Sunday 27 December 2015

The Writer's 'Other' Job

Anarky For Ever by JD 
In my last post, I wrote about one way we can increase our chances of avoiding rejection; through clear formatting that meets the expectations of a publisher, agent, or judge in a competition. In terms of getting a story ready to send out, this is the easiest step. The next, and hardest, step in the preparation of your work is editing.

Before we go any further, I’d like to put on my pedantic hat and suggest in no uncertain terms that editing is YOUR job.  And it is your job until your work reaches a state of as-near-to-perfect-as-you-can-make-it. Then, and only then, should you hand your story over to another person for feedback or editing. When you receive the feedback, start the editing process again, polishing until the work is your brilliant best. Only after this rigorous editing process should you send your work to someone from whom you are seeking publishing/payment in some form.  

I remember being at a writer’s boot camp once, at the Q & A after the writing sessions, and hearing an emerging writer say that she never edited her work because that was the job of an editor.
              ‘Have you had anything published?’ another participant asked.
               ‘No, but I’m working on it,’ the writer replied.
But is she? The reality is, no first draft ever comes out perfect. Like children, stories need shaping, developing, nurturing and refining. So the first step in the editing process is to accept that your work is not going to slip from you fully formed and beautiful, even if, in the afterglow of entering that last full stop, it may seem that way. Editing is always required.

There are a few other reasons to accept editing as part of your writing process:

1. When you write, you are writing for a reader, not for yourself.
  • Publishers, agents, and competition judges are first and foremost readers. When they have to fight, or wade, through your writing, this makes them less receptive.
  • Make their job easy! The clearer and cleaner (i.e. mistake free) your writing, the more likely the reader is to fall inside the story and stay there until the end, giving you a better chance at publication.
2. When you write, you are conveying meaning and becoming part of a broader conversation.
  • Dense, unclear, mistake-ridden writing is murky and confuses the intended meaning of the writer.
  •  If a reader is focused on the mechanics of a work (words, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation etc.), they are missing the story and, therefore, the whole purpose of your writing.
3. Your writing stands for you.
  • Sloppy writing speaks to the reader, and what it tells them is you don’t care about your work; that you don’t approach your work as a serious, professional writer.
  • Unedited work tells the reader that they are not important to you; that you don’t value their time or the ‘mind-space’ they must give to your work.
  • This raises the question: if you don’t care about your work, why should your reader?
Okay, let’s say that you’re ready to commit to making editing a part of your writing process (if you do this already, consider yourself ahead of the game), what sort of editing can be done to increase your chances of publication? There are three types of editing: line, copy and content (what I’ll call structural editing). Copy editing is essentially when someone checks your work for accuracy of facts etc., which I would include in a structural edit, so I’ll write about line and structural editing here.

Line Editing – the easy stuff:

When I’m editing work, whether my own or another writer’s, this is where I start and this is what I look at:
  • Spelling
  •  Punctuation
  • Grammar
  • Sentence structure
  •  Paragraphing
  • Word usage (incorrectly context; overuse of clichéd adverbs/adjectives)
  • Repetition (of words, actions/gestures, and ideas)
  • Clichés and stereotypes
  •  Inconsistent tenses
  •  Overwriting (in description, actions, and dialogue)
I usually do this on-screen in the early drafts, but as the work gets closer to ‘near-perfect’, I print the story – regardless of length – and do this editing in hardcopy. Maybe that sounds old-fashioned, but it’s surprising what we miss on the screen; what will leap out at us when we can hold our work in our hand, with pencil at the ready.

Line editing really is the easy work of editing, but it’s also important work because, to borrow an old cliché, ‘the devil is in the details,’ and – in this case - the devil could look like a comma splice, or an inappropriate article, or a dangling modifier.   

Structural Editing – the hard stuff:

There’s no getting away from it; taking a microscope to your work is tough. When you’ve struggled to bring a work into existence, it’s hard to look at it with a critical eye, to go deep into it, look at its structures, and acknowledge what is wrong or missing. This resistance comes, I think, from knowing that what we are really doing is giving ourselves more work to do, when what we really want is for the story to be finished so we can get it out there. But, this is a pointless exercise in denial that turns our work into a boomerang: we send it out and it keeps coming back. Better to dig deep and do the work; to make our story an arrow that will hit its mark.

In a structural edit, I look at the creative elements and interrogate them in the following way.

  • How are the event organised?
  •  Is this the most effective or coherent way to put the story together?

When I wrote my first novel, Mira Falling, I chose a post-modernist structure, which I thought worked well, until my supervisor (I wrote the novel during my Honours year at uni) suggested that a chronological structure would be more suited to the work. The novel at that stage was around 50,000 words, and the idea of pulling it apart and re-ordering the chapters was daunting. Eventually – after completing a thorough line edit, which got me back into the world of the novel – I printed out the work, laid the chapters out on my bed and, like organising a puzzle, I shifted them into a chronological order. From there, I needed to weave the chapter together into a solid whole. It was difficult work, but the payoff was— publication.


  •  Are all of the events necessary?
  • Are the events accurate (particularly if relating well-known events)?
  • Are the events set up so that when they occur, they feel natural to the reader?
  • Are the events linked together?
  • Are there unnecessary or unintentional gaps?
  •  Do the events have verisimilitude (the appearance of truth) or do they stretch believability too far?
  •  Are all of the characters necessary?
  • Are they, as Forster suggested, ‘rounded’? That is, are they complex and nuanced?
  •  Do the characters develop, or are they stable (i.e. unchanged)?
  • What is revealed about the character, and what is withheld, or hinted, at for the reader to interpret? 
  • Are the characters believable?
  • If the characters are non-human, do they have enough human-like characteristics that assist the reader to build empathy?
  • Are the characters consistent in: name, appearance, mannerisms, speech, and behaviour?
  •  Do these things change and, if so, has the change been set up so that they have verisimilitude?

  • Is the setting the best for the story?
  •  Is there consistency across the elements of setting: time (of day), era, infrastructure, and environment?
  •  Are the details included in the setting significant?
  •  Do they create mood and atmosphere?
  •  Can the setting be used to deepen theme, character and plot?
  • Does the setting have verisimilitude?
Dialogue/Point of View:
  • Who is narrating the story? Is this the best choice for the story?
  • Who is the viewpoint character? Is this the strongest choice?
  •  Is the POV consistent?
  •   Does the dialogue sound natural?
  •  Is the dialogue consistent with the character and show who they are?
  • What is your purpose in writing this story?
  • What are you trying to communicate to the reader?
  • Are the themes addressed consistent and developed?
  • Are the themes conveyed through, and embedded in, the characters, plot, dialogue and setting?
  • Have literary devices such as allusion, foreshadowing, metaphor, symbolism etc. been used to support and convey the themes?

Finally, I take a grand view of the work and ask: is it predictable? Is it plausible? Is it an accurate rendition of the story I envisioned?

The task of editing is a laborious one that will add time to your process; a few weeks perhaps for a short work, or months for a novel, but it is work that must be done. Getting published, or winning that competition, is difficult because there is so much competition. Give yourself an edge; learn to love your other job, and embrace the editor within.

Happy Editing,


Tuesday 6 October 2015

An Economy of Words

Let’s face an ugly truth – we writers are not unique. Indeed, every person on the planet is a storyteller. From the day we learnt to express ourselves, we began telling stories (with ourselves as the hero, of course), and we will continue to be storytellers all of our lives. Storytelling is an innate part of being human; it’s how we learn, how we teach, how we convey history, and our hopes for the future.

So, if everyone is a storyteller, what sets a writer apart? Well, many things but the thing I want to talk about here is economy. Good writers know how to budget their words; they understand the benefits of crisp sentences, of precise language, and of presenting ideas in their most straightforward form.   
I have a confession to make: I am a purple writer – i.e. I overwrite to the point of cruelty. Luckily, I am a ruthless editor of my own work and a perfectionist, so I don’t generally inflict my cruelty on anyone other than myself , but it took the patience and wisdom of my writing mentors to teach me to be economical with my words. Today, I’d like to share two of their most significant lessons for good writing with you.

Rule #1 - Less is Best (LIB)

This is one of the best pieces of advice that I received from my mentors. As the name implies, this ‘rule’ is about saying more with less, which is challenging but the resulting writing is rewarding for the writer and a pleasure for the reader.

LIB can be applied to writing in a number of ways, including conveying aspects of character through clothing, dialogue and actions, avoiding (unintentional) repetition of actions, descriptions or gestures, and focusing on significant details in description. For now, however, let’s concentrate on the most basic use of LIB: the reduction of words. Here’s an example sentence:

Damian sat in his favourite oak lounge chair, looking into the fire that glowed with warm embers, and thought long and hard about his wife and the secret he had just discovered that had filled his heart with dread and fear.

Applying the rule of LIB, we would look for the most important ideas in this sentence, consolidate them and ditch whatever we can leave to the reader’s imagination:

Damian hunched in the chair, his unfocused gaze on the dying fire, while his wife’s secret filled his heart with dread.

So, why have I made these decisions? Let’s break it down:

Damian sat in his favourite oak lounge chair… I changed ‘sat’ to ‘hunched’ because this word evokes an emotion; it shows us something about what Damian is feeling. I removed ‘favourite oak’ because these are unnecessary details. What does it matter if this is Damian’s favourite chair? We could also argue that, given human nature, it is likely Damian would gravitate towards his favourite chair, making the mention of ‘favourite’ irrelevant. Finally, how does knowing the chair is made from oak ADD to the story? It doesn’t, so it can deleted. ‘lounge’ is also superfluous because, unless the fireplace is in another room, the reader will assume it is in the lounge room.

, looking into the fire that glowed with warm embers, and thought long and hard about his wife … I replaced ‘looking into the fire’ with ‘unfocused gaze’ because ‘looking’ is an overused action, while ‘unfocused’ infers that Damian is consumed by his thoughts, and also avoids the ‘long and hard’ cliché. ‘glowed with warm embers’ is stating the obvious (embers do glow and are warm, and therefore, these details don’t ADD to the scene), but more importantly, ‘glowed’ and ‘warm’ contradict the mood of the sentence, which is unsettled/uncertain. ‘dying fire’ is a deliberate choice and is meant as a clue for the reader about the secret (which is that the wife is dying) but could also be a metaphor for the status of the relationship between Damian and his wife (particularly if the secret was about infidelity).

…wife and the secret he had just discovered that had filled his heart with dread and fear. ‘wife’s secret’ shortcuts the sentence, making it tighter, while ‘he had just discovered’ is removed because it is redundant; if Damian is thinking about his wife’s secret then clearly he must have discovered it. ‘had’ (x2), ‘just’, ‘that’ and ‘fear’ are redundant. Fear and dread have similar meanings, therefore, we only need one of these emotions, and ‘dread’ is the stronger of the two, which is why it has remained.
This point brings us to the second rule of word economy.

Rule #2 - Keep it Simple (KIS)

LIB and KIS go hand in hand, but also have their individual nuances. KIS is about writing in a simple, clear and concise manner to ensure the reader receives our meaning in an unadulterated way. However, we mustn’t confuse ‘simple’ with ‘simplistic’ – we should never ‘write down’ to our readers (another good ‘rule’ from my mentors), who will invariably be as intelligent as us and maybe more so. Rather we should respect our readers enough to write with depth, complexity and clarity.

So what does KIS look like? Here are a few examples (by emerging writers) of overwriting and their simplified versions:

He was bleeding, maroon droplets contaminated the once virgin snow, but under the pale moonlight, it was black as the sky above.
               He was bleeding; the droplets were black against the moonlit snow.

The coolness of the afternoon pushes itself through my coat and makes me shiver. I pull it closer to my body and hug it there, crossing my arms over my chest.
The coolness of the afternoon makes me shiver and I pull my coat closer, hugging it to my chest.

I hold the gun in my hand. I aim it at the man in front of me. The man who will die with no dignity.
I aim the gun at the man in front of me, who will die without dignity.

The day that the skies opened up was the day that my childhood ended. The day that the clouds parted, spewing bombs in bucket loads and my mother risked her life for me, a human offering to the gods.
The day the bombs fell was the day my childhood ended. That day, my mother was sacrificed to the gods of war to save my life.

By simplifying the construction of these sentences and unpacking some of the ideas, we make their meaning clearer and therefore, more accessible to the reader.

Of course, my mentors were not the first advocates of LIB and KIS. George Orwell’s Six Rules for Good Writing is often quoted as a framework for achieving economy with our words:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Or to put it another way:

Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don't start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
De-accession euphemisms.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.
                                                      William Safire, Great Rules of Writing

The Unnecessary, the Unremarkable, and the Significant

A final approach to achieving economy with our words is to be aware of when we are adding unnecessary or unremarkable details. In short story, these will usually involve a character’s physical appearance (eye colour, hair colour, height etc. – if they don’t ADD to the story, leave them out and let the reader use their imagination instead), or over-description of actions/setting. It’s important to remember that good writing leaves space for the reader to imagine into the story too. We don’t need to give our readers everything, just enough to help them see what we see as we are imagining our stories.

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King (one of my ‘absent’ mentors) discusses the act of ‘telepathy’ that occurs between a writer and a reader, and he provides the following example:

Look — here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8 (2000, p.97).

In this act of description, King gives us the main details of what he imagined as he wrote this passage. As he points out, the finer details (the shade of red; the shape of the cloth; the material from which the cage is made; the size of the rabbit) are left to the reader because we don’t have to agree on these specific. What he does want us to agree upon – the significant detail – is the number 8 marked on the rabbit’s back.

When we use our words with economy, we leave out the unnecessary (a good way to recognise these details is to ask: why does the reader need to know this?), and we allow the reader to fill in the unremarkable (the colour of the lounge, the type of wood the door is made from, the height of the window, etcetera etcetera), but we make damn sure they see what is significant – a white rabbit with a blue number 8 on its back. Can you see it?

Happy (economical) Writing,


Tuesday 25 August 2015

The Generous Writer

Here is a question: for whom do you write?

If you’re like Sonya Hartnett – “…I write only for me, and for the few people I hope to please, and I write for the story.” (read article here) – your initial answer might be ‘for me’, and if you’re writing a journal entry, or a missive designed for catharsis (which will be ceremonially burnt on completion), or a piece of story that you have no intention of sharing with another living soul, ever, or if you are Sonya Hartnett, then that may be true. If, on the other hand, you are writing to have your words – whether fiction and non-fiction – read at some point, then you’re writing for an audience.

Understanding who your intended audience is can be advantageous when writing. More importantly, keeping in mind that you are writing for a reader can help you to be a more generous writer. 

Writing for an Intended Audience:

Considering who we are writing for is an important guide point for our fiction (or non-fiction). At times, an audience may be general in nature (gender/age non-defined), or we might find ourselves writing for a specific group: children, young adults, women, men, or any of the dozens of sub-groups that fall within these categories. Writing for each of these audiences requires thought on our behalf to ensure that our target reader receives a story that they will find satisfying (e.g. one that scares the bejeezus out of them, or makes them laugh like loons, or feel giddy with the romance of it all). If we’re writing for children or YA audiences, there is a range of criterion that our work will need to meet in order to, firstly, get past the gatekeepers (that is, publishers) and, secondly, impress our young readers. Here are a few websites that discuss what would-be writers of children’s fiction should consider:

Write for Kids: (2 links here & here)
Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators: Q & A (America) & (Australia).

Considering our audience is also important when we’re writing for a specific publication or competition. There is no point sending a romance story to the online horror magazine, Nightmare – unless there’s a dark, dark twist, of course  they won’t publish it, and we’ve wasted our time and theirs. Likewise, when we’re writing for competitions; we must think about the potential audience. 

I learnt this lesson the hard way when I wrote a story for a competition in a magazine that had a rural-inclined audience. My story explored intergenerational relationships and notions of love across times, and was woven with literary allusions related to the specified theme of ‘South.’ I really liked this story, and still do, but it didn’t even get a look in. The story that won was about a farmer’s wife giving birth on her kitchen floor while her husband built a fence down in yonder paddock. What was my mistake? Not reading previous winners, and not considering the readership of the magazine. A little bit of research and knowing our purpose can go a long way to helping us succeed as writers.

Being clear in our head about who we are writing for assists with clear and engaging writing. Although Sonya Hartnett claims to only write for herself, she is also aware of the type of audience who will be reading her work. “Would a portion of audience actually prefer me to write of boy meeting girl, boy getting girl, boy losing girl? If so, then that portion of my audience is not my audience." Hartnett writes stark, beautiful, engrossing and challenging stories, and she pulls no punches with her words, and that’s cool because she understands her audience and where she wants to take them through her work.

Writing for a Specific Reader:

Like many great writers, Hartnett is generous writer. A generous writer is one who seeks to deepen the reader experience of a story, who takes them below the surface of the words and helps them to encounter the meaning in and purpose of their writing. There are many ways to be generous in our writing. Eileen explored one – symbolism – in her last post, but there are numerous other devices that we, as writers, can employ to engage and assist our readers. Visit or for an extensive list of literary techniques and their use in fiction. Four of my favourite literary devices are: foreshadowing, irony, repetition and literary allusion.


Most literary devices are a win-win game that generous writers play with their readers. In foreshadowing, we weave clues to a future event or revelation into our plot, thus driving suspense, and lending veracity and naturalness to the moment when it arrives. Astute readers will have an ‘aha!’ experience as they connect the dots. Here is an example of foreshadowing from the brilliant Shirley Jackson story, The Lottery:

The morning of June twenty-seven was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square…The children assembled first, of course. School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them; they tended to gather together quietly for a while before they broke into boisterous play, and their talk was still of the classroom and the teacher, of books and reprimands. Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones…

The beauty of the day, the innocence of the children, and their simple act of gathering stones are clues about the events to come and serve to deepen the horror the reader feels as the intention of the Lottery is revealed.


One of the lessons I took from my university lecturers was to never underestimate the intelligence of my reader. Irony is a device that allows a writer to excite a reader’s intelligence with the clever, comical or searing use of word play. Irony can be verbal, situational, or dramatic (or a combination of all three), and develops in the space between the implied meaning and the literal meaning, or what is expected and what actually occurs. A classic example of irony is evident in the climatic final sentence of Richard Matheson’s, Button Button (and as a special treat watch The Button for an overdose of comical irony).


When editing creative work, one of the most frequent comments I make is to avoid repetition – of words, actions, gestures, dialogue tags, ideas, settings, punctuation etc. This kind of repetition is unplanned, and is particularly obvious in short stories. Intentional repetition, however, is clever, integrated, and always adds to the work at a thematic level. There are numerous types of repetition (visit for further info and examples), which can instil deeper layers of meaning in a story (and poetry, of course). A classic example repetition appears in Edgar Allen Poe’s, The Tell Tale Heart, which employs the technique to intensify the conflict, drama and tension, and to give the writing a
rhythm akin to the heartbeat that vexes the narrator:

When I had waited a long time, very patiently, without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little ­– a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it – you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily – until, at length a simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye…

Literary Allusion:

This is one of my favourite generous writing devices, which I often employ in my stories, and look for in the fiction and films in which I immerse myself. Literary allusion occurs when a writer makes a brief reference to another thing of cultural significance. This could be anything from literature, art, music, historic events or people, mythology, philosophy, or architecture. The point of allusion is to deepen the meaning of the principle work through association with relevant secondary texts. That sounds complicated but, in reality, we use literary allusion every day:

Common Allusions:

Beautiful women were her Achilles’ heel (Greek mythology).
He thinks he’s Romeo but she’ll never be his Juliet (Shakespeare).
They’ve sent another Trojan into the system (Greek mythology). 
I wouldn’t waste my time asking for a loan. He’s as tight as Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens).
Everybody wants fifteen minutes of fame, even if it means looking like an idiot on YouTube (Andy Warhol).

They also appear in commercials, and in many of our favourite films. Good examples of literary allusions are in the Madagascar franchise, Small Soldiers (1998), and in a recent example, Pacific Rim, which gives nods to the old Godzilla films, Frankenstein, and the work of Ray Bradbury, and includes this allusion to Star Wars IV:

   by Zennie Abraham [on Flickr]

and from the Star Wars original:

by Insomnia Cured Here [Flickr]

Literary allusions in film are fun, and can deepen meaning, or help the viewer connect to the characters, events or setting. The same is true in writing. Referring to other literary works that reflect our story’s preoccupations adds layers of meaning and can be intriguing for the reader. For example, if you were writing an anti-war novel, you might refer to classic anti-war novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front (Remarque), Farewell to Arms (Hemingway), The Thin Red Line (Jones), On the Beach (Shute) or Slaughterhouse Five (Vonnegut)

A word of caution: Literary allusion is brief, and may include the mention of a title, or a line or two from a work (however, be careful with lyrics), or reference to a character without incurring a copyright penalty/fee. If longer sections of a works are used, copyright permission must be sort from the holder of the copyright. We’ll write more about this in the future; for now, keep allusions brief and make sure to acknowledge from where the idea, character, words etc. have originated.

The abovementioned techniques are fun to play with and add wonderful, subtle and nuanced layers to a work. They also take the experience of the reader into consideration, and try to deepen their engagement with a story, exciting their intelligence and giving them something to ponder when they finish your work. This is the gift of storytelling, given by writers with generous hearts.

So, for whom do you write?


Monday 20 July 2015

In Search of Theme

"Rose in dark red" by David Sedlmayer
Theme is a tricky beast. Elusive, yet all pervading; hidden, yet evident in every aspect of a tale, it is the element that makes story universal and eternal. It is the element that leaves a reader pondering long after the last full stop; that urges them to look inside and evaluate the facets of their humanity.
But what is theme? And how do we find it as readers and convey it as writers? 

Let’s start by exploring what theme is not.

Often when I ask young writers to explain what they believe the theme of their story is, they will write things like: horror, romance, courage, love, murder, friends, death, betrayal, humour, and so on. Sometimes, they will say, ‘My story is about a girl who falls off her horse…’ These things are not theme.

Horror, romance, supernatural, tragedy, humour etc. are genres, or categories for stories. These are umbrella terms under which stories fall, but they say very little about the thematic concerns of the work or the intention of the author. 

Courage, love, death, murder, betrayal etc. are topics, or the subject matter, of a story. Topics lie on the surface of a piece of writing and convey what it is about, and what sort of events and characters might appear in a work. The subject matter can provide clues for theme, but it is not theme itself.

‘My story is about…’ is a red flag for plot – the building blocks of story – and plot is not theme.

So what is it? Horror writer, Dean Koontz, summarised theme when he said:
"Theme is a statement, or series of related observations, about some aspect of the human condition, interpreted from the unique viewpoint of the author."
Let’s break this down:

Theme is a statement or series of related observations…

One way to recognise whether you are discussing theme is to remember that theme is always a statement, or a series of statements, about a topic.

about some aspect of the human condition…

Theme explores, illustrates or illuminates something about what it means to be a person, and part of humanity. All stories, no matter whether they have human or non-human characters, are about us, and what it is like to be us, at any given point in our history or imagined future.

interpreted from the unique viewpoint of the author.

And this is the important bit that helps us to discern the difference between a topic (one word) and a theme (a statement). Any single topic (war, death, revenge) will have a multitude of ways that it can be written about; theme is how the writer talks about the topic. What is it that they are saying about the topic? What do they want us, as their reader, to think about the topic? In other words, theme is the writer’s take on a topic, not the topic itself.

Moral vs. Theme:

Fox & Grapes by John Rae 

Occasionally, when I ask students what theme is, they will say it is the moral of a story. Once upon a time – to use a cliché – this was true to an extent. Fable, fairy tales and parables certainly moralised, as did some longer works. A good example of a moralistic tales can be seen in Æsop fables, such as The Fox and the Grapes (available here):

ONE hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.”
The moral of this fable is summed up in the final statement: blunt, blatant, and in your face. Theme, however, is much more nuanced than a moral. Theme explores, exposes, and above all, it raises questions for the reader to ponder. A good piece of writing doesn’t provide the answers; it invites thought and contemplation. As Howard Pease notes in, How to Read Fiction: A Letter from Howard Pease to a Fan, theme is not ‘tacked on’ to a story, rather it is something embedded, for which the reader must learn ‘how to hunt, how to dig.’

Pease’s letter (which appeared in ‘The English Journal’ in 1954) is a brilliant explanation of theme, told in the epistolary form, to a young fan of his work. You can read the full text here.

Theme: What it is.

Simply put, theme is what you, as the writer, want to say about your topic. It is your intention and purpose for writing. It is the conversation you want to have with your reader; it is your way of getting inside their head and asking them to think.

Like everything in life, however, themes have varying degrees of sophistication. Some stories may be little more than fairy floss for the brain and they are thematically simple: Is it right to steal your best friend’s lover? Will good defeat evil? These are the stories we read in early in life, or that we take on holidays. They are not meant to stretch our intellect and have little in them that is enriching, but they still have a place if only to allow us to escape reality for a short time, or to prepare us for a deeper engagement with story.

The best stories are those that explore universal truths, or ask difficult questions, or reveal an aspect of themselves, or their society, to the reader for contemplation. Novels and stories that have been banned, or have achieved longevity, often have themes of this kind. They are the works that shake people up, that challenge norms, and start revolutions at the personal level and, sometimes, beyond. 
Theme: Where to find it.

As noted above, theme is not stated bluntly. As writers, we embed our themes in the elements of our stories. Our characters are imbued with theme. Their actions in response to plot events, and the conversations they have, convey theme, while our settings subtly provide clues about what it is we are trying to say. Theme, then, is woven through story and, at the same time, is the foundation and the pillars holding our work together.

This ‘weaving’ of theme is what makes it so hard to find. As readers, we must delve beneath the elements of the story – those things that exist on the surface – to the place of implication, symbolism and meaning.

It is worth remembering, however, that for readers, theme is subjective. A reader brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to a piece of writing that will affect how they interpret or engage with a story. As Pease notes:

Now a short story or a novel, like any work of art, may have different meanings for different people. Not always can you say the author meant exactly this or exactly that. Each individual will find his own meaning. For him, that will be the true meaning.
As such, while we weave theme through our stories, we also need to ensure that our writing is clear, precise and layered with clues that guide the reader towards our intention for creating the work.

Theme: How to convey it.

Writers have at their disposal, a number of devices that allow them to guide the reader in their search for theme. Sustained metaphor, allegory, literary allusion and symbolism are a few of these devices. Most significant writing will employ these techniques to deepen the work; the trick is to use them subtly. As with all creative elements, literary devices must feel natural to the reader, as though they are a part of the ebb and flow of the story. In coming blogs, I'll explore some of these techniques and how they can be effectively used to enhance writing.


Thursday 2 July 2015

A Few Words on Dialogue (Part 2)

Dialogue. Photo by Kgbo 

In my last blog, I wrote about intention and the need for our dialogue to sound natural, convey aspects of character and move our stories towards the climax. I also discussed the idea of active writing and the way dialogue ‘shows, rather than tells’ a story. Today, I want to continue this line of thought about intention by exploring dialogue attribution and the practical matters of punctuation and formatting.

Dialogue Attribution:

Getting our character to speak is a wonderfully active way to show them to our readers. This is not to say, however, that dialogue is never a form of telling; it certainly can be, in a couple of ways.
  1.  When characters ‘flag’ information for the readers: ‘Hello, my name is Dr Vivian Smyth and I’m a paediatrician.’ (This might be okay if Vivian is at medical conference but otherwise, no).
  2. When attribution is used to tell the reader how dialogue is delivered.

Dialogue tags can be hazardous to the health of your story. These pesky words are often used because we’ve been told that they make our writing stronger and more descriptive. Not true. In fact, they usually strip the dialogue of effectiveness and power.

Dialogue/attribution tags are those words we tack on after the dialogue, such as I snapped /screamed/hissed/growled, or I said, angrily, Sue said, impatiently etc. Tags like these should be used sparingly, and with intention. Before using a dialogue adverb (e.g. angrily) ask: ‘Can I show this emotion through action or through the dialogue itself?’ (Yes, you can!). Before using a verb tag (e.g. screamed) ask: ‘Can my character truly say this dialogue in this manner?’ This is about verisimilitude – the ‘realness’ of the story.

A good illustration of this point is the attribution tag ‘screamed’. Numerous writers, emerging and professional, use this tag in dialogue. For example:

            ‘I want to go home to my see my family and you can’t stop me,’ screamed Alison.

What is the problem here? Don’t know? Okay, try this – scream this line of dialogue. Go on, I’ll wait… No, don’t yell the words, scream them…

What happened? Could you get the whole sentence out without sounding ridiculous? No? And therein lies the problem. A scream is an inarticulate sound that does not contain words – think of any movie victim of grief, anguish or terror (or go here for an example from Home Alone). The reality is a character cannot scream more than one or two words: No! Yes! Help! And even then, we’re stretching verisimilitude. A similar argument can be made against other tags, such as ‘hissed’, ‘growled’, ‘howled’ etc. If you want to use these for a character’s dialogue, try it out yourself first. If you can do it, then so can your character.

One last thing, when overused, attribution tags become annoying, melodramatic and make the reader aware of the mechanics of the writing rather than the story. Consider, as examples, these two pieces of dialogue:

         ‘Please, Rach, can’t we work this out?’ Brett moaned.
         ‘It’s too late,’ Rachel cried.
         ‘But we love each other,’ Brett sobbed.
         ‘There are some things love can’t overcome,’ Rachel snapped.

          Brett reached for her hand. ‘Please, Rach, can’t we work this out?’
         ‘It’s too late,’ Rachel said, shaking her head.
         ‘But we love each other.’
         ‘There are some things love can’t overcome,’ Rachel replied, pulling her hand away.

Do you see the difference?  I thought you would; using actions and the words in the dialogue are a better option than using verb-laden attribution tags.

The best dialogue doesn’t require attribution tags (not even ‘said’, as can be seen in Margaret Atwood’s dialogue-only story, There Was Once, or in Tim Winton’s, Cloudstreet; read an extract here.) because the characters are so well-drawn and the actions are so clear, the reader can distinguish the emotional context and delivery of the word. So what do you use instead of dialogue tags? Usually said/replied/asked, or their present tense equivalent. These tags ‘disappear’ from the dialogue because the reader is concentrating on what is said (that is, they’re focused on the story). This is not to say that we never use dialogue tags – sometimes they are necessary – what it does mean is that we use tags with intention.  

Dialogue Punctuation:

Le Gourmet Pablo Picasso
Photo by Cliff
Weeping Woman Pablo Picasso
Photo by NichoDesign
As with all writing, dialogue has a basic set of punctuation ‘rules’, which are designed to assist the reader in following a conversation. More importantly, they ensure readers understand the meaning you are attempting to convey through the dialogue. Now, for some of you, the rebellious writer inside might be up on their high horse, shouting, ‘I ain’t following no rules.’ And fair enough— when you’re as good a writer as say, Tim Winton, or James Joyce, or Margaret Atwood (all of whom have eschewed punctuation at some point in their body of work). But, as with Pablo Picasso and other renowned painters, in order to break the rules, you need to first know and understand them because, then, breaking them becomes intentional.

Below is a guide to the basic formatting and punctuation of dialogue. I say ‘guide’ because some publishers and competitions may have slight variations on these. Always check the submission guidelines and/or style guides and follow these to ensure you give yourself the best chance at publication or winning.

  1. Indent dialogue in the same manner as a prose paragraph (usually 1 tab space)
  2.  Start each character’s dialogue on a new line.
  3. Keep a character’s action and dialogue in the same paragraph.
  4.  Use short dialogue paragraphs to increase tension, tone and pace.
  5. Avoid breaking dialogue to insert attribution (e.g. ‘I said’) without purpose or intention, for example, to include an action or relevant description.

An example (extract from The Shroudeaters by Maria Arena):

   His eyes surveyed my body and explored my face with deliberate slowness before he answered. I waited under his inspection, unmoved. ‘By supporting the proletariat in their struggle for just reward, we defy the darkness,’ he replied, holding out his hand. ‘And you are?’
  ‘Juliana Celeste.’
  ‘Didier Villette,’ he said, bending to brush his lips across my hand. ‘Enchanté.’
   Six months later, I agreed to be his wife. Six months after that, my parents killed me.
   My parents: Callisto and Constantine.

  1. Enclose dialogue with speech marks. I prefer single [‘…’] but some publishers prefer double [“…”]. Check their guidelines.
  2.  All punctuation belongs inside the speech marks.
  3. Dialogue within dialogue also requires speech marks. If using single speech marks, use double for the secondary dialogue, and vice versa if you are using double speech marks.

For example: 
       ‘I asked him three times before he said, “For God sake, Angelina, yes, the baby is mine.” That’s when I lost it, as I’m sure you can imagine.’

      4. Use a comma at the end of the dialogue if followed by attribution, otherwise, use a full stop.

For example:
        'Listen to me, Evette. I know about the money,’ I said, taking her hand.
        ‘Listen to me, Evette. I know about the money.’ I took her hand and held it gently.

5. Exclamation marks are NOT your friend. Avoid or limit the use of exclamation marks (in all writing). If an exclamation mark is needed, use one; multiple exclamation marks (e.g.!!!) are childish and become annoying to the reader. Exclamation marks are a form of telling rather than showing and, in most cases, they are also repetitive and/or redundant. Consider the following sentence:

‘You idiot!!!’ I shouted, slamming my hand on the table between us. ‘I can’t believe you could be so stupid!!! How are we going to pay the rent now?!!’ A wave of despair swept through me and, for once, I didn’t try to hide it from him.

In this example, the exclamation marks are not needed as the dialogue, attribution, action and description convey the emotion and emphasis. Occasionally, an exclamation might be needed (No! Yes! James!), but use them sparingly and, as always, with intention.
6. Ellipsis […]. These should be used sparingly in dialogue (and in all prose, if at all). They are used to indicate a long pause or trailing off of speech. Generally, however, finish the sentence. This is much better than peppering the story with unnecessary punctuation. If you do use ellipsis, remember they consist of three dots only. Like exclamation marks, using more than three dots looks amateurish.

Dialogue is an important device in story. When used well, it adds verve, tension and insight. When handled poorly, it a cinder block attached to the feet of our characters. Consider carefully, then, what a character should say to prevent them (and the reader) drowning in sea of irrelevant prattle. Rather, write with intention and make every word count.

Happy Writing,