Friday, 29 August 2008

Narrative Prose

I don't know what exactly is doing it, but my computer's becoming increasingly slow. It's probably something to do with my anti-virus software, or something in one of the Windows security patches, but my technical ability has been far outstripped by progress in computing (or is it regression as I'm sure all the new 'advances' are actually designed to make things worse than they were before).

Anyway, while I wait for my computer to do whatever it is that it's supposed to be doing, I tend to turn a book off one of the shelves behind me (I have three bookcases in the little room that I've turned into a writing room, nine shelves of which (and a bit of floor space) have been given over to my meager reference collection).

As I'm in the process of rewriting, I thought today that I'd pick up John Braine's Writing a Novel and flick through it in search of some words of wisdom. I used to read quite a few of the self-help writing books - less these days after I started realising that many of them were trying to teach me things that I know are wrong - or at least wrong for me.

The chapter I stopped at and grabbed a few sentences from has the same name as the title of this post - Narrative Prose. The first sentence reads:

My working-rule with narrative prose is the same as for dialogue: if it can't be read aloud, it's no good.

Since I've started working on the current draft of my novel (third if anyone cares to know), I've been proceeding by reading every line aloud. This serves two purposes. Firstly, it forces me to dwell on every single word, whereas if I read it silently (without moving my lips!), I'd probably be skipping over words and allowing my brain to fill in some of the gaps - which is absolutely pointless if you're trying to proofread.

Secondly, and in keeping with Braine's rule, it allows me to check the rhythm of the sentences. If I can't speak it out loud, then it's likely that I've twisted my prose into some torturous shape that will probably obfuscate the meaning - or at the very least cause readers to stumble while they try to make sense of what I've written.

For the record I don't check these posts after I've written them, so expect all sorts of gnarly word constructions.

I also believe that there's something pleasing in reading prose that falls into the patterns of speech. As Braine points out slightly further down the page, behind every story there's a person (he uses the term man, but I'm much more PC than him!) telling the story. A short story, novella or novel is the written analogue of the narrated story - certainly if we take it back to how written language developed. And sometimes it's good to get back to the roots of the situation and remind ourselves just why we do things a certain way.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Bad Dialogue

Here's a line I'm struggling with at the moment:

“I was. However I felt it would be a more efficient use of my time to turn it to our advantage in more than one way.”

Pretty awful, eh?

One of the problems with writing dialogue is that what works on the page doesn't necessarily work when read aloud. Not that I'm claiming the above example works well on the page either, but it's a problem with a lot of stuff that I've read. My first method of dealing with unwieldy dialogue is usually to reduce its word count - after all people don't follow the strict rules of grammar when talking and don't always use proper sentence structure, so paring back the dialogue can help make it sound more natural.

A particular issue I have with the above sentence is that the character speaking is non-human - a robot in fact - so there needs to be a degree of formality to the dialogue. However it doesn't read as formal - it reads as clunky. It's too long for a start - which is my next trick, cutting up the dialogue into several sentences.

Third solution I tend to fall back on quite a lot is cutting the sentence completely. Often when something reads wrong, I find it's superfluous to the story. However, if I ditch this one, I then have to rewrite, or excise, the following eight sentences, which seems like a bit much just because I'm struggling with finding a better way to rewrite that sentence.

Here's the quick and nasty rewrite version if I wasn't worrying about the formality of the sentence

“I was, but I thought I could could kill two birds with one stone.”

Not sure my robot is going to be using an idiom like that. So what I need is something that conveys the same concept with the same sort of brevity, but which uses plain English.

"I was, but I saw the opportunity to increase the benefit to us."

It's not going to win any prizes for great dialogue, but at least it reads faster, is a lot clearer and is not inconsistent with the voice of the character.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Editing Mood

Originally I'd intended this blog to be a place where I could stick a couple of short stories and point people at them, but as I haven't written anything new recently, I thought maybe I'd throw a few things down about what's going on with my writing. At least that way it might encourage me to work harder.

At present I'm just over halfway through rewriting a novel that I'm hoping to have published sometime in the next year. It has a potential home, although I'm not going into any details (or putting too much home in that) as there's every likelihood that something will go wrong - such as me not finishing my editing work!

I have to confess that I'm terrible at finishing anything - I have the desire to be a perfectionist, but not necessarily the drive. So I'll tinker with something for ages, but will often abandon it in an unfinished state because I don't feel up to the task of making it as good as I believe it can be. I'm bad enough when it comes to editing short stories; it's so much worse when I'm dealing with 100,000+ words.

What's made this even worse today is that the part of my novel that I've been revisiting is uncannily similar to something going on in my life at the moment. Which is particularly odd as I wrote that part of the story about six months ago. I'm not going into details as I've never believed in living my life for all on the Internet to read, but it makes it a bit harder to edit when I'm having to deal not only with making that section of the novel readable, but also with the emotions that it's stirring up.

The part of me that's always a writer says "Now if only I can get some of those feelings on the page."

The part of me that's not a writer wants to be able to walk away from it all and play Overlord on my Xbox.

At the moment, the call of the Xbox is winning.