“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
Robert F. Kennedy
“In these days of increasing rapid artificial locomotion, may I be permitted to say a word in favour of a very worthy and valuable old friend of mine, Mr. Long Walk? I am afraid that this good gentleman is in danger of getting neglected, if not forgotten. We live in days of water trips and land trips, excursions by sea, road and rail – bicycles and tricycles, tram cars and motor cars… but in my humble opinion, good honest walking exercise for health beats all other kinds of locomotion into a cocked hat.”
T. Thatcher, “A Plea for a Long Walk”, the Publishers’ Circular, 1902
“History does not always repeat itself. Sometimes it just yells, ‘Can’t you remember anything I told you?’ and lets fly with a club.”
John W. Campbell
“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka (I’ve found it)’, but ‘that’s funny…’.”
“The art of pure line engraving is dying out. We live at too fast a rate to allow for the preparation of such plates as our fathers appreciated. If a picture catches the public fancy, the public must have an etched or a photogravure copy of it within a month or two of its appearance. The days when engravers were wont to spend two or three years over a single plate are forever gone.”
Journal of the Institute of Jamaica, Volume 1, 1892
POV is shorthand in the film industry for “point of view” – in that context, it has to do with not only the narrative context but also the camera angles and editing process. Changing the POV can affect the way the audience – or readers – perceive a character, an event, or the overall atmosphere of a scene.
Recently I was watching a history documentary series from BBC called, “British History’s Biggest Fibs”, with Lucy Worsley. The basic point of the series is that history is subjective; whoever wins gets to name the battles, and shape future generations’ perceptions about events; the victor gets to smooth over their own weak points and play up their heroism for posterity. PR and spinning a good yarn helped to shape how reigning kings were perceived and toppled, or usurpers could style themselves as “successors”.
When writing a novel, the POV can drastically change a scene either from the inside, or the outside, or both; by that I mean that either the scene itself changes “camera angles” to tell the story from a slightly different perspective, or that something within the scene shifts slightly, affecting the reader’s perceptions of characters or events in the scene. For example: I was reading through a particular scene in my current manuscript that I knew I wasn’t happy with, but couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was that bothered me aside from the outcome. The scene involved an unjust flogging aboard a Royal Navy ship. The officer on duty was forced by the captain to either flog the innocent man or be punished worse in his stead. The original scene played out with the officer carrying out the punishment unwillingly but obediently. The scene’s purpose is to show the gradually decaying grip on reality in a captain going insane; I wanted a stronger contrast, and so I tweaked the dialogue, which changed the outcome: The officer refuses to punish the innocent man and takes the punishment on himself. This outcome builds far more tension among the crew, gives grounds for retribution against the true instigator (a snivelling King John’s man of a junior officer), and contrasts the honourable dealings of the officer on duty against the captain’s failing sense of right and wrong. By shifting the scene slightly, I take the reader and myself down a much steeper path.
In this illustration from Marvel’s Avengers film series, the camera angle chosen gives much more of an adrenaline rush than, say, if you were passively watching from off to the side; the fact that the arrow’s flying straight at you gives the scene that extra “kick”.
If you find yourself staring at one of your scenes – or even an entire premise of your story – that you’re not satisfied with, trying shifting the POV (sometimes it helps me to refer to it as the “camera angle”). Put your inner eye’s camera in a different position in the scene, and see if that unlocks the key to improving that scene, the story arc or a character’s arc. Keep writing!
I’ve been out of WordPress-land for the past week or so; I’ve been focused on editing and didn’t want to blog until I had something worth writing about. I thought I’d tell you a bit about what I’ve been working on & thinking about:
One golden rule in writing is to make every word count; along that yellow brick road are all kinds of signposts and potholes. Signposts are things like “make verbs do the actions”, while potholes are “watch out for unnecessary words” – either for the sake of padding word count (e.g. for a short story or report that needs to reach a certain word count), or words that slip in needlessly. Examples of unnecessary words are -ly adverbs (if we use the best verb, the adverb will be superfluous), strings of adjectives, really, very, and there is/are/were/was. Recently I’ve been scanning my current manuscript for the kinds of words that slip in easily while writing in a flow; I have a list of things that I watch out for personally, and one item is “there”. While I try to catch them as I write, sometimes I will intentionally use them as a “place-marker” – knowing that I’ll come searching for them later, find it, and re-write the sentence or scene with a fresher eye than I had at the time I originally wrote it. That’s just me – I know myself, that I won’t leave things like that long. If you’re not sure you’ll catch those sentences you want to improve on later, then mark them with a different coloured text, or an e-post-it, or something that will jump out at you.
Here are a few examples of sentences (from my current manuscript) with “there” before and after editing:
…there was a crisp off-shore wind… —> …a crisp off-shore wind blew…
…there was no recollection in his eyes… —> …no recollection flickered in his eyes…
…there was a twinkle of amusement in his eyes… —> …amusement twinkled in his eyes…
…there was no sign of the HMS Norwich… —> …the HMS Norwich was nowhere to be seen…
…there would be dire consequences… —> …dire consequences would follow…
…there was a smirk on the captain’s face… —> …a smirk spread across the captain’s face…
Tightening up the wording makes the sentence less clunky and more precise. Making every word count is not about reducing word count, although that will be a natural consequence sometimes; at other times, by changing the sentence to mean more precisely what you want to convey, it may result in the word count actually increasing. Just make sure that the words you use carry their weight. Waffling, rambling & repetition will not win us any brownie points; I could easily go into detail about the ropes of a ship of sail, but it would probably bore most readers to death! Sometimes “less is more”; it’s enough to say “ropes”. If I describe a surgeon’s table and list the instruments he’s about to use, it may be TMI (“too much information”) if using the word “instruments” is enough; if I want something more specific, then I could name a tool at a particular moment in the scene. Though I like the (audio) book “The Host”, by Stephenie Meyer, my one gripe with it is what I call the “roll call” scenes – where the characters present are listed, as if in a roll call. It’s TMI – it would be enough to say something like, “those I counted as allies were with me”.
Other times, a list of words may become a linguistic collage, painting a picture in the reader’s mind of a character, or a place, or a mood. A classic example of this is Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky; most of the words are nonsensical, non-existent words, but they nevertheless paint a clear image in the reader’s mind.
It’s why writing is never an exact science, and why, as a writer, I can always learn something, always hone my skills. If I ever become satisfied with my own level of writing, to me that’s a warning sign that I’m missing a significant moment of improvement. That should never stop someone from publishing – from letting their baby grow up and go out into the world to make other friends – but in the writing and editing process, be prepared to let go of pet scenes, or even some characters, in favour of an improved manuscript. Making every word count requires that we learn to recognise what counts, and what doesn’t. So keep writing, and keep honing your skills!
As a novel writer, I’m first and foremost a reader; I love to read, I love to buy books, smell them, feel them, upload them… any form is fine by me. I want the books I read to be witty, intelligent, and well developed in terms of plots, characters and environments.
Everyone has different tastes – that’s why there are so many different genres; but for me personally, there’s also a list of things I don’t want in a novel: I don’t want to be confronted with messy lives dealing with self-inflicted problem after problem; I don’t want tragic or sad or bitter endings; I don’t want to be confronted with the grit, grime, blood and gore of dysfunctional lives that end up learning nothing, making no character arcs, and end up in the mud by the end of the tale. This genre description actually has a name: Kitchen Sink Realism. It was a cultural movement in Britain back in the ‘50s and ‘60s that was portrayed in films, books, plays, and art – the grit, grime, anger, disillusionment and harsh realities of realistic social scenarios. It’s what might also be referred to as postmodernism. My personal response to this kind of novel is, “If I wanted that kind of realistic tension, I could just go hang out at the nearest bar.”
I once had an English student, and our focus was medical English in preparation for their upcoming medical exams (two nurses came together for semi-private tutoring). As part of the lesson we needed to work on basic conversational skills and sentence structures, and I find that the best way to bring in a wide variety of scenarios is usually to do a type of role play – nothing embarrassing, but each person is given a character to put themselves into a situation that they might not normally deal with: They may be a chef, or a secretary, or a customer in a hardware store. This particular student, when asked what kinds of books she read, said, “history and autobiographies or biographies”. When asked what novels she read, she said she found such things ridiculous and a complete waste of time (this was back before I became an author!); she categorically refused to even try to put herself into someone else’s shoes for the scenarios. My impression of her as a person was that she was narrow-minded, knew it, and was proud of that fact. She was a hard character, and all the time I knew her or met her afterwards, I never saw a soft side emerge, either toward herself or toward others; I often found myself wondering why she’d gotten into the nursing profession in the first place – as a patient, I wouldn’t necessarily want her working on my ward… A line from the novel I’m currently writing (Asunder, the third book in the Northing Trilogy) would have fit her life too: “he has never had the propensity for engendering compassion; I pray he never needs it, as he never gives it.” An epic love story might do her a world of good.
What I want when I read a book is to be transported into another life, whether that’s in the past, present or future, on this earth, or on another planet, or in another dimension; I want to be entertained, made thoughtful, learn something about the world around me, and learn something about myself. Ideally, I will come away from the experience having been changed, in even a small way. I want to feel connected; somewhere out there is a person I can relate to – whether it be the author, or the character, or other readers that appreciate the same books.
Aside from places and times that are genre-specific, such as science fiction and alien planets in the future, or London in the 18th century, all of the elements of what I like in novels are universal. Humans the world over, in every century, want to feel connected; to feel that they can relate to something someone else is going through; even to have parts of their own life’s experiences explained through someone else’s perspectives in similar circumstances. Above all else, at the heart of every good novel – regardless of the genre – is a story of love; that is the ultimate connection between characters. It may be a child finding the love of a family after being shoved through the knocks of life too much for their age; it may be the hero or heroine finding love; it may be a widow or widower finding love again, or reuniting with true loves; it may be someone coming to the point in their life that they accept and love themselves just the way they are.
When you read novels, what is it you’re looking for? I would love to hear about it – please comment below, even if it’s just a few key words!
Have you ever stared at a word for days on end? I have, and coming to the end of the tunnel is bliss. When writing, I tend to use “place-markers” – anywhere from a single word to a rough-sketch of a scene that I know will need to be fleshed out, moved, replaced or “cannibalized” for a concept. Some people like to use special writing programs, and I’ve tried a few over the years, but I tend to do all of my writing in Word; it’s got review “post-its” I can type into the side margins, and I’m usually more organized than programs like Scrivener anyway. When I go back over such sections, I take off my writer’s hat and put on my editor’s cap, and dive in.
I’ve been editing a manuscript, and at the moment I’m focusing on repetitions; the most recent word was smile. Each time I came across the word, I needed to read the context, think about whether it should be removed, replaced, the sentence reworded, or left as-is. I’ve discovered that there are not actually that many synonyms for “smile” in the English language; smirk, sneer, grimace, simper, scowl, grin… they each have their own connotations, and are not simply interchangeable – each choice will effect the overall meaning in distinct ways. as William Blake once said, “There is a smile of Love, And there is a smile of Deceit, And there is a smile of smiles In which these two smiles meet.” Sometimes it can simply be left out – the context informs the reader about which emotions are being displayed by the characters. Characters in love have a different smile for each other than for frenemies, or antagonists, or superiors, or subordinates, and each situation in which various characters are combined might result in a different word for smile. And does one smile warmly, or coldly? Broadly or tight-lipped?
Sometimes I wonder if I think far too much about such details; but I’d rather think about it once too often and get it right than not. It might have seemed a tad extravagant for Weta Workshop to emboss the inside of King Théoden’s breastplate armour for the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and Return of the King (in which the character appears), knowing it would never actually be seen in the films; but Bernard Hill, who played the king, said that such details helped him easily slip into the role, even feeling the nobility of a king, and it thus enhanced and influenced his performance. As visuals matter in epic films such as LoR, words matter in writing a novel, drawing the reader into the imaginary landscape of the world the author creates.
They also matter in script-writing: In Ever After, starring Drew Barrymore and Dougray Scott, some of the dialogue lines are just downright embarrassing – especially those of Anjelica Huston: They go to the trouble of being opulent and period-accurate in costumes, locations and scene dressings, and then throw in lines like Relax, child and I’m management! The editor in me cringes.
One man’s smile is another man’s smirk; one woman’s grin is another woman’s sneer. Now, on to the next item on my list of editing revisions!
Challenge: Write a short paragraph (100 words or less) daily on a topic beginning with the sequential letter of the alphabet.
Astronomical zeniths are easy enough to calculate; it’s the metaphorical ones that get tricky. How do you know when someone is at the pinnacle of their career, or their success? If someone could precisely know the zenith of stock prices and when to buy and sell, they’d make a handsome fortune. The thing about zeniths, on a personal level, is that the word implies an end to growth or progress, and as such, is not something to be desired. When we stop growing, learning, and maturing, we die. Seen in that light, I suppose you could classify know-it-alls as zombies.