Structure: The likely source of your problem

Ever start writing a new scene or paragraph and you get the feeling it’s just not working? Maybe you’re just not in the zone, or you’re hungry. You take a walk, make a sandwich, get some coffee, tell the dog to get off the kitchen counter… anything to get your creative juices flowing.

But before you do all that, take a look at what you wrote just before you started having problems. More than likely, there’s some structural issue there that’s messing you up.

On the smaller scale, this can be as simple as an out of place word. Maybe you’re writing a memoir piece and by the third paragraph, you start to sound like you’re looking down on the wastrels of the world, smoking a pipe in your overstuffed armchair by the fire. Look back to the first paragraph, and you notice you used the phrase “vigorous moments of exercise helped my mood tremendously.” Right there, you’ve set yourself up to echo the sound of that phrase later on.

If you’re trying to go for a lofty voice, then this example might not work for you; I took it from a memoir on of my classmates wrote. But let’s say you’re working on a novel, writing a scene where everything is business as usual until someone comes in, saying they have a problem.

Instead of writing it out, you think an easy fix is to have someone say, “Let’s talk about it.” Out of earshot for your POV character, of course. Then you don’t have to think too hard about the dialogue or setting up all the little details of the situation and can get right to having your characters solve the problem! Action, right?

Except you get to the “exciting” part and there’s no tension. Why? Because you skipped the setup. Instead of giving writers a scene in which someone is panicking and talking about a problem with some really big consequences, you took a shortcut. This amounts to, “Yeah, let’s go do the thing because bad stuff happens if we don’t.” And who wants to read that?

So you go back, find that spot where the structure’s faulty, and write that scene out as you should. Fix the transitions to that scene you were struggling with later on, and suddenly the excitement’s there!

For those of you who wag your finger at those of us who edit as we write, you can absolutely try plowing your way to the end, then come back and find all your structural issues. I took that approach when editing the first draft of a sci-fi novel I’ve been working on. After addressing the problems in the first few chapters, I had to completely rewrite everything else. Once the first part worked, the rest just didn’t make sense.

Doing this kind of editing as you write might delay you in moving forward, but it will make sure you go in the right direction.

Recommended Reads: The Spinning Heart

I don’t typically read literary fiction unless a class requires it. The stakes never seem high enough, the characters don’t interest me, and I get to the end of each page wondering why I should go on to the next.

You’d think I’d be just as unfazed by The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan–I don’t know anything about contemporary Ireland, or the financial collapse of the country. I’m also not familiar with Irish vernacular. How could I possibly read this book?

Each chapter puts us into the mind of a different character, slowly widening our view of how each person contributed to each other’s misery. A mother loves one child more than the other; that child grows into the most detestable boss; that boss hires the man everyone wishes they were; it never ends. And that’s what sets it apart from others in the genre. It reads more like a thriller.

Plenty of characters think about killing those who have sleighted them, and their violent daydreams are chilling. One moment Trevor talks about painting a woman’s window sills, the next he’s envisioning plunging his screwdriver into her eye. And then he wants the public to believe his mother is a witch so they won’t arrest him for murdering her.

Each chapter is full of wonderful things like that–things you might consider too exciting to exist in literary fiction. Maybe this book is too exciting for the genre. Or maybe I just haven’t read much literary fiction that I’ve enjoyed. Whatever the case may be, this book is well worth the read. It’s also the first book to bear my official stamp of approval!

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The Truth Can Speak For Itself – Guest post by Dave Higgins

One of the biggest fears we face, especially when we first share our work, is that our audience (family, friends, readers, co-workers) will find fault with, or even ignore, our work. While this strikes writers of all types, both fiction and non-fiction, it is often opinion pieces that bring the greatest fear. We have read articles by others which speak with a voice of authority, but cannot think how to mirror this air of self-evident correctness. But this striving after rules to seem right can be a dead end; while rhetoric can be learned, and evidence better analysed, a casual voice of authority is neither a conscious thing, nor the product of certainty.

Knowing That We Know

To understand confidence, we must consider how people learn. One basic model is the consciousness/competence scale:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: we do not know that we do not know how to do something.
  2. Conscious Incompetence: we know we do not know how to do it.
  3. Conscious Competence: we know how to do it and, over time, follow the steps in our mind more and more quickly.
  4. Unconscious Competence: we do it without consciously following the steps in our mind.

We do not expect to write with confidence about topics about which we are incompetent, so for our purposes we will only consider the last two sections.

The key division is between being able to do it, and being able to do it without thinking: in the context of a skill, we are slow, with pauses to consider and tentative movements; in the context of speaking with authority our mental process is slightly different, but the results are the same. Depending on whether or not we have to take ourselves through our points checking for correctness, our expression is either tentative or fluid, stilted or authoritative.

By moving beyond knowing our opinion is worth expressing, beyond even feeling our opinion is worth expressing, into not even consciously considering our opinion might not be valid, we allow the validity of our points to speak for themselves.

Knowing That We Do Not Know

Ironically, internalising the belief we are entitled to speak on a topic and be heard, is the first step in expressing our belief we do not know enough about the subject to speak without possibility of error or contradiction.

We can confidently admit doubts, safe in the knowledge our accuracy in other areas is not challenged by the admission.

This revelation of uncertainty where it really exists can even increase your authority. Consider scientists and politicians: which are more likely to say they are absolutely and totally certain about what they say? Which do you trust more?

Speaking in Voices

Just as we learn to drive a car or tie a bow-tie by doing it until we no longer need the steps, there is no single path to having a voice of authority. We must practice writing in the knowledge we have the right to be heard until we stop thinking about it.

However, there are ways of finding a voice within our work. Take a piece of writing and find the shortest truth in each sentence. For example, “The sky out of my window looks blue at the moment, but it could change later” is accurate, but so is “The sky is blue.”

The example is (deliberately) obvious, but might not always be as far from our style as we wish. Ignoring the slightly odd writing this trimming will no doubt produce, consider whether the edited writing feels more authoritative.

Once we have found the unconscious statements of uncertainty, we can focus on replacing them with the doubt that is appropriate for the specific work. Continuing the example of the sky, unless we are giving a detailed weather forecast, we do not need to focus on the possibility of change later.

Silencing Doubts

A voice of authority is exactly that, one method of expressing something the speaker knows or believes. It is not a trick, or a set of steps that must be followed, but an extension of our unconscious acceptance that we speak with authority when we give our name, age, address, and many other things already.

So the truth really can speak for itself, if we let it.

Do you feel authority must be free of doubt, or do you trust open expression of doubt? Do you feel more caveats and exceptional cases always add trustworthiness, or look for solid opinion?


Dave Higgins Thumbnail

Dave Higgins has worked in law and IT for both public and private sector organisations. When not pursuing these hobbies, he writes poetry and speculative fiction.

He was born in Wiltshire, England. Raised by a librarian, he started reading shortly after birth and has not stopped since. He currently lives in Bristol with his wife, Nicola, his cats, Jasper and Una, and many shelves of books.

He is the publisher of Fauxpocalypse (published December 2013) and blogs on writing, practical philosophy, and the absurdities of life at Davetopia.


Review: Petra K and the Blackhearts

The description of this book certainly mentions the complexity of the plot, but it does nothing to warn readers of the painfully disjointed way in which it is presented. Between a perfume turning Petra K’s classmates into ravenous lizard people, pet-sized dragons becoming outlawed, and the tension of a brewing revolution, it was difficult to tell where the plot was going.

Petra K and a number of the other characters are ten years old (or thereabouts), but they act more like adolescents going through a rebellious stage. And each one of those characters felt so inconsistent and undefined that it seems like the author gave up on any kind of characterization.

Unfortunately, this also applies to the various cultures present in the story. The Half Nots, the Newts, and the Kubikula all offered opportunities for this world to be as diverse as the real one. However, they are limited by superficial generalizations or a complete lack of description to make them distinguishable. The Half Nots like gambling, have wings concealed in their shirts, and tend to be psychic. The Newts remain a mystery, and the Kubikula are scaly hunchbacked people confined to the sewers.

The entire first half of the novel was written so dryly it diffused whatever tension the author constructed. The underground dragonka tournaments would have been a wonderful source of excitement, but Petra K (our first person narrator) was so detached from her experiences. She seemed to coincidentally stumble from one plot point to the next, unfazed by most of it, until she ended up in a place she feels she belongs.

The Communist elements where thick enough to choke on, making the fantastical elements seem like a last-minute addition to save it from sounding contrived. While the dragonka and their place in society was intriguing, they were not enough to make this book worth reading.

Recommended Reads: Blood in the Past

Here is a book I’ve been dying to see released for the past few months. Author Jordanna East delayed the original spring release, but it was worth the wait. (For those of you interested in getting your hands on this book, it’s available on Amazon for the Kindle.) And this novella is just a prelude to the main event, Blood in the Paint.

As a fan of murder mysteries, Blood in the Past completely satisfies my taste for the macabre. It’s also a refreshing break from the usual stories that follow those investigating the murders. For the first time, we’re rooting for the killers—and there’s more than one. It’s deliciously dark and twisted, and you can’t help but enjoy every aspect of it.

It was really fascinating to start out with characters so normal they could almost be someone I know, then watch their realistic spiral into obsessive and murderous behavior. It’s a different kind of adventure, one I definitely recommend everyone take the time to read. As Ms. East’s first book, I look forward to reading what she comes out with next.

Review: The Little Clockwork Mermaid

Lovely cover art, by the way.

If you didn’t already know, I’m a fan of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences books by Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris. I found her novella via the author’s Facebook page when she released a promotional code to download the book for free (it’s normally available on Smashwords for $1.99).

Apart from the occasional typo, this was a wonderful read. Inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen story, many elements are familiar to readers. However, that does not mean you won’t be surprised.

This was a really fascinating and wonderfully different mermaid story. The war with the humans and the underwater machinery led me to believe the story would end on a much darker note, but I was pleasantly surprised.

I absolutely loved Lorelei’s character; her thoughts and actions were easier to relate to than the original story by Hans Christian Anderson. My only complaint is I wish there were more about Lorelei’s mother and how Lorelei’s final form was received by the humans.

I’d definitely recommend this novella to anyone who enjoys fantasy, classic tales with a new twist, or anyone who wants a pleasant surprise while reading.

© Amanda Surowitz and Switzy Thoughts, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Amanda Surowitz and Switzy Thoughts with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Best and Worst of Critique Comments #4

The final verbal critique of the quarter. The 500 word short story I wrote for class was one I’m very proud of. I spent a few weeks on it and even volunteered to read first two days before we had to sign up for days to read. Saying I was excited is a bit of an understatement.

The story is set in Ireland sometime in the 1300’s. Colin is an arrogant man who repeatedly beats his wife and suffers from a leg injury he treated himself. After the wound gets infected, the wife sends for a doctor and Colin succumbs to a fever. When he wakes up, he discovers his wife has left him and the doctor amputated his leg.

This is probably my favorite short story that I’ve written. For those interested, you will be able to read a copy in the near future. In the meantime, here is what my classmates said:

“I enjoyed it. My only concern is the word ‘healer.’ This story seems to take place in the past, but not so long ago that the word ‘doctor’ did not exist.”

“Love the characters. Very gruesome little surprise for Colin.”

“I enjoy the sense of irony throughout the story and dark (…almost comic) end that it had.”

“I enjoyed the second part of the story the best… I feel that the selection is very strong and is the perfect glue to hold the 1st and 3rd parts together.”

“I love the middle part; the image of him struggling alone in the dark is very cinematic & creepy. Big impact.”

“Only the wife’s character seems a little inconsistent–first we see her as a complacent beaten wife, then a little fiery/sarcastic with ‘big lout,’ then she cares for him (calls the doctor), but then she leaves–a bundle of contradictions.”

“Perhaps if you had read it a bit louder and with more inflection (it was quite monotone) there would be more tension or emotion. Great story though! When I went back and read it a second time I found all the components I felt were lost in translation from your reading.”

“Nice! Seems to have all the major needed elements. I enjoy the idea & for only 500 words it does the job. No real suggestions/corrections on my behalf. Extremely nice!”

“F*** yeah! Water of life, yo!” (Written over the word “whiskey.”)

“Great ending! Your flicks are superb, especially for people who like historical fiction. TAKE RABB’S CLASS! It’ll forever change your writing style.”

“Bummer, he lost his leg! But I s’pose he deserved it.”

“The wife’s got her chance to escape. Though the story is interesting as is, I’m left wondering of her fate–maybe that’s what you wanted!”

“Why did it take so long for his wife to leave? He’s obviously a drunk, couldn’t she have snuck out sooner?”

“I wasn’t surprised when she left because she didn’t seem scared of him, and I didn’t feel bad for him because he hit her. So I wish there was something that added drama. That aside though, this is really well written. It has good pace and is well put together.”

“Awkward opening sentence.”

“‘Ass’ would be a stronger word.”

“If this is what caused the wound, make it seem a little more like a hackjob. Like, a little more detail on how it festered.”

“Nice premise from start to finish. Very ‘olden’ days style but it could work. I like it. Make it a little more clear she only stays because he supports her.”

“Awkward sentence/gesture.”

“AAND I love the inclusion of the ‘putting him out of work’ comment in the third paragraph. PERFECT way to just slide that information subtly. Nice job! Overall, great job! But you already knew that. :) If there’s one thing I’m gonna miss from Fiction, it’d be reading your pieces.”

“Post discussion: Since when does location matter? That’s not the point of the story, man. Why are people SO nitpicky about silly things. :(“

“Can I ask the writer where exactly his leg was cut off at?” (Actually a question presented during verbal critique. I told her I would get back to her with an answer once I was certified to amputate legs.)

“I don’t totally understand how he got the injury or what exactly kind of injury it is besides something with his knee so maybe clarify that a bit more. Also, I’m not sure about using the word ‘healer’ instead of just ‘doctor.’ Healer makes me think of magic & spells, but this guy just amputated the leg. It doesn’t seem like he really does anything like a healer would.”

“I like this a lot. Your style of writing shows us the characters without dialogue or a real physical description which is great. I would like to know if the wife really did leave him or just couldn’t be there for the removal of the leg.”

“I love that you wrote this from the abusive husband’s point of view. Usually it is from the wife’s perspective.”

“You should try to read with a bit more emotion. I think that it would enhance your style. This is great writing but more emotion when read would show that off more.”

“It’s tough to get a story arc in just 500 words, but you did it well and so cleanly. (is that a pun? I’m not sure.) I wonder if Colin’s wife left him for good. I’d think so, but the ambiguity there is oh-so-good.”

“The story was interesting because it was about the tense feel of the situation rather than two people trying to connect. Actions instead of dialogue was a good idea. His leg was amputated right?”

“I really enjoyed your story. It was bright and happy and filled with joy and butterfly farts. I wanted to rub this story down with vasoline and call it my sugardaddy.”

The last comment is definitely one I’ll remember. I kind of wish there had been more outlandish or negative comments to amuse you with, but it seems my class is of the opinion the story is good. Also, my reading voice could use some work.