Canned Wisdom #8

Good morning, it’s Monday once more. Time for some questionable writing advice:

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For last week’s Canned Wisdom, click here.

A story, or a book, is a promise. The book promises to tell an entertaining story, and the reader promises to stick with it until the end.

If the book breaks its promise, the reader is okay to do the same. If the book isn’t what it promised to be, why continue reading it – and why read anything else by the writer? Time is, by and far, the most valuable thing we have, so why give it to an inanimate object, like a book, that doesn’t keep its promises? (thanks for reading btw).

However, a book, in and of itself, can’t make any promises of its own.

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A mysterious morning fog. What promise does that make?

The promises are understood by the reader based on their impression of the book. The cover image, the title, the blurb on the back, and whatever they see inside when they open it up for a look. In other words, you as the writer are responsible for making the book give the right kind of promise.

Pick a cover image that gives the right impression. Write a blurb that’s relevant to the story.

Write a story that lives up to the expectations it creates.

The promises don’t stop outside the book, but keep being made within. Whatever happens throughout the story sets an expectation in the reader’s mind for something that will happen later. It’s a promise of what’s to come.

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The promise of a rising sun and a beautiful day to come. If it rains the morning breaks its promise.

Did I go on about this last week too?

Yes, I’m pretty sure I did, but I’m doing it again, because I think this is important. If you make someone a promise you have to keep it – even if it’s to a person you’ve never met and who only knows you from picking up your book.

So how do you know what kind of promise you make to the reader?

Simple answer: you don’t know.

You’ll just have to guess. You have to figure it out yourself based on the story you’re writing. With some parts of it it’s easy, and with other parts it’s not.  This is one of the reason it’s a good idea to ask someone else to test read your stories and give you feedback before you release them into the wild.

Since you already know what’s going to happen, it’ll be hard for you to expect anything else.

 

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Canned Wisdom #8

Canned Wisdom #7

Monday again. Time for another little commentary on writing:

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For last week’s Canned Wisdom, click here.

This is about expectations and about how they affect our impressions.

The picture above is of a cup of coffee. Except, it’s in a mug made of glass, and there’s a candle behind the mug, so the light plays around in the shapes in the bottom of the mug.

It’s a black coffee, because there’s no milk and no sugar in it. But it’s also not super strong, so the light from the candle comes through on the sides and tints the coffee red. It could also be the coffee isn’t actually black, but really a very dark red.

2018-03-18 17.53.41When you read the phrase a cup of black coffee, you probably won’t picture anything like what you see in the image above. Right? You already have an expectation of what a cup of black coffee looks like.

Black coffee comes in white porcelain cups, and it’s proper black – perhaps with a few bubbles from the pour on top. Put the term into a google image search. You know what you’ll see – or, well, you won’t be surprised at least.

What does this mean for us as writers?

I get two things.

The first is that readers already know what a lot of things look like, so there’s no need to describe them. It’s enough just to mention what they are.

Time for examples. Picture the following:

  • A woman hurrying to work on Monday morning with a cup of coffee in her hand.
  • A woman looking out her window on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee in her hand.
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A rubbish bin with two umbrellas sticking out of it. That’s also a story.

The two sentences are quite similar, but they paint very different pictures. There’s no information at all about what the woman looks like, and nothing at all about her cup of coffee, or how she’s dressed, but still we get an image.

Sure, the image might be vague and indistinct, but there’s something there, and there’s a vibe to it too.

We all have expectations of what things look like, and if you play to that, you can use it to great effect in your writing.

The second thing I’m getting is that things aren’t always what they seem. We all know that coffee is black, and we all know that snow is white and the sky is blue and the good guys always win in the end – right?

Except maybe that’s not always how it is. Sometimes black coffee is red, and sometimes white snow is blue, and sometimes the sky is all kinds of weird colours when the sun is setting and the clouds are on fire.

As for the good guys, well, life’s tough sometimes.

Keep this in mind when you’re creating your stories. Your readers will have expectations, and you can choose to live up to them, or to try and circumvent them. Either is fine, just try and make sure to pay attention to what expectations you’re setting for your reader.

Canned Wisdom #7

Canned Wisdom #5

It’s Monday again, time for a little bit of writing advice:

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Last week’s Canned Wisdom to be found here.

This ties back to the first post in this series (here), and it’s about how our minds and our imaginations are really quick about creating our own impressions – even if all we have is incomplete data.

When reading a story, did it ever happen to you that the text described something in a way that didn’t match the image in your head? That’s what this is about.

If I picture something in my mind based on something I’m reading I will fill in any significant blanks in the description myself. It’s difficult for me to imagine a person with long hair without also imagining that the hair has a colour. It’s much easier to just assume the hair is blonde, or black, or red, purple, ginger, whatever. You’ll have no idea what kind of colour I imagined the hair was.

Later on, the text reveals that the long flowing hair is not only brown, but also woven through with a garland of flowers.

That doesn’t match my impression at all. It contradicts my experience of the story, and I will have to either revise my internal image or ignore that part of the description. Both options are bad.

When writing, keep track of what information you have included in your description and what you’ve left out. Do not go back and fill in the missing details later as chances are you’ll contradict what your reader has imagined.

There are ways to get around this and to add more details later, but that’s a topic for another day.

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Canned Wisdom #5

Canned Wisdom #4

It’s Monday morning again. It’s time for another piece of Canned Wisdom:

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Last week’s Canned Wisdom can be found here.

This it about inspiration. As writers/artists/people we’re often dependent on the right kind of motivation in order to get started with doing something. If we’re not motivated or inspired it’s easy to just mope around and waste away the time.

At the same time there’s all kinds of advice about doing what feels right and about how we should follow our hearts. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but it may not be very productive. Inspiration can sometimes be hard to come by, and if we wait until we feel inspired it could potentially take forever to finish writing that book.

Fortunately, inspiration is an internal force. It comes from within us and we create it ourselves. Sure, something we hear or see or do can be inspiring, but the enthusiasm and energy that comes from inspiration is something we generate ourselves.

I often tell myself that if I just sit down and start writing, inspiration will show up on its own. It’s difficult, and I don’t always listen to myself, but I know it’s true. It may take some time, but in my experience it almost always happen.

The only times it hasn’t worked is when I’ve been in a really bad spot emotionally and I’ve had too many other things to worry about.

Otherwise, if you just sit down and go at it, the muse will eventually grow curious and show up to see what you’re doing. She may even be a little bit jealous and burst out some extra ideas just to show you she’s still got it and you still need her – or him, if that’s how you roll.

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Canned Wisdom #4

First Week Nearly Done

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View from my writing spot at home.

Today it’s one week since I last went to work. The first of my 12-week sabbatical is nearly over, but it feels like a lot less. I’ve done a decent bit of writing, but not as much as I could have.

Technically, I’m ahead of my initial target and I expect to finish the first draft of my first story within the next three days – probably tomorrow. Most likely my targets were overly generous and will need to be adjusted. Then again, I need to factor in editing and writing the second draft and so on.

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LED string in an old cognac bottle.

In the past I’ve usually been fairly happy with how my first drafts have turned out. I’ve taken my time on them and polished the text while writing it. I’ve tried to cut back on that this time in order to get on with the story instead. I believe this is the way to go, as it gives me a better idea of what the story really needs, but boy does this first draft suck.

“The first draft of anything is garbage” is a saying attributed to Hemingway. I’ve decided to embrace that fully and not worry that my story is a bit rubbish at the moment. There’s a good story hiding underneath all the crap and I’m pretty sure I can bring that out in one or two rewrites.

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I sometimes go up to the Lough Park nearby to write.

I’d like to finish the first draft before I get on with the rewriting though. That way I’ll have a better grasp of the story in its entirety and I’ll know better what to add and change and remove.

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“Mobile office”

I’ve also decided to let the story sit for a bit when I’m done with the first draft. Instead of going straight back into editing I’ll begin on the second story instead and once that’s done I’ll go back and edit the first one. Then I’ll write the third, edit the second, and so on. Hopefully it’ll give me some time to detach from the stories so it won’t be too difficult cutting things out.

First Week Nearly Done