A to Z Day 16: Pacing


Click for A-Z blog list.

Click for A-Z blog list.

Pace refers to the speed and rhythm with which an author moves from point-to-point. Well-paced writing flows like speech; poorly-paced writing tends to either drag or sound awkward. Lots of things affect the pace of a piece of writing; here are a few that I think are especially important.

 

Word Choice

A text that’s loaded down with obscure, archaic, or constructed words is more difficult to pace than a text written in more everyday language. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a rich vocabulary, but choose these sorts of words carefully, and know why you’re using them when you do. Specific, active verbs are a must. Adjectives and adverbs should make whatever you’re writing more vivid and immediate to your readers; if they aren’t doing that, just take them out.

Grammar

I could write a whole post just about the importance of this one. The three most important things are keeping passive voice sentences to a minimum, being aware that prepositional phrases tend to slow a piece of writing down, and being consistent with your point-of-view and verb tense (don’t switch from past to present in the middle of a passage). Here’s an example to illustrate the problems with passive voice and prepositional phrases. Compare these two sentences, which say the same thing in different ways.

  1. We were taken by the guard to the palace of the king.
  2. The guard took us to the king’s palace.

Which is better to you? I think the second one is.

Sentence/Paragraph/Chapter length

I include these all under one heading because I think of them as units or building blocks of text. As a general rule, long units of text slow a piece of writing down. As with most other rules, it’s important not to take this too far. If you use only short sentences and paragraphs, you’re likely to end up with a very choppy piece of writing. The trick is to find the right balance between longer and shorter units to establish a rhythm. I talked a bit about the importance of varying your sentence lengths on Day 5; that advice applies here, as well.

Expostion .vs Detail

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most elementary pieces of creative writing advice, and it’s important. It’s critical to master writing without a lot of exposition, and to learn to be alert enough not to lapse into exposition for no good reason. But, at the same time, sometimes a little exposition – say a paragraph or two – is just the thing to move a story along or transition from point to point.

There are lots of other topics I could cover here. I haven’t even touched on action .vs dialogue, the importance of good scene cuts, suspense, or plot hooks at the ends of chapters. All those things can affect the pace of a piece of writing. I encourage you to look into them, especially if you’re trying to improve your fiction or narrative nonfiction.

A to Z Badge by Jeremy of Being Retro

 

 

A to Z Day 8: Honesty


Honesty is as important in writing as it is in other areas of life. Honesty is what makes fiction believable and nonfiction credible.

If you want readers to willingly suspend their disbelief, or give serious thought to something you’re showing them about the world, they must be able trust you at least a little. Without honesty, there can be no trust. This is why cheap narrative tricks and patently false accounts of reality turn people off.

Cick for A-Z blog list.

Cick for A-Z blog list.

Here are a few rules of thumb I use to keep my writing honest:

  • I never publish something I know to be untrue.
  • If I believe something to be true, but haven’t confirmed it, I make sure to be straight-up about the fact that I haven’t confirmed it.
  • I make every effort to label opinions and statements of preference as such; I never state them as facts unless I do it by accident.
  • Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. When I realize I’ve made one, I correct it. If the mistake unjustly harmed another person, I apologize to them and do what I can to make restitution.
  • In fiction, I never allow characters to act against their own natures just to move the plot along.
  • When I’m doing criticism, I make every effort to represent my sources accurately before I present my argument.
  • I never intentionally twist words to score rhetorical points. If I criticize an argument, and the person I’m arguing with says, “that’s not what I’m saying – let me explain, there are nuances.” I listen to their explanation. If I don’t buy the nuances, I say so up front, agree to disagree, and move on. If I do buy them, I say “hey, thanks for enlightening me,” and adjust my criticism accordingly.
  • If I am dealing with events that I have direct knowledge of, I never, ever lie about what happened just to save face or make someone else look bad.

Of course, I don’t expect anyone else to follow these rules. But I try to follow them, and I recommend them for writers, whatever they’re writing – from arcane scientific papers right down to low-traffic blogs. When I see accidental dishonesty in writing, I try to point it out. When I see intentional dishonesty, I pretty much lose the capacity to ever suspend my disbelief or give serious consideration to what that author is saying about the world ever again.

If you lose the trust of your readers once, you’ve probably lost it forever.

 

 

 

 

April A to Z Day 2: Biographical


Biographical information is an important element of writing, for many different reasons.

Click for A-Z blog list

Click for A-Z blog list

If you’re carefulnot to make too much of it, the biography of an author might tell you something about his or her work. Biography can be a powerful nonfiction technique, and it can also generate some interesting fiction.

One of my favorite fictional biographies is Bjorn Larsson’s Long John Silver: The True and Eventful History of My Life of Liberty and Adventure as a Gentleman of Fortune and Enemy of Mankind, which includes references to the events of Treasure Island from Silver’s perspective. In one of my favorite nonfiction books, The Fall of the Dynasties: The Collapse of the Old Order, 1905-1922, Edmond Taylor uses a lot biographical information on important turn-of-the century European figures to explore the causes of World War I.

Then we have autobiography. I often incorporate autobiographical information into my blogging, especially when I’m talking about a big issue or a set of abstract ideas. I find that readers respond to those posts more positively if I can find a way to personalize them. In this post, for example, I explain my vision for the blogs I’m involved with. I frame it as a conversation between Diana and I because I think that makes it more interesting, and above all, more readable than it would be otherwise.

I consider most autobiography to be creative nonfiction, because when one is writing about oneself, it’s nearly impossible to keep from taking at least a small amount of license with the facts as they actually occurred. Many of my favorite blog posts are pieces that read like memoirs.

image by Kindovermatter.com, pinned by Part Time Monster.

 

Question for Writers


Do you compose in your head? If so, how much can you compose before you have to write it down to keep from losing it?

I can mentally compose a couple of pages of an essay, and that’s frequently how I do it. When I am in composition mode, I can’t follow a conversation to save my life. Sometimes, when people try to talk to me while I’m in the process of working myself up for a writing session, they think I am just not interested in what they have to say.

I can’t write fiction that way. Maybe three sentences of fiction is the limit, and I have to write them down as soon as possible, or I lose them.

How does your composition process work? Is the cognitive stuff you do before you actually sit down to write different for different types of writing? You should think about it and figure it out, even if it’s not something you want to discuss on a blog.

If you’re looking for a prompt, this would make a pretty good one.

Resource: Organizing a Long Project


I am posting this here for anyone who would like to see how I go about writing long nonfiction. This is an outline I wrote back in November to organize my Tolkien series at Part Time Monster. If you are interested in the series itself, this post will catch you up. If you look at the pieces I’ve written so far for it, you can find the starting points for them in the outline.

The series is basically a long bibliographic essay with lots of sections, translated into the blog format and written to appeal to fans of Tolkien’s books. I don’t know how long it will take me to finish it, but I expect it to be about the length of a master’s thesis when it’s done. Most of it will be sourced to page numbers in the primary texts. You can think of each individual post in the series as a subheading.

I’ve cleaned it up just a little for the blog. I’ve left it mostly in rough form, though. It’s more valuable to look at the working draft than a polished version. The whole point of a document like this is to do as little work on it as possible, and move to actually writing the piece as soon as you have plan laid out.

The original draft included two more end notes which were so long I turned them into posts. Those are up at Part Time Monster and Sourcerer today. It probably took me a couple of hours to write this and get all the pieces into the correct order, but I’d been thinking about this project off and on for a couple of years before I sat down to write it. When I finally made the decision, I spent 4 or 5 hours revisiting various sources, then did the outline. I find it interesting that I am talking about this stuff as “papers” even though I know I’m planning a very long series of blog posts. Training, I suppose. I did not notice it at the time.

Tolkien Essay

Three parts: 1. Critical discussion of “Power” essay from 1975. 2. Use their idea to analyze the text of LOTR. 3. Discussion of adaptation to film, focus on changes in characters’ values and relationships.

Basic Analytical Method

  1. The Ring of Power is a character.
  2. Encounters with the Ring tell us things about the characters and about the “natural” morality of the universe.
  3. “Natural” to Middle Earth means enforced by supernatural agents. In my opinion there is also a more subltle element at work. The endings of many of the characters in the LOTR go well beyond poetic justice; the natural order itself rewards and punishes based on choices characters make. I could probably write an entirely different paper on “Notions of choice among supernatual agents in LOTR,” or some such.

Break the characters into categories

Ancient, ambivalent to the fate of the ring. Mostly unaffected by its powers, and not subject to temptation because they do not see its value. Includes Bombadil, Ungoliant, could include Ents by analyzing their general attitude toward other “speaking races” and the war itself.

Virtual Immortals

Includes Galadriel, Elrond, The Wizards (ample evidence to read these as Maiar in physical bodies; see – The words of Gandalf himself, and the general reverence shown to him by the Elves. The Numenor episode of Sauron’s career and the marriage of Thingol and Melian at least prove the possibility. Gandalf’s manipulation of divine magic and his progressively archangel-ish behavior as the story progresses also support this reading). Can discuss Saruman here because his desire for the ring informs his behavior enough to read his bid for power and the end of his career as a long, slow-developing encounter with the ring).

The Ring as a Character

The ring is more than a macguffin or a clever piece of applied phlebotinum.

It is not merely an object, nor is it a simple appendage of Sauron. It has an independent ego, a will of its own, and the ability to communicate empathically. It is adept at coercion and seduction. It wants to get back to its creator, and it attempts to manipulate everyone it encounters to that end. It delights in betrayal (Isildur, Gollum) and in inciting conflict (Smeagol/Deagol, Frodo/Sam, Bilbo/Gandalf, Boromir/Frodo). The implication of the story is that no one aside from Sauron is psychologically or metaphysically strong enough to avoid being utterly corrupted by it.

Mortals
Sam, Boromir, Faramir, (can also read Denethor’s life from the moment he sends Boromir to Rivendell as an extended encounter with the ring). Can discuss Aragorn, Merry and Pippin here, but they are really peripheral compared to the first 4.

Ring-bearers
Gollum, Bilbo, Frodo. I don’t put Sam here because he didn’t carry it long, and he lived a very long but otherwise natural mortal life when it was all over; it makes more sense to read him as a mortal who made the “right” choices.

Analyze:  What is their first reaction to the ring? How does it shape their decisions, behavior, and relationships from that point on? How are they “rewarded” by the structure of the narrative (i.e.: happy ending with a long life? Allowed to return to the West? Die, fittingly or unfittingly? What are they doing/thinking in the scenes where they die?

Most of the analytical discussion will focus on the mortals; the others are included as bases of comparison and would require papers of their own to really analyze.

Citations

Fellowship (FR); The Two Towers (T); Return of the King (R); Silmarillion (S).

End Note

1. “Natural/unnatural,” “right/wrong, etc.”
Middle Earth exists in a universe with a very well-defined natural/supernatural order. When I use this sort of normative language, I am talking about what this order defines as “natural” and “right.” I typically only use the quotes on the first reference, because they really clutter up a manuscript.

– eventually, I will add just enough links that people who aren’t familiar with Tolkien or composition terms can understand it. It will go on my resources page one day.

Talking about Tolkien


I’ll have a Tolkien post at Part Time Monster today and another at Sourcerer. I’ll also have one here to show anyone who is interested how I planned my ongoing Tolkien series and set up the analytical framework for it.