Bad use of alliteration

When reviewing your writing, take the time to read the text aloud to get a feel for the rhythm and fluency of the writing. Prose has a sound of its own, just like poetry or even music. Do the sentences flow smoothly into each other, or are they choppy and awkward? One of the worst culprits is alliteration in the wrong place. For example:

The man held up the can.

Try reading that aloud, noticing that the alliteration between “man” and “can” makes the sentence awkward to read. If this sentence was part of a paragraph that described a tense or a fast-moving scene, the tempo would be completely destroyed. Try rephrasing, perhaps by using the character’s name or even completely re-writing the sentence or paragraph.

Colin held up the can.

He held up the can.

Here’s another example, where the first part of the words is in common:

Kerry spotted the spider on her lap.

Here, “spotted” and “spider” cause an alliteration, spoiling the sentence. Much better to rephrase:

Kerry noticed the spider on her lap.

Kerry realised the spider was on her lap.

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Drafts

How many drafts should you do for a novel? In my opinion, three (as with many things, it seems) is the magic number. However, each draft has a specific purpose and is not just about vague ‘revision’ or ‘improvement.’

Let’s start with the first draft. This is when you are sitting down to write your story for the first time. Here, things like grammar, punctuation, vocabulary and even style ought to be the last things on your mind. Don’t ignore them completely if you can, but don’t make them your number one priority. The first draft is about getting the story done. Period. This draft belongs to your untamed muse, who wants to fill blank pages with reams of words telling the tale you have in your mind. Let your characters come alive and tell you their story. Write down what you want, without feeling guilty about your repeated use of words or bad grammar. You will improve with time, anyway.

One important point is not to let anyone read your first draft while you are writing it; otherwise you might get derailed by the feedback. At this point, you must have the utmost concentration on writing, and on writing what you want, not what someone else thinks might work better.

After the first draft is done, print it out and put it away on a dusty shelf for a couple of weeks, a month is best. Sometimes (and I know this from experience) you can be itching to start revising and improving, but it’s best to start with a clear head. The only way to do that is to put aside your work for a while. In the meantime, write something different. A short story, perhaps, unrelated to your main work, or even a few poems. Basically, take your mind off that novel.

Once the rest and recovery period is up, get the printed copy first draft from the dusty shelf and start revising with a vengeance. Don’t be kind to your writing. If you see entire paragraphs or pages that seem unnecessary, cross them out without mercy. Drivel is the worst enemy of good writing. You can fix grammar and punctuation, rearrange paragraphs for better effect, decide to insert whole new sections of narrative, or change part of a scene. There will be many, many changes to the second draft, so be prepared for them. Try to get the revision done as quickly as you can, otherwise you will be tempted to keep revising and could end up in the trap of ‘death by editing.’

In the meantime, you might want to give a copy of your first draft to a few trusted friends for some constructive feedback. Don’t cringe on their every word, but see how you can make use of their suggestions. It’s especially helpful if you get members of your target readership to ‘test run’ your book, e.g. children, teenagers, young men/women etc.

Once the second draft is complete, leave it again for a few weeks. The third (and hopefully, final) draft is about doing another revision to make sure your story is consistent, the characters believable, the setting well described etc. In general, the first and third drafts are mainly about story, whilst the second draft is about prose, style and narrative.

In practice (cruel reality!?), there may well be a fourth draft to correct any mistakes that may have crept in during the third.

Once the final draft is complete, you can pat yourself on the back and buy a bottle of champagne. Yes, that was a joke…now comes the hard work of actually getting it out there and into the hands of your readers.

Adjectives and Adverbs

When writing fiction, it is important to be as concise as possible and to make every word count. Adjectives and adverbs can be useful at times, but when can wreak havoc with prose when misused.

Let’s recap some grammar. An adjective is a word used to describe a noun, e.g. “the dark forest” or “the young man.” Similarly, an adverb is a word that describes a verb, e.g. “he ran quickly,” or “she screamed loudly.”

There are two cases where adjectives and adverbs can be misused. The first is when the adjective or adverb can be discarded without losing any information. The second case is where the adjective/noun or adverb/verb combination can be replaced with a single noun or verb that conveys the intended meaning more accurately.

Let’s look at the first case. Suppose we have the sentence “The bear roared loudly.” The adverb “loudly” is superfluous (excuse the fancy word!) and can be removed, since “roaring” is by definition “loud.” We don’t need to patronise the reader by reminding them that “roaring” is loud. A similar example that involves an adjective is “The sight of the red blood made him shriek.” Everyone knows that blood is red.

Onto the second case. Suppose we have the sentence “The man ran quickly to the door.” Instead of saying “ran quickly,” we could try “rushed”, “hurried”, “bolted” or “scrambled.” Any one of these single words can replace the adverb+verb combination. “The man scrambled to the door,” reads and sounds better. Another example is “Heavy rain had started.” This can be replaced with “A downpour had started.”

One more example: “The strong wind blew away the woman’s red umbrella.” This can be replaced with “The gust blew away the woman’s umbrella.” Notice the word red was removed, since the fact that the umbrella is red is not relevant in this sentence. If this fact was important to the story, then it would have to be introduced elsewhere, in its own sentence. For example: “The gust blew away the woman’s umbrella. Helen noticed that it was red, reminding her of the blood that she had just seen.”

Me fail English? That’s unpossible

Writing good English is still an important part of creating a good novel. Of course, this statement should be almost as obvious as the fact that cheddar is yellow and that finding an agent is like looking for an invisible needle in a very large haystack. There are three aspects to writing good English: spelling, grammar and style.

Spelling is making sure that your words are spelt correctly, i.e. in the acceptable way. Assuming you use Microsoft Word, make sure that automatic spell checking is turned on (you know, the red squiggles.) However, there is something you should be aware of. Word does not do contextual spell checking, so for instance if you spell “I always lose at chess” as “I always loose at chess,” then Word won’t detect the mistake. So there’s no excuse for not reading carefully through the manuscript to make sure that spelling mistakes are found. It’s always a good idea to give the manuscript to someone else to proofread before you submit it, as the eye can become so accustomed to words that it sees what it wants to see. This has happened to me on many occasions.

Next, comes grammar. Correct grammar means that your writing obeys the rules of the English language. Entire books and lives have been devoted to this subject so I won’t dwell over it. The best thing to do is to get a pocket-sized grammar book and to dip into it occasionally. Knowing the precise rules of English is vital for an author.

Finally, comes the killer: style. Style is to writing what hospitality is to a hotel. Even if your spelling and grammar is perfect, it won’t satisfy the reader if your writing lacks style. Style is all about knowing how to use words and sentences in such a way that the very writing itself is pleasing to the reader, which might actually mean breaking the odd grammar rule on occasion (after all, one of the beauties of English is that it is a very flexible language). The de facto standard book on this subject is “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.

Dialogue Packets

A dialogue packet is a way of avoiding all those repetitive “he said” and “she said”s that can quickly litter a page. Instead, you structure your paragraph in the following format:

Stimulus – something happens to the character, evident from the text
Internalisation – the character ‘internalises’ the event, perhaps by thinking about it or relating it to a previous event
Response – the character says or does something

For example:

Mark walked into the room and saw his sister leafing through his diary. He felt his whole world collapse around him. For months, he’d had a feeling this had been happening.
“Do you really have to do that, Karen?”

Here, the first sentence is the stimulus, i.e. what Mark sees happening. The next two sentences are the internalisation, which intensify the emotional response to the situation. Finally, the next paragraph gives the dialogue. Note that there was no need to add “Mark said” or “he said” after the dialogue, since it is evident from the context who is speaking. In some cases, internalization can be left out, for example:

A door slammed shut and the sound of footsteps came loud and clear from the hallway. Leah shuddered. “Who’s there?”

Sometimes, internalisation can slow things down, so in action-packed scenes, it’s best to limit it or leave it until the end of the scene or the next scene. I’ll talk more about scene structuring in a later post.