Better words

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Nothing says ‘British holiday’ like driving rain and 40mph winds

Last week I wrote about how poorly-chosen words can affect how people see the world; how we subconsciously shape gender-roles and the ease with which we can slip into bad habits. Words, as they say, matter.

My wife quite correctly called me up on this. She pointed out that I wasn’t at fault for calling my daughter pretty, or sweetheart, or anything I saw as gender-specific. The problem is that I saw it as gender-specific. Why should I think sweetheart, or honey, or beautiful, is a word that’s for women?

She’s right. Why shouldn’t I use these words for boys? There really isn’t any reason, and I am humbled. Subconscious biases surround us and they need to be acknowledged and challenged; shaken up to the light and seen as the transparent, gossamer things they are. For what is writing but a way of exploring the world around us?

Anyway, I’ve been on holiday for most of the week and so I have very little to talk about, writing-wise. Have instead a few pretty pictures to brighten up your day.

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If Stonehenge is the stern patriarch, Avebury is the louche uncle: mysterious, fun and just ever so slightly shady

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Dartmoor’s one of those places that’s as beautiful in wild weather as it is in glorious sunshine

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Not an evening for pleasure-boating. But check out those beautiful strata!

Bad words

 

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Stolen from here; I don’t know if they’re the original creators but it’s a good image, don’t you think?

I want my little girl to have the best possible world and the widest opportunities. I want her to receive the same pay as any equivalent man in whatever field she moves into and to be able to choose the sexual (or asexual) partner of her choosing. I want this for everyone because I think it’s right. Pink is (not actually) banned in our house until she can make her own fashion blunders.

And yet I call her ‘sweetheart’. I call her ‘honey’. I tell her she’s pretty and cute and… and all the things that I wouldn’t say to a boy. These words slip out and they feel natural and I worry, I worry, I worry that I’m perpetuating gender stereotypes that are at best outdated and at worst harmful. That I’m damaging my own child in my ham-fisted attempts at love.

Words have power. Words create and corrupt. They’re also insidious little buggers and can ruin even the best-laid plans, displace the best of intentions and undermine the sweetest plans.

Through these subtle ways we define the world. By these choices we shall be known, and held up to society’s mirror. And yes, these things change. All we can do is the best we can by today’s standards. And yes, we can reject society’s values but then we will be judged.

Writers are especially vulnerable because words are how we communicate. Anyone can slip up and say the wrong thing, but writers choose. We think about what we say and how we say it. So writing a book with minimal female characterisation is a choice. We can’t claim that it was an accident: the best we can do is justify our decisions.

These choices aren’t always so clear. Do we include non-Caucasian characters in our mediaeval epics? Is realism an impenetrable barrier? A book without swearing is unrealistic, and yet we have apps that remove all swearing from our novels.

Arguments begin on the boundaries – and arguments, generally speaking, are good. They make us think, expose our unconscious biases.

That doesn’t stop me worrying. Because everything is political. I believe in conversation, not censorship, but that doesn’t stop me worrying about the subtle ways I’m influencing my daughter in her most formative years.

 

Words and pictures

Previously on this blog: [Words are] the least important part of a novel. Really, for most of the time you spend working on a piece of writing, words are the last things on your mind. So – and in no way contradicting this – here’s a post about the importance of words.

We all know the old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words. In children’s books that’s possibly useful: you don’t have to describe a character if there’s a picture of him/her/it if there’s an illustration right next to you. But if pictures (and covers don’t count, for some reason) aren’t an option there is another way to save yourself time and effort and that’s to pick the right word.

Let’s take an example: let’s consider the difference between ‘task’ and ‘assignment’.

First of all it’s clear that they mean just about the same thing. They’re almost synonymous and you might well use both words in a section to avoid repetition. That’s fine. But they’re not the same. First of all there’s an obvious difference in length and so sentence-rhythm will be affected. The words also come from different roots and it may be that characters favour one word over the over as a consequence of their upbringing.

But more than that: words – just about every word beyond the tiny filler-words that we barely notice – contain subconscious meaning that we’re not even aware of absorbing. But we do all the same.

So: assignment. If you’re carrying out an assignment you are telling me that you’ve been given a job by an authority who has some sort of control over you. It implies a bureaucracy; that one word creates a world around your characters that then never needs to be specifically described. Of course, in practice – and especially in longer fiction – you will actually have drawn a lot of this background. But you don’t have to. You’ve already created the associations in the reader’s mind.

Task is different. It doesn’t have those associations – although it’s not an antonym, so can still refer to a bureaucratically administered context. It refers more simply to a job (and you can consider ‘job’ or ‘chore’ in this context too), and one that has a lot more self-determination to it. If you are assigned a job then it is something direct. If you are given a task it implies a lot more self-control; you yourself determine the way it is carried out, its priority and the effort to which it is given.

The reader won’t consciously appreciate the difference between the terms; you don’t after all, stop to consider the precise meaning of each word in a novel. But it does shape the way you imagine the world, the way you build complexities without spelling out every single detail. It’s why your manuscript comes back with red pen aplenty.

Of course, all bets are off when it comes to dialogue. That’s a different matter entirely and will require a whole new blog-post at some as yet unspecified date.

Learning to write

Learning to write. That’s what I’m doing. End of game, reboot, start over. I’ve gone as far as I can by just toying with words. Now I’ve got to learn how the game’s played for real.

I can write. I can string words together in a way that feels good, that contains both truth and – yes, and beauty. But I’ve not written the perfect novel yet. It’s all part of the process, I guess; you learn enough in one area to show you how little you know in another. Me? I’m learning that I don’t know enough about pace and structure, about character and about consistency, to achieve what I want to achieve: to get that book out there on the shelves.

So instead of sitting before my keyboard, conjuring with conjugates and stirring the synonyms, I’m pulling my work apart. Going through each scene in turn – ignoring the things I could easily improve – and summing up what happens, to whom, with what; what implications the scene may carry and why it’s there. This is the first step – my first step – to breaking the pieces apart like chunks of honeycomb, trimming and nibbling at the edges until it can fit into a new symmetry, a new network of juicy fibres, sticky and rich and oozing…

I am, in other words, planning. Searching for flaws, for incongruities, for gaps in the plot. Preparation for rebuilding better, faster, stronger. To tighten the wires, to stitch a beautiful new Frankenstein’s monster.

Some of you out there may be mocking me for not doing this sooner. Some of you will be saying that I should have started out with a proper plan – then I wouldn’t have to be going through this slow, painful task. Fair enough. You’d have a point. But I don’t regret the way I’ve worked. I’m not the same person I was when I starting writing Night Shift – two years ago it was, give or take. I’ve developed and learnt and I’ve learnt through doing. Now? Yes, now I’d do things differently. I’m still not sure if I’d start a new project with a full plan, but I think I’d at least keep a chart of scenes as I went along. If nothing else it’s always worth asking yourself ‘why am I writing this scene?’ as you go into a section. Always worth keeping the end-point in mind.

So I’m going back to the start because I’m still learning how to write. At the end of the day, words are easy. Words can always be changed, be bent to the will. I’ve got that now, I know how to beat them into shape. Structure? Deeper issues? That’s heavy industry right there, and a tour around the foundry ain’t enough to make you a master craftsman.

So how do you learn how to plot? Is this what’s taught on MA courses in creative writing across the land? Once you’ve started using rhetorical questions how the hell do you stop? If anyone has any answers I’d be interested to hear them. But in the meanwhile I’m again learning by doing; seizing the mammoth by the horns and attempting to wrestle it into submission.

I said I was learning. I didn’t say I was learning quickly.

Feeling the draft

Well, it’s been a rollercoaster. Hopes raised and dashed; nice words concealing harsh truths. And where has it left me? Exactly where I started.

But that’s life. That’s what people say. Riding high in September, shot down by slightly later in September. That’s how the song goes, right? So I’m back scouring the Writers’ and Artists’ for agents and publishers, and in the meantime trying to get on with some proper writing.

Except I’m kinda not, at the moment. I finished the first draft of New Gods last week and I’ve rewarded myself with a few days off. Not like me – I hate not writing. But it’s important to take a little time out, to taste something of the real world and remind yourself that there’s more to life. A couple of beer festivals and a first-aid course (not concurrent) have helped the time pass.

Shortly I’m going to fire up Australis and give it the going-over it badly needs, but in truth I’m putting it off a little. I’ve said before that the story’s not working; it’s hard to face up to one’s own failure and wrestle with demons of your own making. Much easier to push on with something new. And it was suggested that, as I’m not happy with Australis, it might be best to leave it on hiatus indefinitely. Unfortunately, New Gods is built on its back. Like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, the second and third books are much closer linked than the first and second. To scrap Australis would be almost like scrapping New Gods, and that I ain’t gonna do.

So that’s where I am at the moment. Hopefully I’ll find Australis much more welcoming than I currently fear. It happens sometimes: the mind creates problems where there are none. And a little time will provide solutions to problems you never knew you had. It’s odd that authors can be the last people who know if what they’ve done is good or not, but it’s true.

In the meantime, I wondered if you, dear reader, might be interested to here a few reflections from the world of first-drafting. When I was coming up to the end of New Gods my partner asked if I was happy with what I’d done. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer; and that got me wondering…

A few points, in no particular order:

  • A bad opening is better than no opening. Getting started is perhaps the hardest part of writing a novel, and it’s much better to have something you can change than to sit wondering why everything you’re doing is crap
  • In fact, bad writing as a whole is better than no writing
  • Accept that you’re going to have to change things. Okay, you’re not human if you don’t re-read the occasional paragraph and decide the proverbial red pen is needed – but no-one (except possibly Mozart, and he’s in no position to give advice) plucks perfection from the air. Write words, move on, change later
  • Plots are difficult beasties. Make whatever notes you need to help you keep it all together. In terms of plot, New Gods is probably the most ambitious work I’ve attempted – I have about eight different threads to weave together. My technique? List the threads on a post-it note and wherever I get to a crux, glance down at it – remind myself what every character has been doing whilst I’ve been focusing on this one aspect.
  • That last point isn’t advice, by the way: find your own way of working. Make as many notes as you need. At this stage, no-one’s judging you except yourself
  • Balance isn’t going to come obviously and evenly. I‘m sure I’ve neglected Weng Fu, for example. I’m not sure if Lewinskiy has enough depth. All these characters need time to breath, but the first draft isn’t the time to worry about all this. Assure yourself that you know what you’re trying to do. When you’re done you can get feedback and revisit and rebalance
  • Ditto for pacing and rhythm
  • Words don’t matter at this stage (see previous blog entry the word myth)
  • I’m an embittered old fool who’s done this too many times to get overly excited about finishing a single stage in the process. You’re not. Finishing a draft, even if it needs massive work to make it readable, is a major achievement. Celebrate it. Tell people – go on Twitter and Facebook and indulge in a little boasting. Have a drink. But don’t show it to anyone. ‘Cause bucks to bullion it ain’t ready yet.
  • Characters grow and change over the course of writing a novel. You’ll have a much better idea of who you’re dealing with after you’ve finished than you did when you began. You’ll have inconsistencies, you’ll be able to sharpen the early depictions with your new knowledge and insight
  • Have fun. Be wild and ambitious. Be mad. Later drafts are serious hard work, but first drafts are your chance to go nuts, to put in wild sex parties and inappropriate off-colour humour. Fly kites, see where they drag you. Even if you have to excise wild digressions like tumours, the very process of writing helps sharpen your skills. Be free – you’ve nothing to lose save a little time

So am I happy with New Gods? Yes, yes I am. Not because I think it works as a story, but because the bones are there. I’ve got the elements pinned in place; and whilst a lot of surgery will be needed, whilst there’s a lot of writing which is simply bad, it’s there ready to be improved. Cuts will be made – whole sections might be scrapped as I send my wrecking-ball into the skyscraper of supposition. And all the ideas I didn’t consider will pop up in their place. It’s remarkable how easily a writer can overlook the obvious: ‘But why doesn’t Mr X just do this?’ ‘Erm…’

And that’s why getting feedback on your work is so important. But not after the first draft – please, not after the first draft. No point showing the world what a fool you are just yet.

Plenty of time for that later.

The word-myth

Words are the stained glass in the church window: the eye-catchers, the glamour, the individual pieces of shining beauty.

They’re also the least important part of a novel. Really, for most of the time you spend working on a piece of writing, words are the last things on your mind. They’re the most easily changeable aspect, and only a small proportion make it unaltered from first draft to last.

It goes like this. When you first put pen to paper or open up a virgin Word file the most important thing to get down is the story. Of course, writers work in different ways: some make extensive preparations and know exactly where the tale is going. Others fly by the seat of their pants and allow the story to unfold organically, taking them where it will. Most will be somewhere in the middle.

Whatever the technique, the first draft is always about hammering the basic idea into shape. Of course, you can’t do this without words, and some of these will (hopefully) be wonderful, exquisite, evocative. But most will, in essence, be place-holders. Each successive draft will erase whole forests of characters and plant new ones in their place. Or perhaps that section will be wiped altogether as plot-holes are ironed out, inconsistencies erased, precise pace perfected.

This is how writing works. Only a staggering genius can create a perfect novel without editing.

Before you get to the details of individual words, a writer first has to get the whole story down on paper/hard drive. Then you have to beat away at that idea, making sure it has the right shape: that it has a strong central plot, enough side-interest, the right mix between action and reflection… the sort of thing that a reader should feel subconsciously, maybe never noticing the intricate architecture beneath. Like the lead lattice that holds the individual fragments of colour in place in a church window.

Then comes the sharpening. The honing of the blade. Making sure your characters are believable, your dialogue crisp, that there’s no flab on the flesh. More words are erected, lots and lots demolished. Of course, at every stage you’re going to be finding different, better words for your dramatic (or expositional) needs. Sometimes you’ll spend hours on one section, endlessly working to find perfection in your phrasing. And then a draft later you realise you need to get rid of the lot.

I think it’s important to realise this. A lot of people are put off writing because they worry about not having the right words. They’ll start off but then hit a plot-bump (like a speed-bump, but the size of Godzilla in the writer’s mind) and, panicking, suddenly feel like they’re not capable; that they’re writing rubbish, that the words won’t come.

You’ll probably have heard that you should ‘turn off your inner editor’ when writing the first draft. I can’t argue with this, although I am somewhat grumpy at the twee-ness of the phrase. But it’s an over-simple expression and I feel it’s often misunderstood. Let me spell it out: words don’t matter.

It’s always up to the individual writer how best they work. If you go to extremes you could take my advice as telling you to plan extensively, packing all your scenes into a neat little box and doing a first-draft that’s little more that a time-line of events – what you want to happen where. Successive drafts can then be the unpacking of these boxes, building up to form a full story. If that’s what works for you, great.

I can’t do this; I’m a seat-of-the-pants guy. I start with a starting point, have a resolution in mind, they try to steer a line from one to the other. And on the way I try to find as many good, keepable words as I can. Yeah, I’m searching for perfection with every word I put down, and I’ll do a bit of slash-and-burn on the way as my plot temporarily derails or if I realise that yesterday I was really, really, too pissed to write.

But it’s not worth getting hung-up (or hung-over) over. I know that the important thing in a first draft is to nail down that plot. The words will come together along the way, throughout the redrafting process. As ‘Papa’ Hemingway put it: ‘There is no great writing, just great rewriting’.

Words are the stained-glass, the ornamentation; the crowd-pleasures, the attention-seekers. But they’d be nothing more than a pretty distraction without the right foundations, buttressing, stonework (crude or precise, depending on the effect you want to achieve). So by all means enjoy the glitter. But next time you read a novel, spare a thought for the elegant tracery that holds that glass in place.