This is a follow-up to my previous post on using a Wiki to organize writing work. I’m personally not sure it’s going to work for me. The Tiddly Wiki mentioned last time only allows for editing on screen and not adding other documents, so although it looked nice I decided to look at some of the other Wikis out there. I have found that you basically need to pay a corporate style subscription fee if you want to post any reasonable amount of content – i.e. over a GB.
I came across a blog for writers that I hadn’t seen before – called Writer Unboxed. At present it’s featuring an interview with Joe Abercrombie on the craft of writing. I haven’t had the chance to read this yet, but it looks interesting.
A commonplace of advice for writers is to read lots of other books. But what books should you read and how should you read them in order to write better? You could take the approach of trying to read as much as possible of everything, as much as possible of the greats of literature, or perhaps just stick to your chosen genre (but sometimes getting together a list of Nazi zombie ghost stories can be tricky).
None of these approaches is really going to work very well. The best thing to do is to take the best from the best and learn how they did it and then try to apply it to your own writing. As all genres should have good plot, good characters, good dialogue etc then just sticking to your own genre for this is pretty daft. Getting a knowledge of the other writing in your chosen genre is important though, but more for seeing how others have dealt with ideas and concepts – i.e. you don’t want to go to a publisher with what you think is a neat idea about a dark lord who creates a ring of power etc (oh but this still does happen doesn’t it!)
This is where Francine Prose’s book is a lifesaver. In eleven themed chapters she covers all the vital aspects of fiction writing and shows brilliantly how some of the great writers have dealt with these areas. I particularly like how she starts with the smallest unit of writing, Words, and builds outwards to show how the nuts and bolts of language are important to get right, not just snazzy plots or great themes. She isn’t afraid to criticise them as well where necessary, for instance the way in which Dickens repeats characters’ gestures to signpost their identities for reader.
Her technique is to take passages from great writers to illustrate what makes good writing. She appreciates that no one way is right, but shows how great writers use language to put across their stories with greater power. For instance in the chapter on Sentences, she comments on the famous 181 word sentence from Virgnia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill” and how that sentence is perfectly comprehensible and readable because of the skill of the writer and how actually the words build upon each other creating a growing force because the sentence seems that its beautiful form will go on forever. In contrast she discusses these lines from Chandler’s The Big Sleep :
There was no fear in the scream. It had a sound of half-pleasurable shock, an accent of drunkenness, an overtone of pure idiocy. It was a nasty sound. It made me think of men in white and barred windows and hard narrow cots with leather write and ankle straps fastened to them.
She describes these as “wonders of snappy, outrageously excessive tough-guy prose”.
As well as being a good text for learning to write better, I also found this an inspiring book. Both in terms of wanting to hone my skills and also to investigate some of the writers I hadn’t heard of such as Henry Green or Scott Spencer.
One downside for me was that she doesn’t really deal with many genre writers in her examples. There are also moments when she uses the clichés found in really bad pulp SF writing to hammer the genre as a whole. This is a shame and perpetuates the unnecessary genre/mainstream battle that seems to be particularly popular at the moment.
I have now reached the character building stage of my current writing project. Having built up a good head of steam on the world building side, with languages, history, mythology and some cultural/society bits sketched out, I decided to move onto some of the main characters of my book. I know that I will be going back to the world building as inevitably working on characters and plot will bring up questions I hadn’t previously thought about on the world background side of things.
So I started off by using a tool from a great book, Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress. In this book she has included something called a Character Intelligence Dossier. A form that asks you, the writer, questions about your character. Such as what age are they, who’s their father, what people do they hang out with, what speech mannerisms do they have, what do they wear. In fact several pages of questions that one might imagine are not altogether necessary. However, although I am only a couple of pages into the intelligence dossier for my story’s main character, I have already found that one of these seemingly inconsequential questions has given birth to what maybe some great sub-plots and new minor characters that I hope will enrich my story. For me the question was who does the character hang around with after work. This got me thinking and stirred up some interesting ideas about who might latch onto my story’s hero and try to influence him.
I’m looking forward to answering more questions over the next few days and weeks!
I am thinking about linking this blog to a more traditional website that would contain information on the following:
Favourite authors – useful links as well as essays on these authors, some written by me
Notes on my own writing
Links to favourite films and games
The idea would be to have an eclectic repository of ‘genre’ and ‘mainstream’ and to create an eclectic mix of interesting information and serious commentary.
The site would feature news syndicated from other sites and also a link to this blog where I would post updates.