Radio Free Bard

Top 10 things to ask yourself when writing

Posted in Writing by radiofreebard on November 11, 2008

One of the most important aspects of writing is focus. The physical act of writing requires focus to to just reach the finish line but it also requires focus of intention, purpose and style. One of the first signs that you’re not well practiced as a writer is that you lapse from one viewpoint to another too quickly or swap from 3rd to 1st person half way through.

I find that asking myself questions about what I’m doing helps keep the focus. Every time I hit a certain character or scene, I automatically ask myself the relevant questions.

10: What am I writing about?

You should be able to answer this question at all levels of specificity, from the most generalised answer to the most specific. The more generalised the answer the more it will apply to the work as a whole while specific ones to individual scenes. Answers could range from:

  • National sovereignty,
  • The struggle of Tibetans against Chinese domination,
  • The Tibetan uprising of 1859,
  • The Initial acts of the uprising,
  • A young Tibetan man attacks a Chinese Soldier.

9: Who am I writing about?

The greatest element of literature, high and vulgar, is the human element. It is important to have a clear idea of who your characters are at the outset so that their actions, motivations and idiosyncrasies remain consistent and meaningful throughout your writing. Even when writing Non-fiction about non-human subjects, keep in mind that the most important element is the reader, and that the ‘who’ about which you are writing must have human relevance.

8: What does this character want?

When I first started writing larger pieces, I consistently failed to give my characters a motivation. They were often character foils for a protagonist or, sometimes, nothing more than eye-candy. I’ve written characters motivated to escape their past and I’ve written characters whose only motivation is their next packet of cigarettes. If your character wants nothing then your reader won’t believe them.

Everyone has a motivation in real life, even if it is the motivation to do as little as possible.

7: Why would someone enjoy reading this?

How many times have you read a book or a short story and been able to honestly say “I really enjoyed that book, I have no idea why though.” Even if you’ve said it before, upon closer reflection you would have realised that it was a certain character, a certain tension, even a certain scene that struck you. If you can write something and have a clear idea of what people might enjoy about it, it helps you focus on bringing out the richness of those aspects.

6: Who would enjoy reading this?

Your work should be targeted to a certain type of audience. This is always the case and only the deluded think otherwise. If you say “I’m writing this for me, not for marketing to an audience”, that’s great, you’re writing it for yourself and other impoverished Arts students in their early to mid twenties with the wrong idea about the social function of writing.

5: Who am I alienating by writing this?

A writer’s purpose is not to worry about who they are offending when they make a point or tell a story. It is, however, important to know who might be offended so that you can either make sure your message is strong, honest and needed or come up with your apology ahead of time. You will alienate someone no matter what you write.

4: Where am I going with this?

It took me a long time to understand and accept that every part of your work needs to be going somewhere; it needs a purpose. I was often accused of dawdling in my early work by adding pointless tangents. Tangents can be useful, keep them that way. This becomes vitally important in anything short of a novella. Once you’re down to short, sudden or flash fiction, every word must count.

3: Would anyone actually do this?

Your work needs to be believable in context. Tom Clancy once said that ‘The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.’ I couldn’t agree more. The benefit that we have as fiction writers, however, is that we can make things make sense in a completely alien context. If somebody in your story goes on a decade long crusade against another person because of a single remark, make sure that the culture/situation/backstory makes that course of action believable.

2: Does this make sense?

This one still gets me. I will write a short or sudden fiction and be completely satisfied with the imagery, the characters, the dialogue and the concept. I will then have someone read it through for me. Their response: huh? When you are writing, keep in mind that you have imagined a great deal of what is going on that you have not yet written.

You need to ask yourself this one continuously through your work and you’ll still be pulled up at proofing.

1: Why shouldn’t I just go play Fallout 3?

I take this question from the viewpoint of someone walking past my work. If my book was in the front window of a bookshop, assuming the front cover accurately depicted my book’s content, would someone stop to have a look? If my short story was on StumbleUpon, would a fickle stumbler stop to read it? If I told someone a single sentence about the work, would they ask to read it?

Or would they go do something else? If you want readership, write something with worth.

Avoiding good grammar in dialogue

Posted in Writing by radiofreebard on November 10, 2008

Does anyone you know in real life use perfect grammar? If not then why would your characters?

One of the first things I realised when I started writing with a word processor was that the little green squiggly lines that indicate grammatical errors were intruding into the space between quotation marks. I felt violated. “Who are you to question my dialogue?” Then I realised that it made no distinction.

I thought nothing of it until recently I read some work by a friend of mine (who shall remain nameless, even though she’s known me since pre-school). There was something that didn’t quite sit right with me about her dialogue. It was screaming at me but I couldn’t tell from where. Then it hit me – they all had the same patterns of speech. On further inspection and after questioning the writer, I discovered that this was not any lacking on her part as a writer (much) but a function of her unwillingness to have those red and green squiggly lines intrude upon her drafts.

Stop worrying about those damn lines. For starters, I’m yet to see the main stream word processor that gets Australian grammar conventions correct. Secondly, you should be drafting on paper, it forces you to proofread and thirdly, keeping to correct grammar in dialogue is dishonest and unbelievable. Read anything by Iain M banks and you’ll see why it’s so wonderful to have realistic dialogue.

I think that the biggest reason why people are afraid to do this is that it forces them out into the great open space that is creative accountability. When you remove the rules, you loose some guidance. You are forced to bring your creative intent to the front and stand for how your characters are conversing. For some people this could also mean actually designing their characters. Wouldn’t that be horrible?

Dialogue is one of the hardest things to control in many ways. Syntactically the punctuation can become a nightmare; I’ve found myself completely re-writing dialogue just to avoid using certain punctuation traps. Semantically it can run away from the author and leave him well clear of his intended target.

The hardest part about dialogue though, is characterisation. Letting a person’s dialogue express their character without sounding stupid is hard. It comes down to use of stereotypes. People either go too far or not far enough. Stereotypes aren’t only a poor generalisation, they contain the recipe book for baking a character in the reader’s mind. This goes ten-fold for short fiction writers where words are at a premium and, especially in the case of flash-fiction, you may only have a single line in which to introduce a character and how the reader is to approach them.

Use of stereotypes in dialogue, and in description, needs to be deliberate and well planned. Over use will result in unbelievable characters and under use will just result in same-same characters with little soul. Only the soulless use perfect grammar in every day speech and therefore, dialogue.

Only the unpublished use it in anything else.