciseness and clarity.

Naming your babies

Image result for nameless faceless

We have a baby on the way (6 weeks & counting) and so have recently put a lot of effort into name choosing. We were sure (no particular reason)  it would be a girl, and had a list of around five we both liked. The second scan revealed it to be a him and threw us right off. It’s a lot harder to choose for boys, we’ve found. (Perhaps too many males are Dicks?)

I’ve just finished the first draft of a 10k-word story with a fair few characters in, and it tickled me that despite it just being a bit of fiction I’m hacking together, I still anxiously labour over name choices. I thought I’d share a few naming considerations I toy with and a few resources I’ve uncovered.

First up, I am shamefully dreadful at remembering character names in books or films. Books: I just about manage to remember the main character, sometimes their adversary. However, I can comfortably remember any number of first letters. This leads to flummoxations if two characters have identical initials. Action point: I decided all characters in my stories should be unique in the first letter of their names. I’d even tried breaking this rule in the book I’m working on, and finally, at around 50k words in, changed one character’s name because I just kept mixing (Kiyoshi and Kazafumi–Japanese names, just to make things needlessly difficult!) the two up whilst writing.

Rhyming names, too, can bother me when reading. Bobby and Robby, or even Bobby and Toby… I would confuse these. However, rhyming names could suit brothers or even similar characters striving for the same goals. Bobby the Brave and Robby the Rotten, perhaps. If you like this idea, there are plenty of lists of rhyming names online.

Similarly, syllables can come into consideration. Todd and Tex–no no no, but Todd and Tyler… hmmm, still a no for me, but possibly passable. Todd and Timothy, though… I think I could deal with those (as long as Timothy never becomes Timmy or Tim (and Todd never becomes Toddothy)).

Enough of what not to do. What to do? When we failed to come up with any boys’ names we liked, we scrolled every single name on this list of 1000 names, managing to narrow it down to fewer than 10 maybes. I’ve done similar for Indian characters, as I’m not all that familiar with Indian names.

Every time you write a story, you have to come up with (hopefully) more than one name. And you (hopefully) have some intended meaning/theme/lesson/fable for your story. So why not name the characters with some deeper meaning? Simple anagrams can be fun. Curtains rise and we meet Hose Earl (or maybe Rosa Heel)… what do you think of my main character so far?

Another fun and useful site generates a bunch of names for you based upon selected input criteria? (Top names for our son based on this: Danica (sounds like female porn star), Kyle (Minogue?), Ellis (Elephant?),  Scout (not even a name), Shannon (er, boys’ name?), Jack (booooring), Oliver (knew an arse named Oliver when I was young (women seem to like this name, though)), Alfred (ditto the arse thing), Elias (best of the bunch, but still a bit off), Louis (half loo, half piss). (Here’s another similar site)

Giving your characters names that means something appropriate to their role or personality can make you feel like a terribly clever writer. There are even a lot of common names that have really bad meanings. Getting a bit sillier, how about slapping rude name on a sub-character? Here’s a long list of dirty names, from Eric Shun to Fonda Cox.

Finally, here are a few more links that could come in useful:

 

New story–Invasive alien species

Ladybird-1200x800One of my stories was published in Little Blue Marble yesterday. The story is called Invasive aliens species and, if I remember rightly, was only around 1000 words, so the whole experience will brighten your life in fewer minutes than you can count on one hand.

There’s an interesting (to me) story behind the writing of this. Back when I’d not long been working in my current job (checking data associated with scientific articles), I had to curate the data for this article on the spread of an invasive ladybird species into and across the UK. Just the phrase ‘invasive alien species’ got me wondering how these ladybirds could be inserted into a sci-fi story.

Also, perhaps serendipitously, I had the first few lines of that nursery rhyme stuck in my head:

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly
Perhaps she’ll die

The final component was that I’d recently been attempting to shift my story writing from getting a vague idea and then writing to see what happens to planning before writing.

So, after work I wandered off the British Library and tried attempted to develop a plan for this story.

Turns out the British Library closes annoyingly early, so that didn’t last long, but over the next couple of days I did manage to lay out a complete plan for the story. The first step was somewhat unusual: I chopped up the nursery rhyme into sections so that I’d know how many story sections I had to write in between. I then built the story to suit the nursery rhyme sections, as best I could. That meant as well as the invasive alien species theme, I also had to get bigger and bigger animals consuming each other.

There’s not much more to be said about the story without giving too much away. Here’s the link again: https://littlebluemarble.ca/2019/08/09/invasive-alien-species/

And a little about the magazine in which it appears: Little Blue Marble‘s goal is “to bring greater awareness of the consequences and potential solutions to anthropogenic climate change […] by linking to great content from around the web, and publishing original articles and works of speculative fiction.” I do like the purpose of the mag, and had submitted a few other stories there before this one, but to no success. It’s nice to fail before you succeed!

How to plan your story–book review

Until recently, with most stories I wrote, I always just started writing and then let the process go wherever it would. This is called ‘flying by the seat of your pants’, or just ‘pantsing’, and it has given me a few stories I really like (this Butler robot one, this silly programmers=God one, and many more… as well as a LOT that I didn’t ever finish) .

More recently I’ve been trying to shift towards planning stories before starting writing. Published results of these are s-Perfect and the upcoming Alien Invasive Species (see Stories page for the link, when it becomes available).

Planning takes a kind of effort that is of a different flavour to just writing. It’s enjoyable and revealing to just write by the seat of your pants and see where the hidden folds of your mind take you, but I’m finding it leads to several problems: i) the endings can fall flat, because you never have a better idea of how they’ll end till you get there and have to squirm your way to something interesting; ii) whatever themes your story carries are adopted somewhere along the way, so don’t pervade the whole story as deeply as they would if you designed the story, character and scenes all with the theme in mind; iii) you’re more likely to bump against writer’s block, since you get a good enough lump of story behind you that it becomes quite scary that the unknown continuation cannot live up to what you have.

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In pursuit of better planning, I’m reading a book called ‘Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing’. It is turning out to be a great book. (A few stats about the author: She can write a 92,000 word novel in three weeks (after doing the plan); her first novel took two years to write (sans plans); she makes her money by writing many books, so that readers who like one of them will spend more on her books, which requires a large catalogue; she’s written I-don’t-know-how-many books, but it looks to be over 30). Here’s the Amazon link, in case you’re interested. I thoroughly recommend it. Below is a brief and thoroughly incomplete summary of the main points.

First up, the core of your story, and of your plan, is not the story (or plot, or whatever you call that), it’s the character arc of your central character. What hooks a reader is travelling along with your main character as they expose their dreadful flaw and then strive to correct it. To lay that out algorithmically, every story should have:

  1. A character
  2. who wants something
  3. but something (or someone) stands in the way
  4. so they struggle
  5. and ends up either getting or failing to get what they want

The above is the core of your story, but when you come to actually planning the outline of your story, you have to think about these three things:

  • Character arc
  • Theme
  • Pacing

(Notice that till now, plot has not been mentioned. Plot is defined as the events that link together to carry the reader through the story. However, plot can change rather dramatically, and still not affect character arc (your character is still trying to achieve the same goals), pacing or theme, and your story will hardly be affected)

Now down to the details of how to plan your character arc, because this if the core of your story, so determining who your main character is, what drives them, and what holds them back is central. To create your character arc, lay out seven points as such:

  1. Main character: name
  2. External goal: Defined based on the ending and the flaw (5 & 6), and something concrete a character can chase through the story.
  3. Antagonist: A person (or thing) that strives for the same external goal as your main character (but is quite possibly a polar opposite of them).
  4. The plot: (this is more than just a point, but you’ll have to read the book for more details!)
  5. End: This is defined based upon whether the character resolves their flaw or not
  • Flaw: This should be something enormous, which defines how the character changes throughout the story
  • Ally: The person who gets your main character back on track (to resolve their flaw) after they give up, or get too obsessed just following their external goal.

In the book, it’s presented in a different order. You should develop the point in this order: 1, Flaw, 5, 2, 3, Ally, 4. Each point is defined based upon the previous point (or points). For example, you work out 5 (the end) based upon whether or not your character resolves their flaw, and you work out the external goal as something that complements the ending (5).

That’s all I’m going to say for now (partly because I haven’t finished the book!). But I’ll say again that this book is well worth a read if you want to learn how to plan a satisfying story. Here’s the amazon link again, and here’s the author’s homepage, though I haven’t read any of her novels yet.

Sans Forgetica

Here, read this poem. When you’ve finished, read the stuff I’ve written below and answer the question. This is going to be goooood!The font

Earlier today, when writing that previous blog post and searching for ‘fonts for writing memories’, I came across a font called Sans Forgetica. It was absolutely in no way related to what I was looking for, but interesting nevertheless. And so, in the interests of not doing what I was supposed to be doing, I read more.

Sans Forgetica is a font ‘designed using the principles of cognitive psychology to help you to better remember your study notes’. It was designed (by scientists, no less!) to be harder to read than most fonts because that extra difficulty forces your brain to work harder to extract the meaning in the words, and that extra effort means you better remember what you read.

RMIT university have released Sans Forgetica for free and are saying it’ll help students remember more of what they study before an exam period. They have done research to back this up (though it may not be published yet–I can see any published papers on it).

More importantly, though: I am in the middle of my own experiment. Inspired by this unforgettable font, I downloaded it and wrote the poem above in Sans Forgetica. If it really works, then tell me:

What is the third word on the fourth line of the poem?

 

Punctuation & fonts for speech & thoughts

Below are some rules I have adopted as my own standard for punctuating/formatting speech and thought. I had never had problems with this while writing shorter stories, but with this book (now around 100K words), I have too much variety of narrative style to handle organically.

  1. Direct speech = ” ”
    (Speech occurring at the time of the narrative)
    This is actually opposite to the standard British style of using ‘ ‘, and more in line with North American style, but I don’t like the use of ‘ being the same as apostrophes, especially as it result in nasty sentences like:
    >  ‘Those sweets are the kids’.’
    >  ‘It’s Al’s.’.
  2. Quotations = ‘ ‘
    (When a character says or remembers what another character said)
    Worth noting that if you use ‘ ‘ rather than ” ” for direct speech, then this rule is reversed.
  3. General thoughts = standard font
    (Thoughts/opinions ascribed to a character, but not presented as ‘direct thoughts’)
    By ‘general thoughts’, I am meaning things like:
    >  Tom thought she looked tired.
    >  She looked tired, Tom thought.
    But not:
    >  She looks tired, Tom thought.
  4. Direct thoughts = italic font
    (Basically, direct speech, but in a character’s head)
    This is where it gets tricky. By ‘direct thoughts’, I mean things like:
    She looks tired, Tom thought.
    In this case, the narrative aim is to have the thought appear directly as if thought by the character, rather than the narrator reporting it. I have toyed with: i) getting rid of these entirely in favour of always using ‘general thoughts’–but there are times when direct thought feels right; ii) using standard font instead, but then you really can’t use present tense–it just looks like a mistake.
    Here’s a little article about it.
  5. Memory sections/flashbacks = italic font
    (Whole sections of the story that appear as memories ascribed to one character)
    Here’s the reason I had to think about this whole thing more formulaically. I have one chapter where various things the character does evoke memories. The structure is like: A, B, A, B…, where A=a section at the time of the story and B=a memory section. However, each of these sections includes multiple paragraphs, so I couldn’t just say ‘He thought: ‘ or ‘He remembered a time when…”.
    I have found places that say that italics are not the way to present flashbacks, and I can’t say that I disagree. But for what I’m writing now, it seems the most appropriate. That said, I agree with this piece, which says use of flashbacks is something to be avoided when possible! So, the next thing I do: no flashbacks!