DBW Review: Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle

Description and SettingI have a confession to make: I’m one of those readers who has been known to skip over passages full of description to get to the “good stuff.” I love the story of The Lord of the Rings, for example, but my attention wanes during those meandering sections sandwiched between poignant character moments and violent epic battles. With my avoidance of excessive elaboration (and my admittedly poor visual observation skills), I sometimes find it challenging to imbue my own writing with the right level of descriptive pizzazz.

And I know I’m not the only one. So I thought it was time to read through the book Description & Setting by author and creative writing teacher Ron Rozelle. His book is part of the Write Great Fiction series by Writer’s Digest, which features some helpful books on a variety of writing topics. I hadn’t read this one yet, and I thought it could be helpful for those of us who feel descriptively challenged.

What I Liked

This book covers a wide variety of topics relating to description — even more than I anticipated. Rozelle talks about how to describe both characters and settings. He includes tips for improving dialogue as well as techniques to strengthen exposition. He focuses on the small things, such as the use of adverbs and placement of punctuation, as well as the large things, like establishing the big picture of time and place. There’s a useful chapter on sensory description that includes lots of great examples.

I especially enjoyed his chapter “Too Little, Too Much,” which includes some fantastic thoughts on how to avoid repetition, prevent yourself from wandering off track, and recognize when no description at all is perhaps the better approach.

What Could Be Better

This book is an odd mix of wordiness and not enough detail. The introductions to some of the chapters are lengthier than they need to be, while many of the subtopics are not covered in as much detail as they could be. I was looking forward to the chapter on different considerations for different genres, for example, but most of the tips in there are straightforward common sense and didn’t really add to my knowledge.

It also suffers from an issue that I find common across many writing books – the examples are taken from older works, and samples from genre fiction are neglected in favour of literary fiction. Since most of the writers I know write genre fiction, I find this to be an unfortunate gap.

Favourite Learning Moment

In Rozelle’s chapter “Using Description and Setting to Drive the Story,” he talks about how to use description and setting to magnify a theme. But instead of focusing on the usual idea of an overall theme, he points out that each scene in the story has its own theme and that you can focus on one scene at a time when determining how the description can be improved. I loved the practical nature of this approach.

Many people come away from their English classes thinking that literary themes are a precious few haughty ideals—like pride, truth, or equality—that are chiseled deep into granite…My idea of a theme is anything that the writer is attempting to convey in a particular scene. So, instead of everlasting love, your theme in the sixth scene of your story might be trying to get a date. (p. 154)

Verdict

If you don’t have a lot of practice writing fiction yet, or you are looking for a general overview on the topic of description, then I believe this book will be helpful for you. But if you are searching for more in-depth content, I would look for detailed articles relating to your specific interests rather than buying this book.

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If you are interested in reading about other writing resources, you may want to take a look at my Resources page. One of these resources is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which has a great chapter on showing vs. telling.

How much description do you like to see in the books you read? What are some of the challenges you face when describing things? Are there techniques that have helped you?

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015

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DBW Review: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

I picked up Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by editors Renni Browne and Dave King because several of my editing colleagues recommended it as a solid resource for authors. There are many books on how to write and comparatively few on how to edit your own writing. Yet this is such a critical task for writers if they want to submit a solid manuscript for further editing or publishing. I was really looking forward to reading through this book, and I’m glad to say it was a winner.

Self-Editing for Fiction WritersSelf-Editing for Fiction Writers is focused on the details of stylistic editing. The authors assume that you have already dealt with the larger structural concerns of plot, character arc, and theme. The book covers a broad range of topics relating to the mechanics of editing: showing vs. telling, characterization and exposition, point of view, proportion, dialogue, interior monologue, sound and voice, repetition, and scene beats and breaks.

What I Liked

I mentioned that a lot of topics were covered in this book. Each of them are discussed in a great amount of depth without becoming overwhelming. The authors cover several angles and explain why certain situations require different treatment from others.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter, “Show and Tell,” which brings new life to the old chestnut that you should be showing something to the readers rather than telling them about it. All writers receive this advice at some point, but Browne and King bring a balanced perspective to the discussion, clearly illustrating when to use show and when to use tell.

To write exposition at length — describing your characters’ pasts or events that happened before the story began or any information your readers might need to understand your plot — is to engage your readers’ intellects. What you want to do is engage their emotions. (p. 10)

The writing style is clear and engaging, and avoids the lecturing style that sometimes happens with “how to” books. Editors have a somewhat unfair reputation as nitpicking sticklers, and I’m happy to say there is no sign of that here — instead, the authors are positive and supportive as they outline the issues that writers often struggle with and potential solutions.

Plenty of examples are used in each chapter to illustrate the points, and at the end of each chapter there are useful checklists as well as practice exercises.

What Could Be Better

This book is so well-written that it was difficult to find any issues with it. However, as we writers know, there’s always something that can be improved!

Most of the examples in the book are bracketed with detailed explanations of what the examples are illustrating. Once in a while, though, an example is thrown out where the authors assume that the reader will identify what is right or wrong with the passage without help. One place that stood out for me was in the chapter on “Voice,” where the authors provide an example of five different character monologues from the same book and say, “Every voice is distinct.” How they are distinct is never explained, and I feel this weakens the helpfulness of this example.

My only other wish is that the book contained even more practical exercises. There are usually about three per chapter, and having more (and shorter) exercises would make this resource even more valuable.

Favourite Learning Moment

My favourite part of this book is not a particular moment but an overall thread that gets woven throughout the narrative. There is a lot of focus in the book on how to bring out characters and their emotions. The authors discuss several areas where these can be displayed, such as through dialogue, interior monologue, and exposition from the character’s point of view. They also talk about how character development can be combined with the advancement of plot, the establishment of setting, and the revelation of key information.

If each element of your story accomplishes one thing and one thing only, then your story will subtly, almost subliminally, feel artificial. When everything seems to be happening at once, then it will feel like real life. (p. 183)

Verdict

This is the best book I have ever read on how to edit your own writing. Pick it up, read it, and read it again. You won’t regret it.

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If you are interested in reading about other writing resources, you may want to take a look at my Resources page. And if you’re looking for more tips on self-editing, I have recently written a post on why you should try a style sheet when editing your work.

What do you find is the most challenging aspect of self-editing? Which resources have helped you with this difficult task?

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015

DBW Review: The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

Writers are surrounded by style guides instructing them on how to write. Probably the most popular of these is The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, which is a mainstay of colleges and universities. In a previous post, I lamented how prescriptive guides such as this one are used to attack other writers and promote a black-and-white view of what constitutes “bad writing.”

The Sense of StyleBut there are other guides that take a more flexible and positive approach to writing style. One of these is The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker. Pinker is a linguist and cognitive scientist who is known for writing thoughtful and provocative works on language and the mind. In this book, he applies his scientific background to advice on how to write in a way that will reach your audience.

What I Liked

Pinker’s approach to style is to recommend approaches that make it easier for the audience to mentally process your writing. This doesn’t mean that writing needs to be plain or simple, but that it needs to match people’s cognitive approach to language. Instead of stating universal style rules (like a prescriptive guide tends to do), Pinker explains why a particular approach is successful and in what situations. I found his brain-focused perspective fascinating.

Pinker covers a wide range of topics that are useful to the writer. He elaborates on the common advice to “show, don’t tell” by describing the components of a classic writing style. He discusses how sentences are constructed and identifies constructions that are easier for the mind to process (using sentence diagrams). He provides various tips on how to make your writing coherent across sentences. I especially liked his list of methods for relating two statements together, such as through contrast or generalization.

Pinker ends his book with a substantial chapter (over 100 pages) on “Telling Right from Wrong,” where he provides advice on aspects of grammar, word choice, and punctuation without resorting to a black-and-white list of rules. He incorporates research on actual language usage to support his choices. I can see this chapter in particular being a useful ongoing reference for writers.

What Could Be Better

The “Telling Right from Wrong” chapter is a long one, but it is broken down into small sub-topics that are logically presented. Some of the other chapters in this book are also long, but there are no clear break points. I found it a bit unfortunate that a writer who talks about how we process information in chunks did not include sub-headings in these chapters. I sometimes lost the thread when I had to put the book down in the middle of a chapter.

The first chapter talks about how to identify good prose by developing an ear for writing. Pinker analyzes some writing samples to provide us with his idea of good prose. I didn’t find this section as helpful because there were too many ideas being presented and they didn’t tie in as well with his overall theme.

Favourite Learning Moment

After describing how sentences are constructed and the easiest ways for readers to understand them, Pinker has this to say about the prescriptive style “rule” to omit needless words:

The advice to omit needless words should not be confused with the puritanical edict that all writers must pare every sentence down to the shortest, leanest, most abstemious version possible. Even writers who prize clarity don’t do this. That’s because the difficulty of a sentence depends not just on its word count but on its geometry.

This was an “a-ha” moment for me: A long sentence can be easier to read than a shorter one, depending on how it is constructed.

Verdict

If you are interested in the whys of language rules and are not put off by academic-style writing, then this is a great book to add to your collection. It’s the type of book that gets you thinking and makes you appreciate the wonder of language. I’ll let Pinker have the last word:

[Grammar] should be thought of … as one of the extraordinary adaptations in the living world: our species’ solution to the problem of getting complicated thoughts from one head into another. Thinking of grammar as the original sharing app makes it much more interesting and much more useful.

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If you are interested in reading about other writing resources, you may want to take a look at my Resources page.

If you’ve read this book, what did you think? What is your ‘go-to’ manual for advice on writing style? Do you prefer the idea of universal rules, or do you like to have more flexibility?

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015

Review: The Editor’s Companion by Steve Dunham

The Editor's CompanionFor those interested in editing resources, I have recently written a review of Steve Dunham’s The Editor’s Companion for the official blog of Editors Canada, the Editors’ Weekly.

As always, comments either here or on the Editors’ Weekly site are welcome.

For those of you who edit (whether your own work or someone else’s), do you have any good resources to share?

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It’s DBW’s first anniversary! If you have not had a chance to complete the reader poll, please stop by and have your say on changes for Year 2. Thanks in advance for your feedback!

DBW Review: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress’s name gets tossed around a lot in fiction writing circles. So in today’s DBW Review, I decided to take a look at one of her books in the Elements of Fiction Writing series by Writer’s Digest: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.

Beginnings Middles and Ends by Nancy KressNancy Kress clearly knows her stuff when it comes to fiction writing. She was the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine for sixteen years, and she has won five Nebula Awards and two Hugo Awards.

In her introduction, Kress tells us that she wrote this book because her writing students consistently encountered one of three challenges: beginning well, sustaining interest through the middle, or providing a satisfying ending.

What I Liked

While reading this, I could tell that Kress is a natural storyteller. Everything flows from one chapter to the next. She has a story example that she uses as a common thread to illustrate points throughout the book. This ongoing narrative is smoothly reinforced with specific examples from other stories.

Her writing style is quite personal, and her sense of humour makes the book an easy read. In the section “Techniques That Won’t Get You Unstuck,” she relates the story of Richard McKenna, author of The Sand Pebbles, who was discouraged midway through writing his novel:

For a time, he says, he became convinced that the answer to getting unstuck was to divorce his wife and move to the desert, where he could write uninterrupted by the demands of domesticity. Eventually he came to his senses. (p. 107)

I particularly loved her section on Beginnings, and all the things that need to be covered to get you off to a good start: character, conflict, specificity, and credible prose. She also discusses how to focus on a single narrative mode in the opening, such as dialogue, action, or exposition (among others).

A lot of writing books focus on novels. Kress applies her concepts to both short stories (including literary short stories) and novels. In the section on Ends, for example, she discusses the difference between resolution (used in genre fiction) and resonance (used in literary fiction).

Practical exercises are included at the end of each chapter. Most of the time when I look at exercises from a “how to” book, my eyes start to glaze over and my brain freezes at the thought of all that work. These exercises are ones I can see myself doing, and it’s immediately clear how they would be helpful.

At one point, she talks about her award-winning story “Beggars in Spain,” which originally had an ending that didn’t work. The main character’s change of heart was not believable based on what had happened in the middle. The story sat for thirteen years. She changed the story so the ending grew out of the character’s deepest self, and ended up winning the Hugo and the Nebula Awards. Now that is an inspiring tale!

What Could Be Better

I think this book would be even better if it focused entirely on Beginnings and Ends. It’s really hard to talk about how to fix “the middle,” the largest part of a book, in only three chapters. There is great advice in the Middles section, but I preferred other books like Story Engineering for the level of detail that went into aspects like plot points.

I also wish the book was longer. It’s wonderfully written, but at 168 pages including the index, it feels a bit overpriced.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Connection

Kress has written a lot of fantasy and sci-fi stories, and she uses examples from these stories to illustrate her points. (She does include examples from other genres as well, so the book is well-rounded.)

Since fantasy epics usually have multiple points of view, I was especially intrigued by her discussion in Middles about the different alternatives for handling this situation (p. 80-83). Her solutions include having regularly recurring viewpoints in the same order, writing multiviewpoint chronological sections (breaking the story into parts based on set periods of time), and using parallel running scenes, such as those found in Ursula K. LeGuin’s story The Dispossessed.

Kress is familiar with speculative genre conventions, so she doesn’t do things like dismiss the value of prologues out of hand. Instead, she talks about when to use them. This is a refreshing change from other books I have read, which rant about the evils of prologues.

Verdict

If you would like to get some specific, practical ideas on how to tighten up the beginning or end of your story, this is a well-written and useful resource.

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Have you read any books by Nancy Kress, or other books in the Elements of Fiction Writing series? What did you think? Which part of a story do you believe is harder to write – the beginning, the middle, or the end?

DBW Review: On Writing Well by William Zinsser

I’m always on the lookout for great writing resources. After seeing On Writing Well praised by several authors I respect, I knew I had to take a read through it.

On Writing WellOn Writing Well was first published in 1976, and it continues to be a popular guide for writing non-fiction. This book has been updated and republished several times. I reviewed the 30th anniversary edition, which includes an additional chapter on writing family history and memoir.

Author William Zinsser is a journalist and non-fiction writer who has taught writing for many years. He brings his teaching experience to life in this book, which is divided into four sections: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes.

Under Principles, he discusses how to make your writing clear and simple and connect effectively with your audience.

The Methods section contains short segments dealing with specific concerns, such as creating a good lead and making your writing more active.

The largest section of the book is Forms, where he provides advice on how to write different types of non-fiction: interviews, travel articles, memoirs, science and technology articles, business documents, sports reports, arts criticism, and humour.

The final section, Attitudes, takes a look at how writers should approach the writing process.

What I Liked

What I liked most about this book is Zinsser’s writing style. His voice is warm, knowledgeable, and witty. There were several places in the book where he made me laugh out loud. This is a smooth read that welcomes the reader in and provides useful advice. Zinsser states that his “four articles of faith” in writing are clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity (p. 171). He certainly practices what he preaches within the pages of this book.

Here’s one of his passages that made me laugh:

Today as many as four or five concept nouns will attach themselves to each other, like a molecule chain. Here’s a brilliant specimen I recently found: “Communication facilitation skills development intervention.” Not a person in sight, or a working verb. I think it’s a program to help students write better. (p. 76)

I found Zinsser’s emphasis on the human element in non-fiction writing persuasive and refreshing. A lot of other how-to books describe the technical details of writing but don’t connect these with the personal interests of both the writer and the audience. He tells stories from his years of writing and teaching to explain his principles, and provides substantial text samples from different writers to illustrate his points. All of these things helped me absorb the advice that he provides.

The section about the different forms of non-fiction writing was enlightening. I found myself intrigued by all the content, even on topics that I would never write about, like sports. Zinsser walks you through each type of writing and provides helpful examples that show how his writing principles apply.

One quote in particular sticks with me: “Writing is not a special language owned by the English teacher. Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.” (p. 147)

What Could Be Better

If you’re looking for a book that goes into detail on writing technique, this is not the resource for you. Zinsser states in his introduction that he sees this book as a complement to a work like The Elements of Style, and not something to replace it. He does include short segments of writing advice in a chapter called “Bits & Pieces,” but these segments feel scattered because he does do not go into enough depth. I felt that this chapter should have been either expanded or removed.

As you might expect from a book that is over 35 years old, some of the samples and related observations are a bit dated. It would have been interesting to see his principles being applied to more current writers. This is a small quibble, however, and is counterbalanced by the fascinating historical detail that permeates his writing.

In modern resource books, it’s common to have checklists or pages that summarize the key points. These are missing here. I would have loved to have these kinds of takeaways included in the book.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Connection

Since this book is focused on non-fiction, I wasn’t expecting to find much in the way of sci-fi/fantasy content. I do feel that his advice on writing is general enough that it can be applied to any genre.

There were a couple of sci-fi references in this book that I found amusing, especially because they are used to illustrate negative writing habits. One example is when Zinsser talks about writing bad leads:

Speaking of everybody else’s lead, there are many categories I’ll be glad never to see again. One is the future archaeologist: “When some future archaeologist stumbles on the remains of our civilization, what will he make of the jukebox?” I’m tired of him already and he’s not even here. (p. 59)

Zinsser also talks about corporate jargon being “language out of Star Trek” (p.175). I found this point surprising because I don’t tend to think of sci-fi references as jargon. That’s because it’s my jargon. (It’s amazing how blind we can be to our own biases.)

Verdict

I can see why this book has retained its popularity. This was an absorbing read that provided encouragement, entertainment, and helpful information. Any writer, whether they specialize in fiction or non-fiction, will find this a useful read. I was impressed enough by this work that I am planning on reading another of Zinsser’s books, Writing About Your Life. We’ll see how it measures up!

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If you’ve read this book, what did you think of it? Do you have any other book recommendations for writers of non-fiction? Which non-fiction forms do you write, and what do you find the most challenging about them?

DBW Review: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

I’m taking a course in substantive editing, so I’ve been immersing myself in books on storytelling. Today’s DBW Review is about a helpful book called Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks.

Story Engineering by Larry BrooksI’ve read several books describing how to write great stories, and many of them fail to deliver. They focus on providing lists of what not to do. This is all well and good, but not positive or useful for someone who is trying to learn what they should do. Larry Brooks has written a comprehensive book on what he calls the six core competencies to build a successful story. Four of them are the basic elements of a story: concept, character, theme, and story structure (plot).  The remaining two are narrative skills: scene execution and writing voice. For each competency, Brooks goes into detail to describe why it is important, how to execute it, and where it fits in with the other competencies. For those who want to learn more about Larry Brooks, you can visit his website Storyfix.

What I Liked

One of the things I liked was how Brooks works hard at relating all of the parts together, rather than providing separate laundry lists of items to consider. Each section builds on the next, until you feel like you have a full grasp of the entire process.

The sections themselves are covered in a great level of depth. The section on character, for example, describes the three dimensions of character, how to create backstory, interior vs. exterior conflict, crafting a character arc, and many other topics. I honed in on this section because I enjoy character-driven stories. I had to laugh when he called me out for this in a part called “Character Is Not Story”:

More than one writing guru and established writer has described the essence of storytelling as character-focused […] But that’s like saying the essence of baseball is pitching, the essence of music is singing, the essence of medicine is diagnosis, and the essence of cooking is salt and pepper. It’s not wrong, it’s just not right enough. Because there is so much more to consider. (p. 58)

He then goes on to relate character to all of the other elements in a deft fashion that is both convincing and helpful. Brooks has an engaging writing style that helps to carry his messages forward.

I know I’ll be referring back to this book often.

What Could Be Better

The first twenty-eight pages of this book introduce the six core competencies and Brooks’s approach for his storytelling model. This section contains repetitive sales pitches on why his model works better than other models. It also includes several references to Stephen King’s On Writing and why none of us should follow his advice. (In a nutshell: because we don’t have an instinctive grasp of storytelling principles like he does after his many years of reading and writing.) I liked On Writing, so I felt my hackles rise every time this point came up. Even if I understood his point.

Brooks also spends too much time throughout the book on planners vs. pantsers. He often points out how story pantsers can benefit from his approach, even if they don’t like to spend a lot of time outlining. (For those who are not familiar with the term, a pantser is someone who writes by the seat of their pants. This contrasts with a planner, who likes to plan ahead before writing a story.)

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Connection

I have yet to read a great storytelling guide written by a sci-fi/fantasy writer. (Suggestions, anyone?) As a fan of the genre, this is so disappointing. Brooks writes thrillers, and uses this genre for a lot of his examples. The only sci-fi reference in this book is to the movie Avatar, where Brooks describes James Cameron’s use of backstory to build the main character.

Verdict

This is a solid resource on storytelling that is worth multiple reads. Whether you are a writer/editor of fiction or simply a person who enjoys reading stories, you will find a lot of valuable information here. Highly recommended.

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For those of you who have read up on storytelling, what is your favourite resource, and why? If you’ve read Story Engineering, what did you think? And for you readers out there (which I should hope is all of you), what do you pay attention to the most? Character, theme, or plot?