Monday, February 22, 2016

Some Thoughts on Jo Roderick's Penmanship... er, Writing Tips

Lately, I've been following Jo Roderick. He's kind of like a South African me who's more conventional, has published way more, and doesn't venture into the surreal territory I'm willing to engage on a whim. Back in December, he posted a particularly interesting blog entry called "10 Tips for Better Penmanship". It's an overall good entry, albeit not one about penmanship in the strict sense. It's a summary of writing errors commonly found in fiction and how he would fix them, which is far more compelling.

Here are my thoughts, in my sometimes-used style of analyzing every possible angle in backbreaking detail. For Jo's thoughts on the tips I cover, see the link in quotation marks above. Whenever the text looks comically different from the rest of this blog entry, that's his words, making them extra easy to track.

Tip 1 – Stop Repeating Yourself


Jo opens with a discussion of how often characters' physical descriptions are repeated unnecessarily and goes from there. This is something I've thought about a lot as an author who is (hopefully) good now but wasn't always that way. A funny example is Jo's quip, "it is probably safe to assume he retains the above-mentioned physique when the couple next makes love". Details mentioned once are assumed to persist until something changes them. I like that. I really, really, very much, so much so, to the end of the world, a million times over, the same way I like puppies, like that.

One exception: when there needs to be severe emphasis, or a character is going insane. Phrases I make up on the spot like "Johan, who was crazed to the point of insanity, said to himself, 'I murdered him to death'" have a certain charm. Then again, when isn't character insanity an exception to most rules?

Tip 2 – Can it Actually Happen?


I agree with the vast majority of this tip.  "Be wary of using terms and phrases that ‘sound’ correct, but aren’t." The example of someone throwing a car made me laugh. This is a time when it's important to distinguish between figurative language and sounding silly. Figurative language factors into many of my responses here, but when a character shouldn't be able to do something, it can't solve the problem.

Tip 3 – Stop Pressing Buttons


This is where I just barely start to disagree. I agree too much detail can bog down a story, such as when Jo says " the reader knows how to unlock car doors, put a key into the ignition, and that in order to drive the vehicle, he or she would need to be seated in the driver’s seat." However, that level of detail can enhance the story in some odd situations, such as:

As with most rules, what I like to say is "follow them unless you have a reason not to".


Tip 4 – Irrelevance




We're building off of #3 here, aren't we? One might even say this tip repeats #3, which, of course, violates #1. Nonetheless, I agree with Jo there are some key differences here. Pressing buttons can get specific. Irrelevance is more general...

...until it isn't.

This leads me to my least favourite literary convention: Chekhov's Gun.

Schchukin quotes Chekhov:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
I completely disagree.

What if the rifle is hanging on the wall of a proud gun owner? What if it's hanging on the wall of a loyalist to a forgotten cause, such as a United Empire loyalist stuck in the USA after ~1800 or an ex-Confederate vet during the Reconstruction? What if it's the owner's idea of style? While I admit I'm taking Chekhov literally here, there are many reasons to include a detail. Maybe it's simply a weird detail that perks up a visitor whether it is or isn't relevant.

Discussions of relevance make me feel like literature is a dialogue between Anton Chekhov (each detail must have purpose for the story) and Henry James (life should be described as it is seen). I side with James.

I'll pick at Jo's words here: "If a scene requires additional information, then as a reader, I encourage that you provide it." What does a scene ever require? When you walk into a room, do you think "What does this room require to become a compelling setting for a story?" or do you simply see the room? I think it's the latter. If you walked into someone's living room for the first time and saw a shocking painting on the wall, you'd comment on it at the time even if it never affected your relationship with that person. Then, I live in the moment as a writer rather than think about every story as being spun around a campfire years after it happens. Every book is different.

Tip 5 – Senseless Branding


In general, yes, using a brand to simulate reality doesn't work: " Throwing names of famous brands and clothing labels at the reader is meaningless unless they know what you are writing about." Well, yeah. I don't know whether this qualifies as "senseless", but I enjoy making my own brands for realistic-ish stories that convey how people perceive brands. As with any rule versus any reason to break it, "Why?" is the key question, which makes the "senseless" qualifier either a great idea or a cop-out.

Tip 6 – Don’t Break the Rules


Well... maybe. Jo's thesis is this: "Better yet, don’t break the rules, but rather learn to write more vibrantly." What if writing more vibrantly breaks the rules? To use a music analogy, what if breaking the rules resulted in something far more vibrant than anyone could have imagined? The problem with rules, and with breaking them, is you're never quite sure when breaking them was a good idea and when it wasn't. One of the only ways to know a rule shouldn't have been broken is if you've broken it inappropriately. Literature may be an example of the martyr effect, in which most business/books/etc. fail in part because of the inordinate pain in those who succeed.

The general rule is to obey the rules unless it's more beneficial to break the rule than otherwise. So... usually follow the rules.

Tip 7 – Avoid Speaking Tags

I have a rule for this one. It creates an exception to Jo's rule while also enforcing that "You cannot cough, purr, or sigh speech. If you are about to argue with me, try to cough out a line of Shakespeare, or purr an entire paragraph." I've done this. Most people have. The key is the length of the sentence. "Not this again," he sighed. One can actually sigh a sentence of this length. "I was so excited for you," she purred. Again, one can purr this phrase. Can you make the sound in the amount of time it takes for the sound to occur? That's what determines whether the phrase can happen properly. While you're writing it, say it. If you can say it, it's probably good. If you can't, it's definitely not. I certainly agree that sighing or purring 100+ words is something worthy of the Guinness Book of World Records. A smaller sentence is doable.

Tip 8 – Avoid Ambiguous Adjectives


"Don’t write things that cannot happen. For example, a door cannot swing on quiet or noisy hinges." This echoes #2, with which I agree. An exception is personification. Sure, quiet or noisy hinges can't swing. What if the hinges seemed to act of their own accord, to use a hackneyed phrase? It can happen.

Tip 9 – Perfect your Grammar and Punctuation


Well, no shit, Sherlock. Don't fuck this up.

(This means I agree with Jo completely.)

Bonus Tip – Be consistent!


Yes, but no. Here's one of Jo's thoughts: "If character has to work late, and has a burdening amount of stress to deal with, don’t have her reclining minutes later, eating bonbons and sipping champagne. Unless there is a good reason or something has changed in the scenario, be consistent." What if the character is dying for a chance to relax before staying at work for the big night?

Although I love consistency in general, having a character act inconsistently can either take him/her out of his/her comfort zone or establish a sense of humanity. The ancient idea that fictional characters must act consistently is often either stretched beyond its natural boundary or adhered to so dogmatically that characters end up being far less realistic than real people. People act out of character all the time. I love seeing it in fiction, as it's a signal the author has developed a real person rather than punched out an archetype. Then, I'm a bigger fan of The Sound and the Fury than The Hunger Games...



On a final note, enjoy your writing, but please remember that creative licence doesn’t extend beyond the realm of reality unless you are writing fantasy.
I do like dragons ….

So do I! More on dragons in the coming days from me.

I understand this note wasn't about dragons, but I love dragons so I'm making it about them.

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