Out loud

spoken-word2

Another draft completed. Straight into the next one. But this time we’ll be doing things a little differently.

As I’m sure you know, my last run-through of Oneiromancer was my major copy-edit. Post-reader-feedback, it was all about the plot and the story; I was copy-and-pasting, doing major rewrites and stitching together a tale that made sense, had depth and resonance.

But every change creates the potential for errors. Every draft introduces new text and every new word carries a chance of a mistake. Now I’m trying and find and fix those errors.

But this is about more than just typos. It’s also about the perfectly serviceable words that do their jobs but add nothing to the overall experience. It’s about poor rhythm, weak dialogue, unnecessary emphasis. It’s using three words where one – better chosen – will do. The acceptable is not good enough.

It’s amazing how difficult this can be. The mind is lazy. The eye is an unreliable tool and has a tendency to skip, to not see.

So I am reading my story out loud.

This has a number of benefits. Turning words on a page into sound forces you, the author, to read more closely. There’s no skipping sections, no chance of the eye sliding unseeing across the page. It makes you slow down, to see what’s really there and not what should be there.

You’re also confronted by the rhythms of your prose in a way the conscious mind has never experienced. Anything unclear, unfocussed, is brought into sharp relief. I’ve so far covered around seventy pages in this way: I thought my strength as a writer was my grasp of rhythm and an instinctive understanding of sentence length and effect. Turns out I was talking out of my arse.

I’m finding so many redundancies. I’ve been forced to rewrite more paragraphs to give clarity – almost as if I was writing from scratch. I’ve found so much to cut. On almost every page I’ve been forced to ask ‘what am I actually trying to say here?’ and then finding the simplest, clearest way to say it.

Simplicity is almost always good. Circumlocution should only come in dialogue, and then only if the character is especially circumlocutious.

So today’s advice is to read your manuscript out loud. It’s a slow process but one I’m sure will make my prose tighter, sharper and error-freeier.

And, let’s be honest, anything that cuts the word-count is a good thing. My MS is currently 137,000 words or thereabouts; if I can find 5,000 words of ramble to cut then I can allow myself an extra 2,500 of character and story.

Which then will have to be read (out loud) again and again to kill the inevitable errors I’ll have introduced.

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Waxing lyrical

I sit here writing this with music on in the background. Laura Marling, if you must know, which isn’t the best choice as the lyrics are too good. Rather, they’re too much in the forefront of the song and don’t do their job as background to deeper mind processes.

I always write to music. It’s usually a lot quieter than silence, which has a deep sucking sound as the background is vacuumed into your soul. Music provides a sort of creative bubble around you, the rhythms strumming your creative core in a way that nothing else can. Not for everyone, sure – how much of a theme of this blog is that? – but that’s how its always been for me. It’s really no surprise that my writing really springs from the same creative well as all these songs.

I got into words via music. Caught up with depression and a stupid misdirected urge to create, I dreamt up hundreds of songs when I was – what, 16 – 22? Never heard outside my head, I became a prolific writer of lyrics; I still have most of them, now sadly shorn of context – hundreds of scraps of paper all carefully stored away in the spare room, too poor, too painful to be re-examined but too personal to be thrown away.

Slowly, after many, many trials and more errors than you can possibly imagine, these lyrics slowly became less attempts at poetry and more what they should have been all along; accompaniments for music. Some of these, I maintain, are pretty good. I’ve always been pretty cocky at my ability to write a good lyric. I’m certainly more confident about that than I am about my full-length writing. What infuses both, however, is rhythm. I can never measure it, but there’s a rhythm to novels, a pacing, and I think total immersion in a head-bubble of sound can really help bring that to life.

For me, music and words are almost the same thing. The mood that’s created in both can be totally detached from the actual ‘story’; the same plot can be given a totally different feel by the way it’s told (compare Neil Gaiman’s American Gods with his Anansi Boys: both set in the same world and with the potential to create the same emotions – but one’s an adventure filled with a sense of anxiety and foreboding, the other almost a comedy). Whereas in music the same lyrics can be given a totally different feel by the arrangement behind it.

Anyway, here’s some song lyrics for you to mock. I remember the first stanza of the first work as being the first thing I ever wrote. In my mind I was still a child but I’m imperfect: could’ve been anywhere from eight to fifteen. It came to me so complete and so perfect rhythmically – the nursery rhyme-ness of the measure – that I’ve never been entirely sure that I haven’t stolen it from somewhere, some half-buried memory from my earliest days – but if so I’ve never tracked it down. So I’m claiming it.

The second one remains almost mystical, magical to me. It’s the sort of thing you can get away with in lyrics that you can’t with poems and certainly not with prose. A sense (to me) of personal truth that transcends the actual words. I don’t exactly – not quite, not 100% – know what it means. It just felt right; again the first stanza coming to me in one big chunk in university halls, and then at a later date (on a train between Belfast and Bangor, I remember that) the second verse falling from the stars and striking me right between the eyes.

Both of these have actually been performed live with bands, which just goes to show.

Time 

When I was young I’d often sit and wonder who I’d be
But now that I’ve grown up I’ve come to find that I am me
But who am I and what am I and who am I to say
I won’t wake up to find I’m someone else another day

When I was young I’d often sit and wonder what to say
But now that I’ve grown up these feelings should have gone away
Timing isn’t everything, but when you’ve lost your voice
These isolations multiply and soon you’ve got no choice

When I was young I’d often sit and try hard not cry
And wish that I was older so I wouldn’t have to lie
But tears come and fears go and tears still abide
And everything that I once was is carried deep inside

Crush

And a force to crush me sweeps across
And a memory of what I lost
And who I was; but that’s all gone
You were here but time moves on

And seismic shifts in prose and poetry

And this does not mean the world to me
And who was there to wash me clean?
Gravity: my cruel machine
And here comes the rain

And to touch the truth; the story dies
And so we rip out future cries
And all that’s been will come again
You were here to ease the pain
And here comes the rain

And a force to crush me sweeps across
And all that I once was is lost
And here and now; you and me
The weight is gone and we are free
And here comes the rain

And a force to crush me sweeps across
And a memory
Of what I lost…

This article has been brought to you by Laura Marling and Scheer and edited in association with the Levellers, Metallica and Richard Thompson

The second rule

The second rule’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? If you want to be a writer you’ve got to read.

You can study reading. You can read books on how to read books, and (I guess) many writing courses will give you lists of things to watch out for: characterisation, plot, dialogue… all the elements that, when blended together, make Literature. But I’m not too sure about this. More than anything else, reading should be a pleasure. And I think it’s just as useful to absorb these messages subconsciously as it is to learn by dissecting the text. I guess I think there’s room for both. It’s almost certainly been good for my writing to read books on pacing and character. They might not have told me anything I didn’t instinctively know, but it’s a benefit to have knowledge moved from the subconscious to the conscious.

But reading is, and should always remain, a delight. The wonderful thing is that every time to pick up a book you’re going to learn something new, whether you want to or not. Maybe it’s only ‘how not to do it’, but even in books you hate you’re going to learn a little more about the world – or at least one select part of it.

Most instruction courses on writing and literature will point you towards the classics. Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, Dickens, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky – the heavy hitters. I can see why they do it (they’re widely available and aren’t too esoteric for the masses – and, of course, they’re good) but this always puts me off. I know, I know, it’s my loss, but – whisper it quietly – I don’t want to read these. I know I should. And one day I will, I promise. But my point to you is that’s not only the greats that can help you. You can learn about writing from a Mills & Boon; after all, they rely on proven plots and have an established structure. And they’re short, so you can read a few quickly, then move on to something else.

Of course you should read the classics. But you should also read – well, everything else. If you’re a genre writer you need to read within your genre, that’s a given. It’s always helpful to know conventions, ‘the rules’, if only so you can play with them, break them good and hard if your story calls for it. It’s also massively helpful to read beyond your bounds. I mean, everybody should read as much as possible anyway because reading makes you a more rounded human being, more open and receptive. And there’s little better than sitting holding your partner whilst you both read. True fact.

So range wildly with your selections. Make your library your first stop every time you leave the house. Surround yourself with words and slowly they’ll fill you up, become part of your glorious shining soul. The presence of books in your life is the greatest gift you can give yourself, your children – even your friends and enemies.

And do your best to include non-fiction in your diet. You can do your readers no bigger favour than to know a lot about the world. This is obviously true for historical fiction, where the slightest anachronism can ruin the flow. It’s equally true for fantasy and science-fiction. Terry Pratchett once said that when you construct a city you need to start by knowing where the water goes in and how the waste goes out. You can’t invent a tribe without some understanding of power-structures at whatever level of development they’ve reached.

And none of this should feel like work. What greater pleasure can there be but to understand the world a little better? And always, always, you’ll be encountering new ways of thinking that might inspire your writing. I’ve talked before about how I’ve been influenced by real-world history. An awareness of popular science – and of possible trends – is also hugely helpful. Even if you dismiss what you’ve read – even if you disagree vehemently and want to give the author a good slap – it can drive you to write a sharp riposte, a counterblast.

It almost goes without saying that memoirs, biographies and travelogues – any narrative non-fiction, really – can also be incredibly useful. These (should) provide real-life examples of notable characters, places and times – or, if nothing else, ways of thinking.

The thing is that once you start writing – or at least after you’ve been doing it for a while – you’ll start to notice more in the books you read. Maybe it’s a case of becoming a little more discerning. You’ll get more out of the shape of the dialogue, the rhythms, the pace. Sentence length, that’s something to watch out for, especially as it influences that nebulous, barely definable thing they call ‘style’. These things will seep into your skin and slowly transform the way you produce your material. And it takes no effort. The wonderful thing – almost miraculous – is that all the things you’ve learnt will come out in your own voice, not as the people you’ve been reading. The brain is a very clever thing – far smarter than I am, at least.

So go! Journey into strange lands and travel through time. Stride across galaxies or into the hearts of lovers. Live vicariously, feel pain and joy and anger and deep, deep passion. Push yourself always onwards, and remember – you’re not wasting time. Never that. You’re merely rehearsing your craft.

The second rule lets you soar.