Helpful reference ‘books’ for writing

IMG_1618.PNGGrammar is the rules or conventions that make the meaning of language and sentences clear.

Many people don’t care about grammar these days. But writing in a clear way by observing these conventions will help you to convey your message most effectively and optimally. The correct use of grammar will also that can help lift your writing into the professional realm, letting people know you’re a serious writer who works at their craft.

There will be times when you want to break the rules of grammar in the name of creativity. Go for it! But it helps to know them first before working out how best to manipulate them.

The five books I find most useful for grammar questions are as follows:

  1. A thesaurus – I use the online Dictionary.com almost every time I write to find synonyms for words I need to repeat. I like how you can click on a synonym in a list to find synonyms for that word until you’ve found the right one. I couldn’t write without a thesaurus.
  2. Fowler’s Modern English Usage – For me this is the bible on all sorts of questions you might have about specific words in both British and American, Australian, South African etc. English. For example, should I write roofs or rooves, is it ok to use ‘didn’t ought to’, what does ‘sic’ mean, what is the English versus American spelling of ‘program/me’, is the correct word ‘strategic’ or ‘strategical’? Make sure you get the latest edition.
  3. The Elements of Style – This book is great for writing rules such as when to place a comma before ‘and’ and ‘but’, slang, redundancy, using the active and not passive voice, verb tenses and mood, and is it which or that? The misused words and expressions section is fun reading, if you like that sort of thing. This book is priceless.
  4. A dictionary – I’m Australian and we generally speak British and to American English—although that’s eroding—so I use the Macquarie dictionary. It includes Australianisms  that other dictionaries don’t. Find the best dictionary for you in the version of  language  you want to write in—either online or physically. This is particularly important during the rewriting/editing/proofreading stages.
  5. Style Manual – This is an Australian Government book that I use for writing and editing advice. When I’m unsure about punctuation such as when do or don’t I include a comma in a string of adjectives, should I use a colon or a semi-colon, where do I place quotation marks, when do I use an en, em or 2-em dash, or hyphenation, then this is my go-to reference book. Very handy and easy to use with its detailed index.

To quote Winston S Churchill again, ‘This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.’

Back Story. Should you or shouldn’t you?

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Back story is difficult. It’s essentially what the writer wants you to know about their character – the who and why – but what the character them self doesn’t get the opportunity to tell you.

Some writers and editors say cut it out altogether because it’s telling (not showing) and interrupts the flow of your story by taking readers out of the action.

I’m not of that view, but if you’re going to use it, here are some ideas on how to make it most effective:

  1. Break backstory up into short paragraphs or even sentences such as asides. That way you’re inserting interesting tidbits as the story moves on rather than great chunks of history that make readers fall asleep, or worse still, put your story down for good.
  2. Be sparing. Decide what it is you really need to say about the character. This way you can pare back four paragraphs of backstory into one concise, powerful and to the point paragraph or less.
  3. Pace your backstory so it’s eked out over the entire story rather than appearing in one chapter early on, which is a real trap. That way you’re using it to build and reveal character slowly.
  4. Also ensure a balance between backstory and the present moment. Backstory should be used sparingly. Did I say that already?
  5. Link backstory to action. Maybe your character is having a crisis of confidence so you flashback to an incident or summarise their family history to explain where this behaviour came from.
  6. Ask yourself if instead you can include backstory by having your characters say something to another character. That way the reader learns about their history but in the context of the present moment.
  7. Make backstory in deep point of view,  not authorial. It needs to be in your character’s voice with their emotion so it’s meaningful and not a history lesson.

I’m off to cull and disperse more backstory in my MS. Good luck!

How long’s a piece of string or how many REWRITES should you do?

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You thought your novel was finished. Did you send it out to publishers who rejected it? Or did you put it away for a while like you’re supposed to and realised months later it needed more work?

What to do? This is the point where plenty of people self publish. If you’re convinced — and others in the know are too — that your novel is ready, then go ahead. But if you see problems with your manuscript and are serious about your writing (as in you want to continually improve it), you have other options.

You could shelf it. You could see your story as a learning experience and move on to the next project with a sense of liberation. On the other hand, is there a voice in our head niggling at you to keep going until you get it right? Perhaps your story is too good to let go or you’re simply stubborn that way.

1.  Should you rewrite?

Recently I’ve been considering whether to rewrite my first novel again after already having rewritten it twice. I’ve had six months away from it, which has given me a new perspective on its strengths and weaknesses. 

There might be things you can learn by rewriting and improving your novel. For example, in writing my new novel I’ve been working hard on improving my style and other aspects of craft, which I could apply to my old story.

When discussing this with a friend, however, they suggested that after three versions and much time, I should give the old story up and move on; I should focus instead on finishing my current novel. Are they right?

2.  When should you let your manuscript go?

There are situations when you might consider giving up your novel such as:

  • You can’t finish the story, it ran out of steam and there’s nowhere to go
  • You’ve lost your passion for it and you can’t get it back even though you’ve honestly looked at everything that might be blocking you such as structure, style, voice, character etc.
  • It’s just not working despite having rewritten it umpteen times. Perhaps you’re too close to the story or you’re being held back by the first draft, which you wrote when you were less experienced
  • It’s destroying your love for writing after many attempts at rewrites. Ask yourself, is it worth it?
  • You’ve put it away for months, tried to rewrite it and you have nothing more to give. Your story is dead.

I’m not at the point where I’m ready to let go of my first story. So what now?

3.  How to rewrite your story for the umpteenth time and not lose your will to write:

  • Apply new craft skills such as  improving dialogue, heightening conflict, adding nouns and verbs, creating a compelling first page, showing not telling and so on. Really get into the words and challenge your grasp of technique. I love this stuff, even if it’s hard. It keeps me from getting bored.
  • Change your manuscript sufficiently so the process becomes engaging again. Don’t just edit, which is where you tighten your manuscript by moving line by line from the beginning to the end. Rewriting involves meatier processes like adding, subtracting or deepening characters, making structural changes such as moving chapters or the order of events, and cutting large sections. Rewriting involves prioritising problems by issue, not fixing the smaller stuff in a straight.

I’ll let you know how this goes in six month’s time. I’m encouraged by author Richard Flanagan’s struggle with his Man Booker prizewinning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which took him numerous attempt over many years in various formats before he created something he considered publishable. The story was problematic, I suspect, because it was close to him, which is my challenge too.

My only decision now is should I burn/trash every single earlier version like he did before starting afresh? This sounds dangerous and scary, but possibly liberating. What do you think?