Monday, January 30, 2012

Writing Advice: What Is Tone?

In last week's Writing Advice post, I began to point out that it is, in writing, just as important to pay attention to the words as the story. After all, words are what we're using to paint the picture - and we want to paint the clearest picture possible.

Tone, like sound, is an aspect of writing that can pull the reader out of the story if done poorly. It is on the same spectrum as sound, although at the opposite end. While sound deals mostly with sentence construction and repetition of words, tone has no such connection to technicalities (instead, it's more connected to writing as an art). Sound is objective, tone is subjective. Sound is about the perception of the reader, tone is about the intention of the writer.

Tone is the intention with which the narrator addresses the reader. In novels with third-person narrators, the tone is usually unnoticeable, because when the writer is the narrator, they only have one purpose: to tell the story. Little work on tone is needed. But when a character, rather than the writer, is the narrator, their task is not only to tell the story, but also the provide insight into their thoughts and opinions and nature.

For example, Killing Floor by Lee Child, narrated by tough-guy ex-military cop Jack Reacher, opens with this paragraph:
"I was arrested in Eno's diner. At twelve o'clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in the heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town."
This narration, with clipped and fragmented sentences, may seem more to do with sound than tone at a surface glance. But, in actual fact, it is a technique used to develop the tone. In this case, we immediately learn that Jack Reacher does not waste words. He says what he has to - nothing more. This one insight into his character, right from the start.

A second insight from the tone comes from not how Reacher narrates (unlike the first), but what he narrates.   He tells us that he was arrested on sentence one. Then, while the natural thing to do would but explain how he got arrested, instead Reacher tells us what he was eating, when, and makes sure we know that it was a late breakfast, rather than lunch. It's as if the arrest wasn't even important - like it's just one of the things that happen every day. No big deal. No for Jack Reacher, anyway.

This is a great use of tone, because it provides insight. But sometimes, tone can get in the way of the story. An example from The Hunger Games (don't get me wrong - I love this book), that I find very borderline in this context is:
"The girl with the arrows, Glimmer I hear someone call her - ugh, the names the people in District 1 give their children are so ridiculous - anyway, Glimmer scales the tree until the branches begin to crack under her feet and then has the good sense to stop."
While this expresses Katniss's opinion (and opinionate nature) I felt that this sentence stopped the story dead for a few moments. At that point in time, I didn't want to hear Katniss's view on Glimmer's name, I just wanted her to tell me what happened next.

And there you go. That's tone. It gives insight into the mind of a character simply through the way they narrate the story (and sometimes what they narrate), but sometimes it detracts from the story. So, as the writer, it's your job to work out when to tone it up, and when to tone it down.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Awards and New Followers!

Wow, so much has been happening! Over the last couple of weeks Writing Fire's gained a lot of new followers. Plus, Lara Schiffbauer gave me the The Versatile Blogger Award and the Kreativ Blogger Award. And then just this morning, the crew at Route 19 Writers gave me the Liebster Award, which is secretly one I've always wanted.

To accept these awards, I have to hand them on to a certain number of people. The Liebster Award is for those with blogs with under 200 followers (yeah, I just scraped through!), that I think should have more. I also have to write five things about myself for that one. The others are self-explanatory.

So, my five things:

  • I'm about to buy the scripts to the original Star Wars trilogy so that I can sit down to the movies with them and analyse the storytelling. I know, I'm that cool.
  • I recently discovered the Go Teen Writers community. If you're a teen writer, then I definitely recommend becoming a part of it - this bunch of people are awesome!
  • My friends keep telling about this weird place called Owtside. Outside, maybe? I don't know how you spell it. Sounds kind of strange to me.
  • I used to be indecisive, but now I'm not so sure.
  • I estimated the other day that I have well over 30,000 words of plotting and backstory written out long-hand in my notebooks. Yeah.
As a bit of a challenge, I thought I'd give these awards to a select group of only my latest followers. So here goes!

I'd like to award the Liebster Award to:

Rachelle Rea
Len Lambert
McKenzie McCann

The Kreative Blogger Award and The Versatile Blogger Award go to:

Lydia Kang
PK Hrezo
Nick Wilford
Kamille Elahi
Brenda Sills
Sarah Elizabeth

And here are my other newest followers (if your blog isn't linked, then I couldn't find it):

Dave Amaditz
Erica Vetsch
Dianne Gardner
Medeia Sharif
Lola Sharp
Diane Fordham
JM Cooper
Roland D. Yeomans
Kelly Valentine
Meg Dunley
Mohamed Mughal
Sarah Faulkner

Go check out these blogs!

And also, I should mention as a bit of a sidenote: if you are a fan of awesomeness (which I know you are), then you should definitely check Writing Fire on Thursday. Something exciting is coming. And there will be free stuff.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Writing Advice: Finding Peace in the Darkness

Have you ever had a really peaceful experience? A time when, somewhere deep inside your heart and mind, you simply feel good or unafraid; and somehow you know, or at least hope, that the universe is unfolding exactly as it should? I know I've been there.

Peace can come in two different packages. First is peace because of the circumstances. This is when the sun is shining, everything is perfect, and you reflect on life with a smile on your face and the most gratitude you've ever felt. But second, second is peace in spite of the circumstances. This is when nothing is going right, you're at rock-bottom in the midst of darkness; bleeding, hurting, dying - but even so, you still hear that little voice that says, "Don't give up. Things will turn out. There's hope yet."

In this way, if we choose to, we can feel peace in the darkness. And so can our characters.

In Inheritance by Christopher Paolini, there's a fantastic scene in which Eragon realises that the world is round. He has the weight of the world on his shoulders and fate of it in his hands, and he has just flown out of a terrible storm on the back of his dragon. But despite this, when he notices the curvature of the horizon (something he has never seen before), he's wonderstuck. And he forgets all of his worries for a moment and finds peace, in awe of the world's roundness.

Or what about the scene in The Return of the King when Sam and Frodo are on the slopes of Mount Doom? Who could forget it? The pair are famished and parched, frightened and lost, and surrounded by blackness and an inhospitable landscape. They're cold and dying. But in such despair, and after all the horrors they've been through, the recall to each other life as it blissfully was back in the Shire - and not only find peace, but also the hope and courage they need to complete their quest. The result? An incredibly moving scene.

Or in The Matrix, when the machines are closing in and Trinity has every reason to run screaming. But instead, she finds peace enough to stay with Neo and even say, "I'm not afraid anymore."

Am I making sense yet?

Having your characters find peace in the darkness, usually near the climax of the story, can heighten the emotional investment of the reader. It makes the reader long further for the protagonist to achieve his or her desire, because we admire characters who can trade fear for peace, sorrow for joy. We want those kind of characters to win.

And when they do, the reader is all the more moved because of it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Writing Advice: What Is Sound?

In Story, Robert McKee writes that 75 percent of a writer's efforts are spent on constructing the plot. However, because it isn't in keeping with the purpose of the book, he never mentions the importance of that remaining 25 percent: the execution. The writing itself. The truth is that all reader (including agents and editors) will notice the writing before the story. And if it's not up to par, they'll put it down before even getting into the plot.

Sound is one of the most important aspects of the "execution" to pay attention to because it can be incredibly noticeable if done poorly. As in, it sticks out like a sore thumb (cliché alert!) and pulls the reader out of the story - which is never a good thing. But if sound is done well, it's invisible - which is exactly what you want.

In this context, sound is synonymous with rhythm, or even lilt. It's the flow of a sentence or paragraph, the way the writing sounds within the reader's mind. In The First Five Pages, Noah Lukeman writes that sound "is one of the distinctions between writing general and writing as an art form," because "prose can be technically correct but rhythmically unpleasant." To strengthen your sound, take a look at:

Poor sentence construction. In this blog post, as a part of her series on grammar, Beth Revis gives a few examples of how independent clauses and dependent clauses fit together in a number of different ways (as long as you use the correct rules). However, many people pointed out that, although technically correct, the sentences sounded wrong, like run-ons.

Echoes. Echoes occur most frequently when a character's name is repeated too often (Bill gave the map to Joe and Joe thanked Bill), when he/she is repeated to often, or when an usual word or phrase is repeated too often. In the case of unusual words, these can be as far apart as one every twenty pages, but still call attention to themselves. In On Writing, Stephen King tells of a novel he once read that constantly repeated the word zestful, and it annoyed him so much that he's never used that word in his own writing. Not once.

Alliteration and rhyme. In prose, avoid these two things like the plague, unless you have a very good reason not to. Alliteration and rhyme draw attention to themselves like nothing on Earth and pull the reader straight out of the story.

Resonance. This aspect of sound is subtle, and can be difficult to get right. It is the overall sound of sentences in contrast with each other. The resonance of a short sentence will be different when contrasted with long sentences, rather than other short sentences - and vice versa. Sentences starting with an independent clause will resonate differently to dependent clause starters, infinitive starters, participle starters, etc. It's your job to choose the write ones and then fit them together in a way that strengthens the overall sound of the paragraph, page, and book.

And that's it. If you can sort out these things, then your sound will be strong enough that the reader doesn't notice it. Instead, they'll be focussed right where you want them: on the story.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Wildcard: Why Commenting Is Important

Most of us follow tons of blogs. Often hundreds, sometimes over a thousand. But how many do you actually, truly follow? Maybe not as many as you thought. The truth is that Blogger lies to you each and every day - not all of your followers are actually following you; not all of my followers are actually following me. And you aren't actually following all the blogs you've subscribed to, and nor am I.

To actually follow someone's blog means more than just to click the "follow" button. It means to actively participate in what they're doing. To give your opinion, support, feedback, express your interest in what they have to say. And the best way to do this on any blog is through these magic things called ...
... comments.

Of course, there are only 24 hours in each day, and there's never enough time to follow everyone we'd like to. There's never enough time to be an active part of everyone's blogs. Heck, there's hardly enough time to be an active part of anyone's blog.

So, this is where comments come in. Comments are great because they don't have to be long at all, and they only take a minute to write. And it could be simply something like: "Neat post!" But this doesn't matter. because the real meaning of a comment is in the subtext: "Hey. I'm actually following you. I'm interested in what you're saying. I enjoy your opinion and your voice. Plus, I exist. See your 57th follower? That's not a robot from Antarctica. That's me."

This is why comments are important. They're an easy way to show a blogger that you're listening. And I'll admit that this is something I need to work on, but these are simply my thoughts on the matter.

*     *     *     *     *

While we're on the topic of comments, I have an award to give out! David Powers King decided to be awesome by giving me the Great Comments Award, and so now I'm passing it on to my top commenters (wait a sec - is commenters even a word?):

Thank you all for sharing your voice on this blog. I appreciate it!

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Way of the Future

It's 16 days into the new year and everyone seems to be diving into 2012 with excitement and anticipation. I'm pretty excited for whatever's lurking out there, including giant spaceships and futuristic cities built on water.

New Year is a very important event. But why? Not because of what it is - after all, it's only a change of date (and that happens every day) - but because of what it symbolises. It symbolises the old departing, the new arriving. It symbolises change. This is why we make New Years Resolutions. We could choose to change at any time of the year, but we choose January 1 because of the symbol of change it carries.

Over the last year or so, this blog has been quite mish-mash. Just look through the archives and see for yourself. When I started blogging, I had no plan at all and no reason at all besides "Why not?" Result: mish-mash.

But the arrival of the new year I've decided to make some changes. I set a few goals using the BEDS Goalsetting Method, and worked out a list of things that would need to happen to reach my goals. Creating a new layout was one of those things. Here are a two more:

A Blogging Schedule. Yup, I'm gonna be working by one of these bad boys. On Mondays will be exclusively Writing Advice (unless the occasional blogfest or monthly vlog jumps in there). Thurdays will be Wildcard days, when I'll post about anything and everything I can possibly think of that relates to writing. I might even throw in a few Saturday posts from time to time.

Acknowledging New Followers. David Powers King does this over at his blog, and I think it's a fantastic idea. So I'm adopting it. It means that new followers get to feel welcome and invited and not like internet ghosts that go invisible through all time and space. So, with no further ado, may I welcome Writing Fire's fantastic 170th follower:

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the way of the future for Writing Fire. I hope you'll enjoy the changes!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Poem of His Dreams

From black of night a spark ignites:
A hope, a dream, a shining light.
The dream burns in his heart as fire,
O'er time the dream does never tire.

He wakes, he dreams – then waking dreams;
The world is never what it seems.
Reality falls far behind
And fantasy consumes his mind.

With day he dreams, with night he dreams,
The world is never what it seems.
He wanders through a land unknown,
And writes his ventures all alone.

His future there, from dreams is clear,
From never-ending dreams of flare.
He writes, he dreams; he writes, he dreams,
The world is never what it seems.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sunday Funday: Don't Drink Racist Coffee

When it comes to coffee, I'm pretty much a newb. I'm fifteen - what can I say?

As an example of my newb-ness, recently I went to the coffee shop with my dad, planning to get a moccachino. But when I got there, I found that was something like five different moccachinos. And so, because I didn't want to look like one of those kids on the old McDonalds ads who took forever to decide what they wanted, I just picked the first one I saw - even though it was late in the afternoon and this one had a double shot.

Me, later that night: Oh, that's OK. I didn't want to sleep tonight anyway.

But, anyway, I figure that coffee's somehow important to the creative process. I mean, I don't think I follow a single writer on twitter who doesn't have the words "coffee addict" somewhere on their profile.* Retailers sell coffee mugs with the word "writer" them - yet I have never seen one bearing words such as "accountant" or "real estate agent" or "President of the United States." Something tells me it's part of the writer stereotype. Plus, there's even a coffee on the NaNoWriMo logo. Need I say more?

I also figure that I like it.

And for these two reasons, I drink it.

Now, the reason for this post is because I became aware of something rather important in terms of coffee a while back, and I thought I should let you all know what it is. I was introduced, first, to the comedian Julian Smith's youtube channel, then to the video that I'm about to show you.

So sit back, relax, enjoy. And remember: don't drink that racist coffee.

* May or may not be strictly accurate.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Vlog: How to Beat Writer's Block

Happy New Year!

Just quickly, I should let you know that I'm currently away on holiday with my family, and therefore over the next week-and-a-bit all my posts are going to be scheduled (and so is this one). So, while I won't be able to answer comments until I get back, you will still get post updates from me.

Now for the video. Enjoy, and I hope it helps!

{ This video has been removed }

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