Everything in writing is personal – style, subject matter, genres, themes. Half of it you don’t know you’re doing. War is a backdrop in several of my stories, though I’m not that interested in writing war stories. At least, I didn’t think I was until I looked back through my short stories.
The personal includes things that bug you. Some are useful because they can inform your writing – injustice and inequality for example. Others bug you by turning up in your writing and messing with it. Here are some of mine:
Pwimula Nesbytt pulled the saddle from Bismarck, her faithful battle-mole. She seemed to be upset about something.
Only seemed to be? And only about something. That’s OK then, no need to worry.
Either Pwimula is upset, or she isn’t. If she isn’t, don’t mention it. If she is, then say so and why.
Pwimula brushed away a tear as she unsaddled Bismarck. She laid her head against the side of her faithful battle-mole and listened to its faltering heart.
It’s easy to use words like ‘seemed’, ‘appeared,’ and ‘something’ in lazy ways. Words should be specific and exact. These words introduce uncertainty or doubt, so use them when you want to do exactly that.
‘How was she?’
‘She seemed to be upset. Then she laughed. I didn’t know what to make of it.’
This is a perfectly acceptable word, but I find I’m using it more often than I’d like to.
But it’s a useful part of the connective tissue of sentences, I hear you say. You can use it to start whole sentences or introduce clauses, just like ‘and’ or ‘then’. But to me ‘but’ feels more obvious because it’s an active word with an implied counter-argument, but maybe that is just me.
There’s more to the use of ‘but’ than this – Longman’s Guide to English Usage has a whole page. (This is a great reference book. If you were a strange child like me and liked reading dictionaries you’ll definitely enjoy this.) We all have lazy habits or favourite ways of putting things. It’s useful to know what they are so they don’t become mannerisms*.
He and She
I once became frustrated with the opening of a book because the main character was introduced as ‘She’. Page after page the novel wore on, and She did this and She did that. If the author had been in the room I’d have been begging on my knees, ‘Just tell me her name, FFS.’
This is really no more than deliberate withholding of something the reader needs to know. It doesn’t create drama, mystery or tension, it’s just bad technique. ‘He’ should never break the catch and slip through the window, it should at least be the assassin, the lusty prince, or the desperate messenger. And if it’s the hero of the story, dear God just tell us his or her name. Give the reader something to work with.
Argh fuck, I just hate passive voice. Everything feels flat, the sentences are over-extended.
Don’t do it. Just don’t. Ever.
She had stood there all day and was bored to tears.
Words ending ’ing’
There’s a place for these words (inflected verbs) but keep them on a tight leash because too many of them stifle description and flatten tone. You can’t get away with writing ‘It rained.’ as easily as you can say ‘It was raining.’ You need to qualify ‘It rained’ with description, sensation. How was it raining? Falling like soft mist or stinging whips?
You can do this with ‘-ing’ words but you can also slide into the dreaded passive tense.
A good exercise is to go through a piece of writing and remove all the ‘ing’ words.
That master of style, Jack Vance, said he avoided foul language because he didn’t like to make things hard for the reader. Times have changed, and I’ve no personal objection to a bit of fucking swearing.
Swear words are like exclamation marks – use them sparingly for greater effect. (And like exclamation marks this usually means using them one at a time.) There’s no need to have a bloody swear word on every fucking page. That’s too sodding much.
Less is more.
There are two main ways of doing this, both horrid. They are character speech and writing style, both here, lightly seasoned with rampant anachronism:
Buboe sprang from his artful hidey-hole.
‘Gis ‘e’ ‘ere yer blimmin’ fancies, posh boy.’
‘Avaunt, blaggard, step thee kerb-wards, pronto!’ quoth Fauntleroy.
Cod formalism and mangled speech are not how you create texture and tone.
And it’s, like, completely bogus, dude.
So these are some of the things that bug me, and I try to avoid them . I’m sure you have a few of your own.
Next week: Nothing is precious.
* I once worked with someone with an office nickname of ‘Norbert’ because every time he disagreed with something he started, ‘No, but-’ I think it encouraged him.