A Pilgrim's Guide

The Craft of Creative Writing

 Part Six

The Craft of Creative Writing

The Tools of the Trade

In Part One we considered how we can access the springs of creativity. In Parts Two to Five, we examined the essentials of style and technique. Before turning to examine the psycho-emotional issues which play their own part in determining how successful we are as writers, it is time to turn our attention to more prosaic matters. This is the most nitty-gritty section, because it aims to provide us with some brief instruction on the bare-bones of the writer’s craft.

The Paras are Coming

Ever felt deterred by the sight of a solid a block of text? If we keep paragraphs to a sensible length our texts (and with them our readers) will breathe more freely. Starting sections with a series of short sentences is another useful technique for keeping the pace moving and the reader alert. If we are presenting any strange facts or unusual angles, highlight them clearly and milk them for all they are worth.

Ideally, each paragraph should amplify the one that preceded it, or at least flow on from it in a logical sequence. It should make its point, reach its own mini conclusion, and then serve as a springboard for the next one. In much the same way that each scene should conclude with some sort of a hook to make the reader eager to press on to the next scene, it pays to put extra effort into the last sentence of every paragraph.

Verbalise your Longings

What do verbs, dogs and authors have in common? If a dog is a man’s best friend, then a well-chosen verb falls into the same category for the writer. Verbs bring incidents and episodes to life and enable us to get inside the hearts and minds of our characters. More than any other part of speech, verbs create the impression that we are part of the action. As our banner puts it, Verbs enable us to see, hear, taste, touch and feel along with our viewpoint character.

Verbs achieve their best results when they are carefully selected to produce certain effects. Their impact is usually blunted when we make too much use of the passive voice. Why? Because it makes it feel as though we are reporting an event rather than participating in it. Which sounds more dynamic?

‘Rosalind caught the baby’ sounds so much more dynamic than

‘The baby was caught by Rosalind’.

The second example conveys the same information, but it has a static flavour that makes us feel one stage further removed from the action.

Active verbs express the ‘who, how and when’ of an episode. Passive ones lose verve and momentum. Even an unexceptional phrase such as ‘Friday dawned fair and bright’ holds out more promise than,

‘The weather was fair and bright on Friday morning’.

Aptly chosen verbs energize a sentence and delight the heart. We are blessed that English is a language rich in verbs that conjure up specific nuances and sensations. To be on the lookout for unusual words that provide background colour without inhibiting the forward action. I can snarl, snap, grumble, grouch, gripe, swagger, strut, flaunt or leave the room in a huff as well as ‘find something hard to accept’.

An on-line thesaurus is a useful addition to our reading experience to help us. There is no need to go to absurd lengths though, unless we want to try our hand at describing an action by following the American habit of making verbs out of nouns. Once we overcome our trans-Atlantic prejudices, the effects can be surprisingly effective if used sparingly. There are no limits, except common sense. ‘I DTP’d this page to take a closer look at it, then I trained to Harpenden to see what Guy thought of it!’

Pause and Ponder

Review your use of verbs. Are too many of them in the passive voice? How about their emotional impact? Do they convey a sufficient breadth of emotions? Have you made it easy for readers to feel rather than just know about the subject you are writing about?

Drop the Adjective

‘As to the Adjective: when it doubt, strike it out’. (Mark Twain)

William Zinsser writes of the need to avoid ‘adjectives-by-habit’. We must resist the temptation to display our adjectival prowess to the full in order to prove that we are ‘proper’ authors. Whilst most people would be content to say that a performance was ‘enjoyable,’ we feel we have to add that it was ‘entrancing’, ‘tasteful’, ‘sterling’, ‘superlative’, ‘first-class’, ‘top-notch’ or even (heaven help us) ‘heaven-sent!’ Adjectives must earn their keep. Bland adjectives, like commonplace clichés, do little to surprise or excite and are usually best left out. Those that are included must serve to enhance the reader’s pleasure or awareness by injecting some fresh or surprising perspective. Does every old man really needs to have a wrinkled face or every cowboy a trusty steed?

We debase the language when we insert a host of adjectives that qualify everything but clarify nothing. To speak about someone wearing ‘black funeral clothes’ or ‘white wedding gowns’ is mere tautology.

If we choose the right noun in the first place, we will succeed in conveying most of the impressions and nuances we are seeking without having recourse to any adjective.

Pause and Ponder

No prizes for guessing the homework here. Review a few pages of your text and see whether the adjectives you have used are paying their way. Remember Mark Twain’s advice!

Adverbs and Metaphors

Few things can do more to evoke an impression that a well-chosen chosen adverb. Suppose we create a character called Miles, and find him ‘sniffing proprietorially, ogling the local women leeringly even as he stretches out his hands expansively’. In a minimum of words, we have succeeded in creating the base outline for a character sketch we can expand at leisure.

Since the thoughtful use of metaphors and similes is one of the principle characteristics things that distinguishes a good from an outstanding writer, there is often much to be said for reducing the amount of space a metaphor takes up by compressing it into an adverb or adjective. To say that ‘The women thought that Warren was as tough as nails’ sounds cliché-ridden. Why not try something like ‘Steely strong, but utterly fascinating for women, Warren (went on to do whatever he did)’.

Or, to create a rather different impression, the equally prosaic observation that ‘Women thought Warren was as tough as an ox’ could be revamped along some such lines as this: ‘Ox-like, Warren never wasted a moment’s thought wondering why women never bothered to pay him the time of day’.

Expressing a full-blown metaphor in one succinct verb, adverb or adjectival clause offers great scope for evoking the reader’s sympathy or imagination – or for conveying a sense of humour or irony. How about this for instance? ‘Leathery-faced, Priscilla glared at him rowdily‘. It is hard to imagine less likely words to associate with the name Priscilla! If she had glared at him ‘waspishly’, or even ‘balefully’ we would have been on more familiar ground. But rowdily? And leathery-faced?

The more attentive we are to the world around us, the more we will find a ready supply of material from which to fashion striking statements or metaphors. The secret is to juxtapose and present them to their best effect. Succinct phrases can condense wisdom and help us to see the significance of things we might have been inclined to take for granted. ‘The Youth of a Nation are the Trustees of Prosperity,’ Disraeli declared, and, like it or not, he was right. ‘Truth sits upon the lips of dying men’ wrote Matthew Arnold in Sohrab and Rustum. Certain aphorisms can likewise point up the hopelessness of fulfilling impossible longings. ‘There is no unhappier creature on earth,’ Karl Kraus declared, ‘than a fetishist who longs to embrace a woman’s shoe and has to embrace the whole woman’.

Likewise, the very things that far too many people would give their eyeteeth to obtain often turn out to have a sting in their tail. ‘Power?’ declared Harold Macmillan dismissively (a former British Prime Minister). ‘It’s like a Dead Sea Fruit. When you achieve it, there is nothing there’.

Pause and put into practice

If adjectives should only be used with discretion, unnecessary adverbs should be shown the back door. So many of them serve only to clutter sentences and hinder the flow of the text. Why tell people that prices are rocketing fast? Or that someone is completely exhausted? Surely it is self-evident that ‘the water trickled slowly through his fingers?’ And why labour the fact that someone is a bit, or partly, or slightly astonished?

If we find ourselves piling up adjectives and adverbs like a child playing with toy bricks, then it is time to set to work and dismantle the edifice.

The Dashing Colons

There is a school of thought which tends to look down on the dash, as though it were vulgar – the sort of punctuation people might resort to if they are unable to handle the other parts of speech properly. I am no subscriber to this line of thought. For me, the dash fully deserves its place as a paid-up card-carrying member of the Punctuation Club. So long as we do not abuse it through overuse, it provides a thoroughly sensible and ready-made alternative to inserting a constant stream of brackets.

A dash also avoids us having to use a subordinate clause or start a separate sentence.

‘Ronald went to Vancouver on Tuesday – he had been promising Rona he would to do so for a fortnight – and then flew on to Nova Scotia’.

The other main use of the dash is to amplify something that was is mentioned in the first part of the sentence.

‘Ronald went to Vancouver on Tuesday – which Rona had been urging him to do for the past fortnight’.

As for those double dotted full stops, the colons: some people love them, and some despise them. I am rather too fond of using the semicolon myself, but it is largely out of fashion these days on account of its tendency to slow a sentence down. Its most useful function is to prepare us for the development of a thought that has already been expressed in the first half of the sentence. This a technique commonly used in the Psalms and Proverbs, where it is regularly used to expand or qualify an opening statement.

‘Like the coolness of snow at harvest time is a trustworthy messenger to those who send him; he refreshes the spirit of his masters’. (Proverbs 25:13)

‘Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him’. (Psalm34:8)
‘I sought the Lord, and he answered me; He delivered me from all my fears’. (Psalm 34:4)

If our aim is to keep the text moving briskly, however, we will probably do better to choose the full stop — or the dash — rather than the semi colon. The colon, too is in danger of being considered somewhat old-fashioned nowadays, but it comes into its own when a collection of items need listing.

‘He asked Jane to buy the following items: some toasted tea cakes, an origami stuffed teddy bear and an electric fence to keep the wallabies out’.

In some usages, the colon functions in much the same way as a pause sign does over a note in a piece of music. It is used to show readers that they have not yet reached the end of a line of music, but that the music is being brought to a temporary stop in order to achieve a desired effect.

Watch the Screamer!

The Screamer! In one of my favourite cartoons, the lubberly Captain Pugwash is suddenly ambushed by his arch enemy, the pirate Black Jake. The surprise he feels is conveyed by a large exclamation mark that appears over our hero pirates’ head. With considerable astuteness Captain Pugwash reaches up and grabs hold of it. Using it as a belaying pin, he promptly hits his opponent on the head with it!

Not all exclamation marks are so felicitous. Too many of them make readers feel as though they too are being hit on the head. I find that I tend to insert far too many of them into my first drafts almost the moment anything strikes me as being in any way out of the ordinary. Later, when I revisit the text, I surreptitiously remove most of them.

If we shape and craft our sentences to convey our meaning properly, we will not need to resort excessively to the ‘Screamer’. Let’s face it: if people cannot see when we are trying to be funny, adding an exclamation mark by itself may not be enough to make them laugh(!)

Miscellaneous Muddles: Hang the Participle and Mind Your Butt

‘You will have written exceptionally well if, by skilful arrangement of your words, you can make an ordinary one seem original’. (Horace)

Once again, authors are under no obligation to try too hard to be clever. Why use words such as ‘donate’ if ‘give’ will do just as well? A simple test is to ask what we would use in real life. There is no virtue in dredging up obscure words from the thesaurus if simple ones will do. Professional writers are perfectly content to use straightforward words, but to do so in appropriate and attractive ways. Relax. Be more intimate and less pompous.

Three are several simple stylistic stumbling stones it is good to be aware of, however. Purists remind us that best English usage avoids beginning sentences with hanging participles. ‘Having picked up the cat’s mess, he turned his attention to trapping the python,’ could perfectly well be rendered ‘When he had picked up the cat’s mess he turned his attention to the python’ . . . Or ‘As soon as he had picked up the cat’s mess, he turned his attention to catching the python’. Either way, I hope he knew what he was doing!’

There are occasions when it pays to disregard the blanket advice that sentences should never begin with a ‘but’. Who can deny that it can sometimes be the most effective way to begin a sentence? An apologetic ‘however’ somewhere further on in a phrase can feel limp and unconvincing. Each case must be weighed on its merits. But only use an ‘and’ to start a sentence if you are setting out to create a particular effect.

It is also worth checking every occasion we allow an and or a but to remain in the middle of a sentence. Might our text not flow more convincingly if we took a break and started a new sentence? Short sentences impart vitality.

Deleting redundant ‘that’s’ in the middle of sentences can likewise help our text to zip along with more pace and sparkle. As to the convention that it is wrong to split infinitives, the principle still stands – but as the waiter said to his manager, ‘breakages are increasing’. Raymond Chandler is quite belligerent on the point. ‘When I split an infinitive . . . I split it so it will stay split’. It reminds me of an intriguing comment David Wray once made: ‘When I write a man, he stays written(!)’

A Which Hunt

Which hunts were horrible things in medieval days, but they have their uses today. As a general rule, hunt down the ‘which’s’ and replace them with the more versatile ‘that’. The guidelines for determining when to choose between the two are quite involved, but at their simplest, if you need to use a comma to clarify a sentence, then the chances are that ‘which’ is preferable. At all other times, ‘that’ is the safer option. If that still feels opaque, let’s try putting it another way. ‘Which’ is generally the right word to use if you are looking to expand the piece of information that precedes the comma. ‘I went to visit the school, which had just passed its OFSTED’. Compare these examples.

‘The school, which had such a bad reputation, deserved to lose its best teachers’

has a rather different meaning from

‘The school that has a bad reputation deserves to lose its best teachers to its rivals’.

The first example is specific whereas the second is more generalised.

In other instances, ‘which’ locates or identifies something for us. ‘Naples, which is in Italy, is much loved by the Mafia’. ‘Hurricanes, which hardly ever happen in Hertfordshire, hardly merit a mention here in Shetland’.

Neither Male nor Female

Suppose we are writing a text book on how to care for a new born baby, and are faced with the perennial problem of knowing whether to refer to it as a male or a female. I find it clumsy to write ‘he or she’, or the equally widely used convention ‘s/he’. It slows the text down. Some publications compromise by using ‘him’ in one chapter and ‘her’ in the next. Though immaculately even-handed in today’s politically correct world, I find this alternating viewpoint somewhat restless.

The simplest way round the problem is to convert the sentence into the plural. This has the enormous advantage of encompassing both genders. I would much rather read that ‘Babies need their nappies changing regularly,’ than ‘he/she needs his or her nappy changing regularly’.

Plurals do have one disadvantage, however, and that is that they take the reader one step further away from personal involvement – and anything which fosters the cult of the impersonal is a potential weakness.

Red your Roofs (and Read your Proofs!)

Glance at the well-known phrase below.

Paris in the
the Spring

Write the phrase out on a card, preferably framed in a triangle, and show it to some unsuspecting friends. I can almost guarantee that more eight year olds will read it correctly than adults, who tend to see what they expect to see.

Proofreading is essential. An unchecked hastily written article can reflect on us poorly, or even misrepresent our intentions altogether. People may well feel inclined to assume that mistake-laden text is substandard in more ways than just the spelling. Since we rapidly reach the stage where we can no longer see the wood for the trees, it is good to ask people who are seeing the text for the first time to proofread for us. A crafted e mail, card or letter can be a friendly and powerful means of brightening someone’s day,

Proofreading is particularly important for people who do most of their writing by Dictaphone or on computerised software packages. We need to be specially watchful for spellings that the dictionary would pass, but common sense will not. My spell checker would happily accept, ‘Whey duds her tape the poke in thee shudder Luke hats?’ but most people would have difficulty deciphering the fact that I was, for reasons best known to myself, trying to ask, ‘Why did he tap the moke on the shoulder like that?’ As Winston Churchill once famously said, ‘This is the sort of English up with which I will not put’.

More emotively, a Bible was printed in the seventeenth century that enjoined readers on the highest authority to commit adultery! Not only were the Bibles recalled, but the unfortunate printer was fined heavily for the proof-reader’s failure to spot the missing ‘not’.

Bearing in mind that our aim is to do nothing that will cause our reader’s attention to drift, it pays to run at least one final check through Grammatik, that excellent aid which highlights various stylistic faults as well as inconsistent punctuation and unintentional spaces.

Artificial aids can never be a hundred percent context-accurate, but even when we cannot accept the recommendation grammar checkers suggest, the mere fact that they have highlighted a sentence may lead us to go in search of better ways to express it. Grammar checkers are valuable tools, but they by no means do away with the need to read our text through for ourselves.

To take the paragraph above as a typical illustration. I originally wrote, ‘It is impossible for artificial aids to be 100% context accurate’. In the interests of brevity, I decided that the phrase ‘It is impossible for,’ made the sentence long–winded and pedantic, so I shortened it accordingly. 100% is best written out in full, as numbers usually are. ‘Context–accurate’ is just about acceptable as a deliberate piece of jargonese, although very little would have been lost by omitting the word ‘context’. As for the phrase beginning ‘but we should not allow’ – why not have a go at reworking it to find a less clumsy way of conveying the same meaning. By the way, did you notice that I deliberately wrote, ‘we should not allow the duff ones to deter you?’ It is so easy to confuse which pronoun form we are using, and to toggle inadvertently between ‘we’ and ‘you’ via ‘him,’ ‘his’ and ‘their’. It may sound dull, but let’s fly high this utterly necessary banner: ‘Check, check and check again’!

Summary of Parts Two to Six

‘Trust Your Material’ (William Zinsser)

‘It is no kindness to do for others what they ought to be doing for themselves’ (Abraham Lincoln

Wouldn’t it be simple if adding bundles of qualifying words automatically succeeded in describing something more successfully? The reality is that to over explain things actually deprives readers of the opportunity to discover things for themselves. Much that we have shared so far can be summed up in William Zinsser’s exhortation to ‘trust our material’.

If we find ourselves using too many words like, ‘inevitably,’ ‘of course,’ ‘surprisingly,’ and ‘predictably,’ we are effectively imposing our own value judgement on something before readers have had the chance to draw their own conclusions – and that is the precise opposite of Zinsser’s counsel. Learning to trust our material is the product of hard-won experience, and a growing confidence in our literary skills.

Just as it is wise to double check our pronoun-sequencing for consistency, so there are many other aspects of our work that merit a review. We have touched on most of the following points before, but, most of us will benefit from considering them again.

      • Draw readers into the heart of your subject material at the earliest possible opportunity.
      • Make every word count.
      • Check the length of your sentences. Shorter ones impart vitality.
      • Limit the amount spoken by any one person at a time to just a few sentences. Remember that a degree of confrontation in the dialogue increases tension and holds the reader’s attention. Develop obstacles (preferably human ones) that threaten the path of your leading characters. Nothing can beat the suspense of human conflict.
      • Check that the right viewpoint dominates in each scene. If you have switched within it, does the effect work?
      • Give each scene and character its own distinctive features. Don’t let too much of the action take place ‘off–stage,’ or be described in some remote past tense.
      • Know your characters inside out – especially those who are least like you.
        If you have introduced minor characters (or specific objects) have they been given a proper part to play in proceedings, or could their role be incorporated by someone or something else?
      • If you are writing animal stories, have you adhered to the rules of the game? At the very least, the animal’s level of understanding (and speech) ought to remain consistent throughout the book.
      • Double check your data to make sure that it is as accurate as possible. I have come unstuck on more than one occasion by trusting information from supposedly ‘reliable’ sources who turned out, on these particular issues, to be entirely unreliable. We lose a portion of our reader’s confidence every time we assert something to be true when we have not taken the trouble to check the facts for ourselves. P.G. Woodhouse repeatedly used to research train timetables to make sure that his characters could legitimately return from London to Blandings Castle (his wonderful creation in Shropshire) at certain times of the day. Do our time sequences and geography work?
      • If you are writing of past times, scour the text for historical anachronisms. Michael Legat speaks of the “‘Gee!’ said Leonardo da Vinci” syndrome. It is rarely wise to attempt to write entirely in archaic language. Not only is it difficult to do consistently, it is also hard for readers to understand. The same applies to dialect too. A small amount evokes a strong impression and adds local colour, but pagefuls of the stuff make the reader work too hard.
      • Make liberal use of surprise elements – they breathe life into a text.
      • Find alternatives for the ‘twee’ words: good, nice, bad, pretty, big or little. ‘Said’ can become monotonous, but replacing it with fancy words can be over elaborate. If you write ‘he added’ do make sure that the character really does add something worthwhile.
      • Candidates for the chop include ‘certain,’ ‘clearly’ and ‘obvious(ly)’ Aim to be sparing, too, in the use of the word ‘very’. Check each time that it earns its keep. ‘Upon’ is likewise usually best rendered ‘on’.