I got asked yesterday who I wanted to "be like" as a writer. A non-introspective person might answer that they don't want to be like anyone; that they think their writing is unique among the billions of words written by tens of thousands of writers and authors plying their trade in the world today, let alone the countless writers who have gone before them.
I'm a little more open minded in my approach, and seriously consider who my influences are. However, I can't put my finger on the name of a particular author that I would like to use as a template for myself as a writer. Perhaps therein lies one of my failings. Perhaps I need to pick an author and study their work more closely than others to find patterns I like, turns of phrase, stylistic cues... Perhaps I need to establish a style and refine it.
Luckily for me, I'm a long way from needing to be so declarative. I'm slowly plugging away at writing a novel, and I'm getting good feedback on ways to improve it from some people who know the craft; people I respect, and who have influenced me with their writing. I'll slog away at the framework of my personal Monster in a Box, then go back and refine it based on what I learned along the way. With luck, it will be readable. With great luck, it will be salable. For now, I am pleased with the idea of finishing it in a form that I'm proud of. After all, we need to set our goals as things we can achieve.
I've mentioned before that I have the great luck to count noted science fiction writer Steve Perry (not to be confused with either of the rock stars of the same name) among my friends. When I mentioned that I was at a waypoint with writing my novel, he offered to read it and provide feedback. Resisting the urge to squee, and somewhat fearing what he might say, I sent along a copy and today he provided me this [reprinted with his permission, transliterated from FB Messenger]:
Bear in mind, this is my opinion, which, with a dime, will get you ten pennies, if somebody wants to bother to make change …
The story is there, and so far, it’s fine, insofar as how you address the unexpected time-travel. Set-up is good, I like your characters, the potential is laid-in.
The problems I see with it, as it stands, go mostly to pacing, and that you are telling instead of showing, with language that is more passive than active.
There’s a .jpg attached. The story connected to it comes from Harlan Ellison. He got a job working as a staff writer for a TV series. The guy in the cubical next to his was an old pro, so at one point, Harlan stepped over and asked him to take a look at the draft he had, to see if it would play.
The old pro flipped through the first couple pages in about three seconds, said, “It won’t play.”
Ellison was taken aback. How can you say that? You couldn’t have read any of it!
So the guy took a pencil and drew lines on a page. (If you can see the image, the top section was Harlan’s script. “This is what you did,” he said.
He drew a second set of lines under the first. “And this is what you should have done.”)
Harlan saw it immediately. What The Old Pro meant was, the pacing of Harlan’s script was wrong, too slow, and too even. In order for the script to move, it needed to be broken up, sans long shot-descriptions and dialog, and of different lengths.
The ms you did is like the top diagram. It is homogenized, long paragraphs, about the same number per page, with the chapters all being close to equal in length. You don’t want a stately ride in a horse-draw carriage, you want a roller coaster. Slow rise, fast drop, uneven rises and falls to a final drop at the end.
Generally — generally — in a book of eighty to a hundred thousand words? Any scene that lasts more than four pages is probably too long. Paragraphs should be long, short, medium, mixed up, and chapters likewise. Twelve pages here, six there, nine, fourteen, two. You want the reader to get engaged and move along, not knowing what will happen next.
So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is that much of the action takes place offstage, and you TELL us about it rather than SHOW it.
You tell us there was a bar fight. Ho, hum.
Show it to us. Make us hear, smell, taste, feel the action.
Any time you can get specific and detailed with sensory stuff? Consider it. If you only use your eyes, the picture is flat. Work a couple senses into any scene. You don’t have to use them all, but one isn’t enough for long.
Several times, you say something like: They ate, it tasted good.
What tasted good? Geez, you are a chef [I'm not]! What is on the menu?
Tell: “Hungry from a long day at sea, they happily consumed what Lagorio’s cook provided as the two couples visited in the parlor and caught up on their respective adventures in the few weeks since Celeste and Agata had exchanged letters.” (And this is a fat sentence, by the way, too much stuffed into it.)
Show: “Marco’s empty belly growled. Logorio’s cook brought them fresh, still-warm brown bread, yeasty, with a chewy crust, and a ball of hard, salty, goat cheese, sharp, but much better than it smelled.
“The red table wine was young, simple, but good enough to wash down the meal.”
Specifics play. “They happily consumed?”
No. Spices? No pepper, so how do they season food? What does it taste like?
There is a lot of this, and if you want your story to grab people, better that you address it.
They made love and it was great. Really? How? You don’t have to get pornographic, but this is a chance to show them laughing, having fun, getting excited, flesh-on-flesh. Are they worried about pregnancy?
They sailed. They slept. They walked. You tell us these things, but I want to see the choppy water, smell the salt and seaweed, feel the sun burning my nose, the blisters on my hands from the lines, on my feet from walking. What does the boat look like? How rocky is the path? What is the bed made from? Are there lice in it? Fleas? Bedbugs?
Does the rain wash out the roads? Is the drinking water clean? What diseases are rampant? What do people look like with bad teeth, pox scars, ill-mended bones?
What does the privy smell like? Upon what do they sit in said privy? What happen in this society during menstruation?
Religion? Got to be a big thing. If they aren’t spending time in church, tongues will wag.
Then, some of the construction needs attention. Trim the fat from sentences that don’t really give us anything.
Here you said:
“He stared at her for a few moments and nodded with understanding.”
Why not just:
Or the gerund form, which always needs to be used sparingly.
This sentence feels awkward:
“She looked at him questioningly.”
Why not something like:
“She raised her eyebrows.”
Or just a question mark when she asks about what she is wondering about. A lot of description can be done in short dialog to give the same information.
If you don’t already have a copy of Strunk & White’s book, The Elements of Style, get it. If you do, read it — I re-read my copy every couple of years. You want your prose to be muscular, and this little book goes a long way to telling you how to do that.
Finally, you have to be willing to write a lot of stuff that won’t shine to get to the point where you can offer bright prose. It’s time in grade, and it might take a book or three to get there. Doesn’t have to be a million words, but the more through your fingers, the better you can get.
He went on to provide some other advice, such as "the more you write, the better you get" (paraphrased), and to avoid trying to publish too early. He's also co-authoring a work that involves time travel, which, um, makes this bit of mine timely.
Anyway, I'm going to work to integrate some, if not all of this advice. I need to balance his advice with that of others and what I perceive as "good writing". I love a lot of Steve's work, but there's some that I've stopped reading after the first chapter or two because I was bored with the presentation. It's all down to taste.
The image he mentioned is below.
The calendar tells me it’s my birthday. Truth be told, I’d noticed it was coming, having read the calendar a few days ago, and still retaining enough of my wits to count. Truth be told, I’m probably closer to my death date than the date of my birth, though I’m from long-lived stock and new medical science keep suggesting that I may have more years ahead of me than expected. So which way the bubble tips is in question, though it’s a question I don’t spend a lot of time contemplating.
I plan to spend the day with my wife, doing things I want. So far, however, things aren’t exactly working out as the ringing of the telephone dashed any hopes for sleeping in. One cup of coffee and a lox bagel later, I’m headed toward full consciousness. We’ll see how the rest of the day goes.
When contemplating the word scent, I wonder which letter is silent.
Part One of my novel is is, for certain values of the word, finished. By this I mean that I've written all the scenes necessary to get from the beginning of the story to the end. From here, it will take several weeks' effort to troll through it and tighten up the sentences, fix issues, fluff up things that need it... you know, editing. I have it in the hands of one beta reader right now, and am open to hearing from others if they're interested in slogging through 48,637 words of my blather. I have it in Google Doc form, with comments enabled for reviewers.
Thank you to everyone who helped me with the parts you did, in particular @Hammer, @ChickenFreak, who invited me to join this forum in the first place (yeah, blame her!), @Harmonices, @The Piper, @GrahamLewis, @Iain Aschendale... oh, crap, this list is getting long. Well, all of you, thank you for your support.
I may post fragments of the story as beta readers call them out, asking for input on them, but I won't bore you with continuation of the serialization that I have been posting. Once I'm finished with this, it's on to Part Two, which I expect to be short, and Part Three, which I expect to be longer than Part One.
Wish me luck. Thank you all again.
Separate names with a comma.