Avoiding Cliches Like the Plague

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a cliché is (a) a hackneyed phrase or opinion or (b) a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person. I used to have a dictionary of clichés, I think also published by Oxford. The precise purpose of such a reference source eluded me. Perhaps it was so people could check they were not using clichés in their writing or speech.

Because, of course, we must avoid using clichés. In this post I’m not so much concerned with the first definition above. We all recognise these things for what they are pretty quickly:

Not in a million years…

For all intents and purposes…

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks…

As heavy as lead…

Millions of these things are espoused daily and eliminating them isn’t too hard with a careful edit. But today I want to discuss the other definition, which is far more insidious in writing and film. The situational cliché. The story that goes along predictable lines and ends the same way lots of other stories have in the past.

There are lots of these too. I mentioned one years ago when I reviewed a film, Hansel and Gretel. There it was what I called the “too cool to look” hero walk. You know the one. The hero has just beaten the bad guy and lit the fuse for an explosion. As the bomb detonates in the background the hero is seen walking towards the camera, dead-pan expression on his face or maybe lighting a cigarette, not bothering to glance over his shoulder as the explosion blows the final shreds of the villain away. It’s meant to show that the hero is ultra-cool, so cool in fact he can ignore an event that would have everyone else ducking for cover or at least turning around to look at*. So cool he doesn’t need to run.

It’s been done a lot. It’s a cliché. It’s the sort of thing writers need to avoid.

I myself had a recent problem with a cliché ending to a series I’m writing at the moment. My cliché was “the hero sacrifices herself to save the world but isn’t really dead and comes back when everyone least expects it and manages to destroy the bad guy…” I wanted to avoid it and it took a while to do so.

The Star Trek film franchise did this a lot. In The Wrath of Khan Spock is killedHe’s back in the next movie, not really being dead at all of course…well, sort of but not really. Even the Enterprise has been destroyed a number of times but there is always a new one just being completed the crew can transfer to. Handy, that.

There are book series out there that have cliché endings. Lots of them. The Harry Potter series for instance. Harry gets killed and brought back to life because he’s not really dead…well, he is, but not really. In his book Destiny Unfulfilled: A Critique of the Harry Potter Series, Jim Adam states that J. K. Rowling uses the cliché of the Christ-like sacrifice to save mankind (or in her case Wizard-kind). The hero needs to die, to sacrifice his or her own life, in order to save the lives of others.

That’s been done too.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the Christ-like sacrifice, except that it’s been done. A lot.

And this was the problem I had. It took a while to solve it, required me to consult with my editor, and is going to necessitate a heavy re-write of the last part of my final book in the series, but at least I am happier with the ending.

Cliché is an easy trap to fall into. Movies, especially the plethora of prequels and sequels they engender, are full of them. Books, too. A good writer should be careful to spot them as they arise and deal with them before it’s too late.

Damn! Before it’s too late… A cliché!

________________________________________________________
* It always strikes me as a bit weird: surely the only person not looking at the explosion is the one who set it off. Think about it. The villain blows something up and the police don’t know who to arrest. Try arresting the only person in the street NOT looking at the explosion!

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

Male Fantasy Action Heroines, or Gender Writing by the Opposite Gender

It’s a great scene in the movie Alien. Ellen Ripley is the last surviving member of the crew of the mining ship Nostromo, who have been wiped out by a marauding alien monster. In a desperate bid to reach the lifeboat before the self-destruct timer reaches zero, she grabs a flamethrower, rolls up her sleeves and does a great Sylvester Stallone impression as she fights the evil critter and avoids becoming dessert.

alien-ripley-flamethrower

(Screenshot from Alien, 1979, Brandywine Productions and 20th Century Fox).

In fact, she’s acting just like a man would in the same situation. Later, of course, there is the even more famous scene where she strips down to her underwear and still manages to defeat the alien (admittedly by clambering into a space suit first, but we all knew she was still in her undies inside it). What a woman! Not only can she defeat a giant killer xenomorph, but she can do it in her cotton socks!

There are countless examples of this trope in cinema and books. I call them “male fantasy” action heroines because basically they are designed to appeal to the following things male viewers/readers like to see in such a character:

(a) knowledge of how to use weapons, mainly ones that go “bang” and fire endless rounds of ammunition without the inconvenience of needing reloading;

(b) being good-looking, preferably in clothing that is as tight as possible, or else clothing that has been torn and shredded by past encounters with the antagonist (or, like Ripley, in as little clothing as possible);

(c) the propensity to swear, drink and/or spit, combined with an ability to level an opponent with one punch or with a well-placed high kick while suspended in mid-air (I’m looking at you, Trinity). Preferably all of these at the same time.

I’ve never met a woman like that in my life. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to, but I never have. Maybe I don’t get out enough.

The question I ask is, can a male writer write effective, believable female characters, particularly main characters? Can a female writer write effective, believable male protagonists?

It’s hard writing the opposite sex, particularly from that character’s POV. There have been some howling errors in the past, and some authors have eschewed writing opposite gender characters at all in order to avoid the issue. Even the greats have faced this problem. Isaac Asimov, for instance. I doubt many readers would say he wasn’t a certified genius in the science-fiction field. He was even a feminist. But his list of strong, story-important female characters is terrifyingly small.

Now of course, it’s easy to say that male dominated science-fiction and fantasy books at the time Asimov was writing were the norm. Even Tolkien had few female characters. It was also true of other genres where action scenes were expected, like James Bond. Of course women weren’t seen in those times as action heroes or even necessarily important for a story other than as “peril monkeys” that needed rescuing by the athletic male lead.

But times have changed. Unfortunately, it means that a lot of writers now think women have to be just like men in order to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, I think a lot of women writers think the same thing.

So, what do we do? Well, what I do with my stories is have strong female protagonists who act like women. All my books so far have featured female leads. The guys are there, and taking major roles, but the lead protagonist role is female. And I’m a guy. So writing from a female POV is tough. (Especially in my book Plato’s Cave, in which I write as a female in first person POV. My mother didn’t understand it at all.) But what I’m not trying to do by this practice is have female characters that act and sound like men. Women have better things to do with their time than be just like guys.

And they can be far more effective as characters  by not doing so.

Sure, it’s tough. When I was a teenager and writing lots of books (none of which saw the light of day of course) all of my female characters acted like teenage boys. Fair enough, I was a teenage boy myself at the time and didn’t really have enough writing skill to create more realistic characters. But the trick is to avoid that mistake now.

So female writers should try to write strong male parts. Male writers should try to write strong female parts. Just don’t make them reflections of how you want them to be. Make them how they are. And if that means getting a second opinion and maybe doing some research, then that’s what it takes. But don’t shy away from the idea.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my tips for writing strong female leads (especially if you are a guy):

1) Get a woman to read what you’ve written. Someone you can trust to give constructive feedback. Ask her if the character behaves as she (the reader) expected.

2) Before a female character does something, stop and think. Is this cliché? Would a guy do this? But be careful to avoid going too far the other way. A female character who makes sure her lipstick is right and checks her hair before going into battle is going to get you just as many howls from your readers as making her too “butch”. Maybe even more so.

3) Is there some way the character can solve a problem without resorting to immediate violence? Can she think or talk her way out of the situation? What are her priorities? Immediate personal survival? Protecting others? She might be able to side-step around the issue and approach the problem from a different angle.

4) Show the reader how the character is feeling as much as what she is doing. Women tend (please, don’t get mad – I send tend) to focus more on emotional response and be more aware of their emotions than guys. If you can’t emote with your characters and show the reader how they are feeling at any given point there are two problems: (a) you aren’t used to expressing your own emotions in the real world; or (b) you’re an emotionless robot.

Female action heroines can be girls as well. Give them the chance to do so. I love Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley. I really do. But the story could just as well  have been about Edward Ripley without any change to the plot*.

Russell Proctor www.russellproctor.com

* I do admit that in the later movies of the Alien franchise, and Alien3, Ripley does act more nurturing and caring.

Actions Speak Just as Loud as Words

 

Writing dialogue is hard. Lots of writers have written blogs and advice about how to write dialogue, so why should I say anything different?
Did I just talk myself out of writing a blog post?

One trap for the fledgling writer is writing too much dialogue. “Show, don’t tell!” they are urged. “Dialogue is a good way of revealing exposition and backstories.” So the newbie sits down and reels off page after page of dialogue. The scene degenerates into people talking to each other and not a lot actually happening. Much information is given out but the scene is dull.

One trick I use to prevent this occurring is to add action to the scene. I give the characters something to do while they are talking. it could be something as simple as eating breakfast or catching the bus. They talk as they act, and what they do and how they do it can show us a good deal about them and their reactions to what is going on.

For example, take this witty exchange I just thought up:

“Honestly,” said Sally, “you really annoy me sometimes.”

“Why?” asked Bernard.

“You never help with the cooking.”

“But I can’t cook. And you can.”

“But I need help sometimes. You can help with the basic things.”

“Like what?”

“Chopping the vegetables for one thing. “

“Oh, all right. If you insist.”

 

Not Pulitzer Prize winning material, I’m the first to admit, but it’s been a long day already and I’m not in the mood for doing any better.

I think it’s obvious that, while the above dialogue conveys information, it doesn’t convey it in an interesting way. We could learn a lot more about Sally and Bernard if we give them something to do while they talk.

So let’s rewrite it, putting in some actions, and see what happens:

Sally slipped into her raincoat and glared at Bernard, who was still sitting at the table with his newspaper. “Honestly,” she said, “you really annoy me sometimes.”

“Why?” asked Bernard. He didn’t look up: the sports section was particularly interesting today.

“You never help with the cooking.” Her right arm flailed in a desperate attempt to find the arm hole of the coat.

Bernard pulled his eyes away from the football scores and stared at his wife, who had at last managed to shove her arm into the sleeve. “But I can’t cook. And you can.”

Now the collar of the coat was twisted around. Sighing, Sally removed the entire garment and tried again, more slowly, “But I need help sometimes.”

Bernard frowned.

“And you can help with the basic things,” Sally continued.

“Like what?” He picked up the paper again and flounced it out. The rustle of the page almost drowned out Sally’s reply.

“Chopping the vegetables for one thing.”

“Oh, all right.” He glanced at the page. Manchester United won! He resisted the urge to smile. “If you insist.”

We learn a great deal more about Sally and Bernard in this second writing, where we give them things to do that reflect their moods. Bernard is impatient at being interrupted reading the paper. He’s a football fan. He is probably fairly lazy in other things as well. Sally is going out, maybe to work. Her struggles with the raincoat are a reflection of her frustration with Bernard. The mood of the two people is conveyed through their actions, leaving the words to supply information and give us some idea about how the words might have been said. we also are left with the impression that Bernard will conveniently forget to help with the vegetables next time.

I personally find scenes can easily degenerate into two or more people talking to each other. Page after page of words in quotation marks does not, in my opinion, make for great story-telling. But give your characters actions and much more information can be conveyed. The scene moves on. The actions can contribute to the plot. Exposition is all very well, but something else needs to happen as well. Action.

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

The Sequel Got Me!

I’m writing a sequel.

This isn’t necessarily something odd. A lot of writers write sequels. I’ve just finished writing a trilogy* myself, so that’s two sequels one after the other I guess. It’s even expected these days that writers write sequels. Series, we are told. sell. Movies are the same. No one just makes a movie these days, the make entire franchises. They even split books in half to make two movies out of them. All right, that’s fine…a little desperate, but fine. However, this time it’s a bit more noteworthy.

You see, I’m writing a sequel I never intended to write.

A few years ago I finished writing a book called Days of Iron, which was a science-fiction thing I had started writing when I was 17 and scribbled at and tinkered with for years and years until eventually I self-published out of sheer frustration to get the damn thing off my mind.

Signature cover1a

By the time I’d finished it (140,000 words in total), I pretty much had the story out of my system. I killed off one character and made sure the others had nothing left to do by the end. I tied up loose ends and added enough information for the readers to piece together any minor plot points not explicitly resolved.

Then it got published. Then I had people reading it (which is something every writer wants to have happen when they publish) and people were suddenly asking me when the sequel was coming out.

‘What sequel?’ I would reply innocently, my heart going pitter-pat just a little faster because (a) I was excited that readers liked the book enough to want more and (b) There was no sequel. Who sent round a memo saying there was a sequel?

What I’d forgotten in writing the thing was that when I was 17 (which was deep, deep in the Twentieth Century) sequels were not the thing. Writers occasionally wrote series, but they weren’t expected to if they didn’t want to. By the time I’d finished writing it (it took me the best part of thirty years) things had changed drastically. Now it was you write a book, you write a sequel. And follow it with a series. Personally, I blame Star Wars. George Lucas made a block-busting ride-of-a-lifetime movie and then casually announced it was the first of nine films. Suddenly Hollywood wanted sequels. And so writers were expected to write series, to the point that publishers and agents now expect writers to write series. And so did the fans.

And don’t get me started on prequels, which as a word didn’t even exist when I was 17. In the old days if any prior information was needed to understand the book the author wrote a Prologue. J. R. R. Tolkien of course went the whole hog with The Lord of the Rings, including both a Prologue and a novel-length set of Appendices. But we can forgive genius its excesses.

So anyway, here I am, writing a sequel, Shepherd Moon, that I am contractually obligated to produce. Actually, it’s rather good fun visiting the old characters. And I have no need to world-build, given that the world already exists. The politics, economics, social structure and cultures of the universe in question are already in place and I just have to write.

But it wasn’t that easy to think of a story I didn’t know existed. It’s there now, and simmering away quite nicely. Now I’m into it, I’m as interested in the story as I hope readers will be. I discovered that the story was there, lurking in the corner, desperate to make itself known. And once I got into the story, I managed to slam down over 90,000 words in a couple of months.

Now I have to turn it into something worth reading, which is where the work comes in. Of course there are inconsistencies, plot holes and that eternal question of which characters do I bring back and which do I let go their merry ways, and are my new characters interesting enough to belong there and yet not too interesting that they over-shadow the efforts of the regulars?

I have until December this year to deliver the manuscript, which might seem like a long time but isn’t really. Not for me. Being a perfectionist with detail isn’t doing myself any favours.

So there we are, a sequel in the works. And the really scary thing was that I discovered lurking in the corner of this new story was another one, that hints of its own existence and put its hand up tremulously to enquire, about half-way through, ‘Excuse me, when is it my turn?’

So Days of Iron looks like becoming a series. But that’s a good thing.

____________________________________________________________________________

*The first volume of The Jabberwocky Book is now out from Permuted Press. The Red King. The rest of the series, An Unkindness of Ravens and The Looking-Glass House, will be out this year and next year.

TheRedKing_EbookCover

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

 

 

Interview by Thomas J. Wolfenden.

Recently I was interviewed by talented author Thomas J. Wolfenden. Thom has penned two great post-apocalyptic books, One Man’s Island and One Man’s War. I’ve read both and recommend them heartily.

Anyway, Thom sent me thirty-nine questions a little while ago asking me about myself and I gave thirty-nine answers. Let’s face it, who doesn’t mind talking about themselves?

So here’s the link to his blog and the interview.

What a Coincidence!

Often when reading stories, I come across what can only be described as a million-to-one shot coincidence. You know the type I mean – a character in the book just happens to come across the secret letter that reveals who the villain is. The person the detective met in a random encounter at the café just happened to be the murderer they were looking for. The magic spell needed to unlock the hidden room was the one the hero accidentally stumbled across in the wizard’s book the day before. And it’s a million to one shot. Of course, there’s no alternative for the poor writer: if those coincidences weren’t there the story wouldn’t happen.

But actually, coincidence happens every single day. To every single person on the planet.

Look more closely at that million-to-one shot. I live in Brisbane, Australia. Population: 2.2 million. For the sake of argument, let’s round that down to 2 million. What are the chances that a million-to-one shot happens on any given day in the balmy, sunny (but cyclone-and-flood-prone) metropolis I love? You guessed it: about 2:1. So each day in Brisbane 2 million-to-one shots happen. Each day.

What about the planet as whole? Earth’s current population is 7.3 billion. Now that means that 7,300 million-to-one coincidences happen each day. Read that again: every day 7,300 people shout, ‘What just happened?’ as they face-palm themselves in disbelief.

So what about coincidences in stories? To what extent does the reader accept that the hero just happens to come across the key that unlocks the safe containing the documents everyone is after? How is it that the detective just happens to see the murderer talking to another witness, which forms the ultimate clue that solves the crime? What, he walked into the restaurant, out of all the restaurants in the city, at that exact convenient moment?

Yeah, right.

The bounds of credulity are often stretched (or ignored) for the sake of the story. In The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Bilbo Baggins is lost in caverns under the Misty Mountains. Blindly groping through the tunnels, his hand just happens to touch the One Ring – the ownership of which will determine the fate of the world for years to come, cause wars and lead to the deaths of thousands – and he picks it and puts it in his pocket. Had this blindingly unlikely chance not happened, none of the ensuing story would have taken place. Tolkien tries to explain away the Ring’s million-to-one shot discovery in The Lord of the Rings:

‘Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.’

(The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien: Book One, Chapter 2)

But is it enough just to put it down to fate? Of course, the heavily veiled Christianity in Tolkien’s works, which is in no way intrusive, could satisfy the reader, perhaps, that some ‘higher power’ is working through its mortal agents to defeat evil. But let’s face it, in the end it’s just a coincidence that Bilbo finds the One Ring.

And, in the milieu of that story, the coincidence can be ignored. The reader takes it for granted. We turn the page on Gandalf’s dismissive statement above and just accept that now the Ring has been found, all we have to do is worry about what’s going to happen to it.

The film Slumdog Millionaire is based on the premise that the events that occur during the childhood of a competitor in a game show just happen to provide him with the knowledge he needs to answer questions in a TV quiz. Somehow, the questions just happen to relate to events in his life which, by the sheerest good luck, give him the precise bit of knowledge he needs to answer. Coincidence? You bet. Big, fat coincidence stuffing its face with unlikelihood. But it’s a great movie, and we accept its excesses of credulity.

Real life is full of coincidences too. Millions of times a day. But here we are.

So what does the writer do? How far can he or she take that lucky shot?

I’m guilty of it myself in my writing. I would venture to say all writers are faced with this dilemma. Will the reader believe this? I lie in bed at night, tossing and turning as I try to work how such an unlikely chance as I plan to put in my book can actually be believed. Will the supposed ‘suspension of disbelief’ the writer aims for actually carry it off this time? It’s a tough call.

In the end, I think it comes down to careful writing. Surprising the reader at the climax of the story that the hero just happens to be an electronics engineer and can open the locked security door by tinkering with the circuits using the handy tool-kit he just happened to have in his pocket won’t fool anyone. The reader will curse the writer and toss the book away with a vow to never again read anything written by that particular pathetic hack. But, if the writer were to foreshadow somewhere near the start of the book that the hero has a degree in electronics and always carries tools around in order to tinker with various bits and pieces as he goes about his other adventures (in other words, giving him business to flesh out his character) then the fact that he has the appropriate knowledge and equipment at the necessary time is more acceptable.

So there’s two rules I guess that can help sell coincidence to some degree at least:

1) Don’t underestimate your reader. Readers are smart people, otherwise they wouldn’t be readers. And writers are smart, too, otherwise they wouldn’t be…no, hang on, that doesn’t work. But anyway, don’t stretch things beyond what you, the writer, would accept yourself if you were reading someone else’s story.

2) Use foreshadowing to ‘set up’ the coincidence long before it appears. If the reader can think at the appropriate moment, ‘Of course! The railway station porter saw the villain hiding the diamond in the safe-deposit locker on page 45! That’s how the hero knew where to look! Man, this guy’s a good writer!’ then you have done well.

Coincidence has its place, but it’s a dangerous toy to play with. However, it shouldn’t be something to fear. Just tell a good story and the reader will play the game.

I keep telling myself that, anyway.

Russell Proctor   http://www.russellproctor.com

Great Opening Lines

 

One of the most important parts of a story, whether it’s a novel or a short, is the first sentence.

The first sentence has a big job to do, and a most important one. Basically, its job is to make the reader read the first paragraph.

And that’s important because the first paragraph’s job is to make the reader read the second.

And, by extrapolation, the first page’s job is to make the reader turn to the second. Once they have done that, the writer has them.

So that first sentence is vital. I’m an English teacher, among other things and I’ve read thousands of essays and stories and assignments from my students over the years. And usually I can tell from the first sentence what the rest of the piece is going to be like. If it’s a good one, I can relax into it and maybe even enjoy the read. If it’s a bad one I reach for a glass of red wine (every teacher’s panacea at mark time) and resign myself to a mediocre effort.

The late great children’s author Madeleine L’Engle started her novel A Wrinkle in Time with the sentence ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ That is usually the sentence used as an example of how not to start a story. Which is why the brave Ms L’Engle used it, I guess. She went on to write a very successful series of novels from that bold opening.

So let’s have a look at some great opening lines of great stories, and try to work out just why they hit the mark the way they do.

First up, one of my favourites, from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948):

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

 
That phrase “the clocks were striking thirteen” is what makes this a wonderful sentence. Of course, common sense tells us clocks that strike on the hour (that is, sound out a series of chimes, one for each hour) are not twenty-four hour clocks, so none of them normally strike thirteen. The use of that word indicates there is something unusual about these clocks, and that draws the reader in. He or she wants to know not just why the clocks are striking thirteen, but how. Orwell arouses our curiosity in a subtle way and does what every good writer should do: make the reader ask questions. It’s by reading the book that the reader will find the answers.

Another example, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Tolkien did a similar thing to Orwell. He introduced a word that would immediately ask a question. What is a hobbit? We want to know, so we keep reading. In this case, Tolkien almost immediately answers the question and gives us quite a long description of his invented race. But it works, because after that description he dives straight into the story and vindicates our newfound knowledge by putting his hobbit into a situation that demonstrates not only the racial tendencies of hobbits but the ways in which his particular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is different.

Another good line, for different reasons, from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-of-door exercise was now out of the question.

Here the author plunges us straight in. We meet at least two people: the narrator and Mrs Reed, and learn a bit about the habits of each. Mrs Reed is particular about when she dines; the narrator seems to dislike the outdoors and finds raw winter weather uncomfortable.

It is a grammatically perfect way of drawing us into the writer’s world. We know it’s Charlotte Bronte, of course, so we can anticipate the sort of story we’re in for. But here we have no “faffing about” that other writer’s of her time might have indulged in. We are into the story.

Here’s an opening from a more modern book, Ben Elton’s Past Mortem:

The victim died as he had lived.

Cruelly.

Only more so.

Three short paragraphs that set up a situation that has us wanting to know more. Is this a murder? And what was it that made the victim’s life cruel? The fact that each paragraph contains a single short sentence or sentence fragment rams home to us the suddenness of the death and the impact of it. It turns out to be a gruesome murder and Elton cuts no corners in getting us straight to it. It’s up there with Charles Dickins’s wonderful opening to A Christmas Carol: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’

The importance of killer opening lines can’t be stressed too much. They have to be strong and intriguing, they must raise questions in the reader’s mind, and they must immediately reflect the style and nature of the story to come. Sometimes it may well be that the first sentence is the last one to be written.

 

 

The Voice that is Passive

 

My students have been told by me to avoid the passive voice when writing. Weaker sentences are those that are written passively. More effectiveness and control are possible by sentences that are active. Following the subject with a verb is the more active way of writing and is a sign of more consideration on the part of the writer. This whole article was going to be written by me using the passive voice. It was found, however, that a strain on me was caused by doing so.

So I’ll stop now.

What is the passive voice? Well, English grammar has two ways of writing a sentence. The first, and most common, is ACTIVE. This is where the sentence follows the structure: Subject – Verb – Object.

The dog bit the man is active voice. The dog (subject) bit (verb) the man.

PASSIVE voice turns things around. In passive, the object of the sentence becomes the subject. The man was bitten by the dog.

So what’s the difference? Well, it all depends on what the focus of the sentence is. In The dog bit the man, the important noun in the sentence is the dog. In The man was bitten by the dog, we are more focused by the man. In the first, active, sentence, we are interested in the dog and its doings – in the second, passive, sentence, the man is our concern. Imagine someone asked a question:

‘I saw Bill walking around with a bandage on his leg. What happened to him?’

‘He was bitten by a dog.’

Contrast that with:

‘Why does Bill have a bandage on his leg?’

‘A dog bit him.’

Both are valid responses. However, the first is more focussed on Bill from the start. In the second, the focus starts with Bill but the responder to the question is changing the focus to the dog, perhaps in order to emphasise the cause of the accident rather than its consequences.

And therein lies the difference between active and passive voice. Active, the pedants say, is stronger than passive. In writing, there is less need for passive voice. Readers respond better to active, strong, positive statements.

True, they do. But there is no need to throw out the passive voice entirely. it’s used a lot in business documents, for instance and in informative writing, or where it is not necessary to state the doer of the action, or the doer is not known or relevant.

The verb of a sentence is active when the subject of the sentence does the action:

Mary had a little lamb.

The passive tells us what happens or is being done to the subject:

The lamb was owned by Mary.

 

If the doer of the action is unknown or irrelevant, passive also has a role:

He was run over.

Or:

The song was sung.

So don’t abandon the passive voice entirely. It does have a stigma attached to it, but it is still a vlaid form of communication.

 

– Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

 

In Defence of Adverbs

Horror writer Stephen King would have us get rid of adverbs. He hates them. He considers them timid writing. And to some extent, he’s right. Of course, he’s sold a gazillion books and has the perfect right to tell other people how to write. I’m not denying that. But I’m not sure he is totally correct on this score. You can’t eschew all adverbs in your writing.

So, for those who aren’t quite sure what an adverb is, let me explain.

An adverb is a category of word that modifies verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Many adverbs in English end in -ly. Many don’t. For example, adverbs ending in -ly include:

quickly, firmly, silently, appropriately, suddenly, sadly, wearily, etc.

Adverbs that don’t end in -ly are sneakier. They creep into our writing when we don’t even know they are adverbs.

afterward, already, almost, even, often , more, near, too, etc. Even malapropos.

If we follow Stephen King’s advice, we must dispense with the sneaky adverbs as well as the -ly ones. But looking at a list of sneaky ones, that would be difficult. They are just so damned useful.

The problem is exacerbated when you consider that adverbs aren’t always just one word. There are adverbial phrases and clauses, groups of words that together do the work of an adverb. For example, in the sentence, He ran as if his life depended on it, everything in bold is an adverbial phrase, telling the reader how he ran. And not a -ly to be seen anywhere,

Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché as well, and should probably be avoided for that reason anyway. But it’s just an example.

So what do we do? Can we never use an adverb? Well, my opinion is we shouldn’t use them too much, but we shouldn’t avoid them altogether (altogether is an adverb). Stephen King declared the road to hell is paved with adverbs. Good for him.

Too much of anything is bad for you. Too much water, too much oxygen, too much red meat, too much running, too much work. Even too much Penfolds Grange 1956, although that last one is hard to believe. The point is, using adverbs without being judicious about it (that’s an adverbial clause by the way) does constitute what King refers to as fearful writing. A writer who fears, he claims, uses adverbs as a prop for their writing.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t use them at all.

It all goes back to “show, don’t tell”. Your writing should show how something is done, without you having to tell us. Adding an adverb to tell us how someone says something, for instance, is a lazy way of doing it.

“Don’t you dare!” she shouted angrily. In this sentence, the word angrily tells us how she shouted. It’s a classic use of an adverb. But the context of the sentence should show us the speaker is angry without having her anger pointed out to us.

This is a fair enough criticism. But like all rules, there are exceptions. The judicious use of adverbs where they add something to the sentence should not, in my opinion, be avoided. Adverbs are words. There are lots of them, and they deserve a place in writing.

For example, take my own sentence above: Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché as well, and should probably be avoided for that reason anyway. Now, this contains an adverb: probably. Its job is to modify the compound verb should be avoided to show the degree of advisability of avoiding the use of a cliché. In that sense, it creates modality. If I was to avoid the use of the word, what are my options?

I could delete it altogether. The sentence then becomes Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché as well, and should be avoided for that reason anyway. But that allows no modality; my advice becomes a command to avoid the cliché and allows no exceptions. Probably (damn – there is it again!) a bit strong. I could use other modal words, or a modal phrase. The trouble is, modal words are adverbs and adverbial phrases. That’s what modality is.

Alternatively (another adverb! Heavens!) I could give a reason why it’s best to avoid clichés: Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché, and should be avoided for that reason anyway, since clichés are also an example of lazy writing. The trouble is, this still allows for no modality.

Adverbs have purpose. They are useful. They have a job to do. So avoiding them totally is not correct advice.

Don’t overuse them. Avoid them when modifying dialogue (but not always – even here they are useful). But feel free to plant a well-chosen, effective adverb within your writing when the need arises.

The Thot Plickens

Some writers plot. Some don’t. I sort of do it. I don’t sit down and carefully write out everything that’s going to happen in my books. If I did, I would no longer be interested in writing them. I sort of have an outline, or at least a vague idea of what I think might happen, and go from there.

After that, I start writing along the lines of what I had in mind for that chapter, and make it up as I go. I discover new things as I write, develop new ideas for the characters, and sometimes things go in a very different way to what I had intended.

Take today for instance. I was writing a scene in my new book (I hate the word ‘Chapter’. I don’t regard the divisions within my books as chapters, although they are, mostly. I call them scenes. My background as an actor coming back to haunt me, I guess). Anyway, I was writing a scene and half way through I had an idea that changed the direction of the entire book. That’s ok. I think the new direction is a superior one. The scene didn’t end at all the way I had planned. But that’s writing.

Such irresponsible activity usually means that I have to reconsider other chapters, particularly what has gone before, and re-write them to conform to the new stuff.

Occasionally, I do plot something out in detail. Below are some notes I made for several scenes in my novel ‘An Unkindness of Ravens’ which detailed two sets of characters doing two things separately from each other. Most of the ideas on these pages ended up being scrapped anyway. But this level of detail in my pre-planning is rare.

20140829_101236_0

Usually it’s more general ideas, most of which I won’t use eventually. This makes my writing more dynamic, and to me more interesting.

Some writing teachers abhor plotting. Some encourage it. One, namely James Scott Bell, suggests you try a combination of both, or neither. It’s up to the writer. I am kind of the school that goes with, ‘Well, if I know what’s going to happen, I don’t feel inclined to write it anymore.’ On the other hand, ‘winging it’ from start to finish has a lot of dangers, too. The only writer I knew who could wing it entirely and get away with it was Roger Zelazny, who is one of my influences and one of the best dialogue writers I ever had the pleasure of reading.

I guess writers do whatever it takes to produce the goods. I start and stop, do research when I discover I need to, write the ending sometimes very early on so I know where I’m going, think up characters and then try to justify why they are in the story, realise they aren’t, get rid of them and bring them back later when some justification for their existence comes to mind.

Writing is dynamic, and pre-plotting sometimes gets in the way of a good tale. So I do a bit of both. I think it works.

Russell Proctor, http://www.russellproctor.com