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.

***

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

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Conversation Corner with Lori MacLaughlin, Author of Lady, Thy Name is Trouble

Shortly after I started DBW, I ran across Lori MacLaughlin’s blog Writing, Reading, and the Pursuit of Dreams. With a blog name like that, how could I resist investigating? At the time, Lori was in the thick of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, and I loved following her series of posts on favourite fictional characters.

Since that time, she has chronicled her self-publishing journey, and recently published her first novel, a wonderful sword-and-sorcery adventure called Lady, Thy Name is Trouble. I asked Lori if she would be willing to stop by and share her thoughts on writing and communication. Here is our conversation on finding inspiration, interpreting body language, surviving the self-publishing process, and squawking.

On your About page, you talk about imagining tales while growing up on your parents’ dairy farm. How did your love for story come about? Who or what inspired you?

Lori MacLaughlin

Lori MacLaughlin

I read voraciously while I was growing up. My parents had instilled in me a love of books by reading to me at an early age. They had shelves of books that filled my head with stories and sparked my imagination. Many of them had animal protagonists, like The Poky Little Puppy and other Golden Books, the Thornton W. Burgess Green Meadow series, and one of my favorites, The Wind in the Willows. Another book I found inspirational was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. The idea of traveling through some kind of portal to a magical world fascinated me and inspired me to create my own fantasy worlds and adventures.

I was very much a tomboy and spent a lot of time in the woods and pastures and in the barns with our animals, so it was very easy, by extension, to think of them and other real and imaginary woodland critters as story characters. I’ve always been intrigued by fantastical creatures and wished I could see unicorns and fairies and such in the woods.

There is something magical about animals, isn’t there? I grew up in the suburbs, so I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to be around animals. But one house I lived in had a little pond down the street, and I used to love going on toad-catching expeditions and watching for squirrels.

I noticed when reading your book Lady, Thy Name is Trouble that you did an excellent job describing the horses and how they behaved. Did you work a lot with the animals on your parents’ farm? What was that experience like?

Thank you! Yes, I worked with both cows and horses. I had a saddle horse and enjoyed riding. My dad loves horses, and his stories about his experiences both riding and working with horses on the farm where he grew up were inspirational, too. Mostly, though, I worked with the cows and young stock. Interacting with the animals was my favorite part of farming. Each animal had its own personality, and I really got to know them well. Animals have body language and expressions, just like people, and being able to read those allowed for so much better interaction with them. I found I had a way with animals. There were skittish cows and calves that I could do anything with that no one else could get near.

That’s wonderful. My experience with farm animals is largely limited to a pony that stepped on my foot at summer camp. I was quite intimidated, and I’m sure it showed! That’s a true skill to be able to read body language. Non-verbal communication is so important, and yet it’s something that a lot of us have trouble with. Have you found that this skill at observing others has helped you in other areas of your life? Does it affect how you approach your writing?

Ouch. That had to hurt. Yes, I’ve found that it helps immensely in communicating with others. Some years ago I worked as a feature writer for a local newspaper, and the job involved interviewing people from all walks of life for various reasons. By listening to them and watching their visual cues, I was able to find an approach that put them at ease and got them to open up and really talk to me. It was very rewarding to communicate on that level. Just the simple act of listening — giving someone your full attention — works wonders.

Observing body language was also important in a job I had as a clothing salesperson. I was required to greet the customers who came in the store and ask if they needed help with anything. The customer’s tone of voice and body language told me quite clearly if they didn’t want help at all or might want help later and wouldn’t mind being approached again. It also helped tremendously with children. I worked for a number of years as a kids’ shoe fitter. It’s not always easy to get kids, ages 1 to 10, to cooperate during the fitting process. Being able to read them helped me find ways to coax them into cooperating and made the experience a lot more pleasant for everyone involved.

Because non-verbal communication is such an integral part of expressing oneself, I try to include as much as feels natural in my writing. Expressions and gestures say so much more than just words and really bring characters to life.

Speaking of bringing characters to life – you recently published your first novel, Lady, Thy Name is Trouble. Congratulations! I am sure you went through a lot of work to make this happen. How did you come to the decision to self-publish your story? What has the experience been like for you?

Thank you! Yes, it took a LOT of work. I began writing this story as a hobby many years ago. As I began to get more serious about my writing, I read how-to books on improving my craft and joined a writer’s group to get feedback, which was so helpful. Eventually, I hired a freelance editor and proofreader, whom I met through the League of Vermont Writers group. She loved my story and understood my writing style. Her suggestions brought the story out from under a pile of extraneous words and really helped it shine. From going through this process, I learned how to self-edit, so my work is much cleaner from the start.

I began sending out queries to agents in the traditional manner, hoping to land representation that would keep me out of the publishing houses’ slush pile. I garnered some interest, but no takers. Some responses came right away. Others took months. To wait that long, only to receive a standard rejection letter was discouraging, to say the least.

Lady Thy Name is Trouble book coverAfter a couple of years of not getting anywhere, I decided to re-evaluate. It seemed like there were fewer and fewer opportunities for unpublished writers in the traditional publishing world, and the books that were coming out in my genre were mostly young adult and paranormal/urban fantasy. My novel, I think, would be described best as sword and sorcery, with the emphasis on the sword. It’s action and adventure with romance thrown into the mix.

Not wanting to spend many more months or even years waiting for acceptance from an agent, I chose to go the self-publishing route. My decision was also influenced by the fact that if I did it myself, I would have control over every aspect of the publishing process. Having heard and read about problems other writers had encountered with publishers, this aspect particularly appealed to me.

I have learned so much since taking the plunge. I started building my social media platform. I researched the pros and cons of Amazon’s CreateSpace vs. publishing under my own imprint and decided if I was going to do it myself, I was going to do it my way, to quote an old Frank Sinatra song. I started my own company, Book and Sword Publishing, and registered it with the state, going through a lawyer to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes. I bought my own ISBN numbers. I learned about book layout and cover design, book reviews, and blog tours. I taught myself how to edit music and make book trailers. So many things. I made a list at the beginning of this process of all the things I’d need to do. It seemed a very daunting list, but as long as I took things one step at a time, it was doable. I’ve had my share of frustrations. My successes, though, have blown them all away. There are no words to describe how it feels to hold my own book in my hand or to read it on my Kindle.

Wow, you have been busy! I’ve seen your book trailer, and it’s fantastic. I think it’s wonderful that you’ve tackled all the different aspects of publishing your book. Do you have any advice for writers who are thinking of going the self-publishing route? Are there any resources that you found to be particularly helpful?

Thanks! Yes, the book trailer was a lot of work, but it was fun to make. I think the most important thing for anyone who decides to self-publish is to hire professionals to edit and proofread your work. I know it’s expensive, but it will be worth every penny. A professional-looking cover is also a must. The only way self-publishing will lose its stigma is if everyone who goes that route puts out a quality product. The second-most important thing is to get on social media. Blog, Facebook, Twitter — use whatever works for you to connect with people. It’s the best way to get the word out about your book, and you get the added benefit of meeting and making friends with some wonderful people. Get on Goodreads and network with people there. You don’t have to jump in all at once. Start slow and build up as you feel comfortable.

There are a ton of online resources for self-publishers. I’ve found answers to almost every question I’ve had just by doing a search on a few keywords. Two sites that have been really helpful for me are the Insecure Writer’s Support Group at www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com and The Book Designer at www.thebookdesigner.com.

I’ve also had good luck with Audacity music editing software and Calibre e-book conversion software, both free downloads off the Web. I purchased a template from the Book Designer specifically tailored for MS Word files that would be uploaded to the distributor Ingram/Spark, and that worked well. I used www.istockphoto.com for images for my book trailers. Their one-month subscription worked fine for me, and I had no problems with them, whatsoever. I found great music at www.freestockmusic.com. Font Squirrel has a good selection of fonts that are free for commercial use. I discovered not too long ago, in my naiveté, that even fonts must be licensed for commercial use before they can grace the pages of your books. Always be sure to obtain the necessary permissions and/or licenses for anything you use before publication.

Yes, it’s always good to be on the right side of the law. 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing your advice with DBW readers. I have one final question, just for fun. I noticed in your bio that you are a pilot. (From horses to planes – you really know how to go places!) I’ve written in the past about the perils of nonsensical corporate jargon. Have you encountered any weird or funny piloting jargon while learning to fly?

Thanks so much for having me here, Sue! Well, it has been a long time since I piloted an aircraft, but one thing that stood out to me was the constant use of abbreviations. For instance, I was licensed with a VFR, or visual flight rules, rating, which meant that I could fly using outside visual cues, such as the horizon, the landscape, buildings, etc. In other words, I could see where I was going. I was not IFR, or instrument flight rules, rated, so I couldn’t fly in places or at times when I couldn’t see outside and would have to rely solely on the instrument panel for altitude, pitch, direction, and so forth. All airports, in the U.S. anyway, are identified by a three letter code: Los Angeles, CA — LAX; Newark, NJ — EWR; my local airport in Burlington, VT — BTV.

Deciphering a weather report was like reading some kind of weird shorthand. Here’s an example of a PIREP (pilot report) out of my old Manual of Flight book:

DEN 275045 1745 F330/TP B727/SK 185 BKN 220/280 – OVC 290/TA -53/WV 290120/TB LGT-MDT CAT ABV 310

This means: “Denver VOR (very high frequency omnidirectional range) 275 radial 45 NM (nautical miles) at 1745Z (zulu time). Flight level 330 (33,000 ft.). Type of aircraft Boeing 727. Sky cover consists of two layers: first layer base at 18,500 ft., broken top at 22,000 ft., second layer base at 28,000 ft., thin overcast top at 29,000 ft., outside air temperature minus 53 degrees Celsius, wind 290 degrees true at 120 knots, light to moderate clear air turbulence above 31,000 ft.”

And here’s an example of radio communication from a student pilot ready to leave the airport:

Pilot: Ground Control, Cessna 69210 at Montair — going to the north practice area with information Alpha.

Ground Control: 210, taxi to runway 19. Departure on 121.1; Squawk 0325.

(This means turn your radio to frequency 121.1 so you can talk to Departure, and enter 0325 in your transponder so the air traffic controller can identify your aircraft on the radar screen.)

Pilot: Roger 210.

Sometimes it felt like I was speaking a completely different language. It was quite the experience.

That is definitely a different language. And I thought corporations used a lot of abbreviations! Thank you for giving me an inside view into the life of a pilot. And thank you for sharing all your helpful advice with DBW readers today. It’s been a great pleasure to chat with you.

***

Image courtesy of Lori MacLaughlin

For more about Lori, I encourage you to check out her blog or pick up her debut novel, Lady, Thy Name is Trouble.

Do you have a question for Lori, or a comment on our interview? Please continue the conversation below. We’d love to chat with you!

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!

Away, White Witch!

“The White Witch? Who is she?”

“Why, it is she that has got all Narnia under her thumb. It’s she that makes it always winter. Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”

– The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

I’ll admit it. I am tired of winter right now. February is the cruelest month as far as I’m concerned, and this particular February has been one of the worst. Feeling trapped indoors makes me want to snap at people. Many people are blaming Elsa for our horrible weather, but I know the real story. We’ve clearly run afoul of the White Witch from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

For those who don’t know the story, the White Witch subjects the magical land of Narnia to a perpetual winter in an attempt to rule over everyone. All the Narnians live in fear of her. She gets angry when contradicted and turns the offenders to stone. The Narnians don’t dare speak up against her.

Mr. Tumnus

“We must go as quietly as we can,” said Mr. Tumnus. The whole wood is full of her spies. Even some of the trees are on her side.”

Winter is a time when we all get grumpy. But that’s no excuse to start blasting people at the least sign of disagreement. Thankfully, we have a better role model in Lucy.

In the story, all four Pevensie children eventually take up the fight against the White Witch. But my favourite character has always been Lucy. Lucy is forthright and courageous. She tells the truth, no matter how unpopular.

On a day when the children are exploring the house because they are trapped inside by the rain (what I wouldn’t give for some lovely rain right now, rather than snowstorms!), Lucy discovers the country of Narnia by journeying through a wardrobe. When she tells her siblings about it, they don’t believe her. They try to convince her she is mistaken. But she refuses to say anything but the truth, regardless of the consequences.

When I first read this story as a child, I wanted to be like Lucy. Then I grew up and had to deal with Lucies that argued with me in the dead of winter. That’s when the White Witch starts coming out.

Sometimes it’s difficult to deal with people who have a different opinion from you. Especially when they don’t back down. But they are telling the truth as they see it. Rather than being grumpy about it, I try to appreciate the strength of their convictions. When I am at my best, I show my appreciation for their willingness to express their views.

Both The White Witch and Lucy believe they are in the right. Which one would I rather be today?

I say: Away, White Witch!

Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travellers walked under them the light also became green. A bee buzzed across their path.

“This is no thaw,” said the dwarf, suddenly stopping. “This is Spring.”

***

Image from the movie The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Do you have a Lucy in your life who argues with you? How do you deal with it? And how are you handling this winter weather? Better than me, I hope!

Conversation Corner with Dylan Hearn, Author of The Transcendence Trilogy

When I first came across sci-fi author Dylan Hearn’s blog Suffolk Scribblings, I was immediately impressed with the vibrant community feeling I found in the comments. This was a place where people felt engaged. As I continued to follow his blog, I discovered that Dylan provides great support to the writing community through his insightful posts and his “pay it forward” support of indie publications. I asked Dylan if he would be willing to share his thoughts about writing and community with DBW readers. Here is our conversation about desire and opportunity, world-building, reader engagement, and electronica.

On your About page, you state that you are an author, and that “it has taken me a while to admit this.” How did you get started on your writing journey? What was holding you back?

When I was younger I had two loves, reading and music. I’ve always enjoyed reading. According to my mother I started when I was three years old and I don’t believe a day has gone by since that I haven’t had a book (or more recently a Kindle) in my hand. It was the same with music. I’ve sung since I was able to talk and got heavily involved in choirs at school. It came easily to me.

Writing was a little different. I loved writing at school — and even won some prizes for my work — but it took me a long time to appreciate the value of hard work. My stories would always start off well but end quickly because I’d get bored with the idea and want to finish things off. Eventually my writing subsided as I focussed on things that came more easily.

The other thing to bear in mind is that growing up in rural Suffolk, to working class parents, the thought of having a career in the arts was completely alien. It was something ‘other people’ did. Rather than ‘waste my time’ with writing, I left school at 16 and went out to work to earn money.

Dylan Hearn

Dylan Hearn

In the intervening years I carried on with my music to meet my creative needs, playing in bands in the south-east of England. I also worked my way up in my company, moving around the UK and then Europe. I worked with lots of people from different backgrounds and realised that what was possible to achieve in life had nothing to do with background but all to do with desire and talent.

After 25 years working for the same company, predominantly in marketing, I took voluntary redundancy. For the first time since I was 16 I had the opportunity to think about what I wanted to do with my life. It didn’t take long before the thought of writing a novel took hold. By this point I’d learnt the value of hard work. I’d never lost my love of the written word and had in fact honed my writing over years of crafting communication, so the challenge of writing a novel appealed. That important combination of desire, opportunity, and appetite for work was finally in place.

I can recall a lot of my own stories that never got properly finished. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy blogging so much – it’s a chance to tell really short stories, and fit them around the rest of life’s obligations. I’m glad you got that opportunity to return to one of your first loves, and that it all came together for you! It’s so easy to lose our dreams.

You’ve mentioned on your blog that you love science fiction, but that you never set out to write in that genre. What inspired you to write your first novel, Second Chance, as a sci-fi dystopian thriller? What attracted you to the sci-fi genre?

I’d challenged myself to write a novel, but had no idea what to write about. For years I’d toyed with the idea of writing a fantasy novel. The Hobbit was the book that first got me hooked on reading, and that love for fantasy has stayed with me ever since. My book shelves are full of the greats of fantasy, from the classics by JRR Tolkien, Raymond E Feist, David Eddings, Robin Hobb, Anne McCaffrey and Guy Gavriel Kay through to the darker novels of George R R Martin, Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie. The problem was, I had such a deep knowledge of the genre I wasn’t sure if I could think of anything new, and I didn’t want to write a poorer, derivative version of what was already there.

So I started thinking about what I was interested in. I enjoy politics and current affairs and have a deep rooted love of technology. I’ve always been interested in psychology and understanding what makes us who we are. I knew writing a book would be a long slog. I wasn’t afraid as I’d been involved in projects in the past that were delivered over years rather than months, but I also knew I needed to have something more to what I’d written than just the story itself. The best way of doing that was to use the story to explore questions nagging away at the back of my mind.

As soon as that mental leap was made, it made sense to write a science fiction novel.

For me, the best science fiction has at its heart the exploration of an idea. Whether that’s the origins of mankind (2001), the challenge of living on other worlds (Red Mars), or how to extend life (Frankenstein). One of the idea seeds for Second Chance was around politics and the democratic system. I questioned whether the current trend for focussing on the short term in politics, and in business for that matter, gave us the platform to deal with the big issues like climate change. And if not, what could? By setting my novel in the near future, I could extrapolate out (and exaggerate) trends that are happening today and take them to logical end points. Science fiction gave me a way of talking about what’s happening in today’s world without directly talking about what’s happening today.

At the same time, I didn’t want to write about an apocalyptic future. I have great belief in humanity’s ability to make the right calls. We may take our time but we usually get there in the end, so I wanted to write about a world that had pulled back from the brink. More interesting for me was how we did it and what sacrifices had to be made in order to do so.

That’s one of the things I loved about Second Chance – the examination of those moral grey areas through the perspectives of the four main characters. I also loved how the world they are grappling with is gradually revealed through the actions of the characters, rather than through set pieces of exposition. World building is such a critical aspect of science fiction – too much detail and you bore readers, too little and you frustrate them. How did you decide what information to include, and when, to effectively communicate the setting?

Before writing Second Chance I spent a few months looking at what is happening in our world today, what things have changed since my childhood and what is completely different. Because Second Chance is set in the near future, and because humanity had pulled back from the brink, as opposed to lived through, an apocalyptic scenario, I knew I didn’t want to create a world radically altered from our own. I made a conscious decision not to change social behaviours, which at the most basic level haven’t altered in millennia, but to look at emergent technologies happening today to see their likely impact on the future. In this I was heavily influenced by the film Children of Men, based on the book by PD James. I loved how it blended in much that was familiar and then almost shocked the audience with technology far outstripping what we understand today. It just rang true. I realised this is how our world today would look to someone from the Victorian era. They would recognise the clothes we wear and much of what we do socially, but being able to access the world’s information from an object you carry in your pocket would blow their mind.

My first draft of Second Chance included lots of this research and lots of description and came in at 130,000 words. It was enormous. It was only when I came back to read it after putting it away for a few months that I realised much of what I’d written wasn’t needed. There were great swathes of backstory, information and description that were redundant. I’d needed them to help develop the world but they weren’t needed for the story.

As a reader, I’m not a great fan of large passages of description. I prefer books where an author includes the bare minimum and trusts the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. I break up the description across a scene, gradually filling in detail without being too obtrusive. I am also very careful not to over-describe new technologies. I never say how a pod (a form of transportation) is powered, what it is made of, or even if it has wheels. I deliberately describe the doors “peeling open”, to give the reader a feeling of difference, but never how it works.

For this particular novel, I had another reason for taking a minimalist approach. Second Chance is written from the POV of a group of characters whose lives are split between the digital and the real world. This digital immersion means their focus on the real world is lessened. They are too distracted to take in detail like we (especially writers) possibly would. I only broadened the description in the latter stages of the book when real world events become too big to ignore.

Once I’d culled the ‘boring bits’ my book came in at 80,000 words. It’s then you have to rely on your beta readers to let you know when you’ve gone too far, either by not giving enough description or accidentally culling information crucial to the plot. It’s one of the biggest challenges in writing a book, because you know everything. It’s easy to assume you’ve conveyed key information when in reality it’s missing. Beta readers (along with editors) are absolutely essential to getting this process right. By the time I’d made my alterations based on beta reader feedback, despite further tightening of my prose, Second Chance eventually came in at 86,000 words.

I think you and your support team did a great job preserving the thread of the plot while allowing for some mystery. When I read Second Chance, I kept feeling like I was just on the edge of understanding things, and I didn’t want to put the book down!

When you talked about the characters’ lives being split between the digital world and the real world, it made me think about how much time people spend on social media in the real world today, and the many things that are competing for their attention. Given this environment, I imagine it was a bit challenging to gather an audience for your work. How did you engage your readers? Do you have any tips for DBW readers who are trying to build an audience?  

When people first start out on social media, especially writers looking to build a platform of readers, it’s tempting to continually promote your book or books, but it’s a big mistake. It’s called social media for a reason. These systems were created to allow people to connect and interact with other people. The problem is, because it’s online, many people behave completely differently than they would in similar situations in real life.

Say an old school friend you hadn’t seen for years held a party at their house and when you arrived you realised it was full of people you didn’t know. It would be a daunting situation for many of us. Now in that situation, how many people would walk in saying, “I’ve written a book. Buy my book, it’s on special offer. It’s a great story. 5-stars on Amazon. Buy my book!” You just wouldn’t do it, or if you did you’d end up standing alone in the corner fairly quickly, but that’s what many do on social media all the time.

You need to build relationships with people, one at a time, and as any dating expert will tell you, the best way of attracting someone is to show an active interest in them. Ask questions. Listen to what they are saying. Don’t just broadcast, engage. If you do talk about yourself, do it in a way that’s entertaining, engaging, but most importantly, natural. It’s very easy to detect when people are being false, or are engaging with you in order to sell you something.

With blogging, the most popular posts I’ve written have been those people can relate to. I write a lot about writing but not how to write. If people want to learn the writing craft there are much better qualified folk around than me. I tend to talk about life as a writer, self-publishing, editing — often seriously, but sometimes with a little humour. I also buy and read a lot of indie books and promote those I enjoy. It’s my way of paying something back to the supportive indie community.

One of the things I rarely do is actively promote my own books. I may share a nice review somebody else has written, and have once or twice run promotions (and I do leave a little promo at the end of my blog posts about my mailing list), but I don’t shove my books down people’s throats.

That’s not to say you can’t gain sales over social media, but the majority of people need to get to know you first, before they’re willing to have a look at what you’ve written.

I had to laugh at the image of someone running around at a party shouting “buy my book.” That type of behaviour is certainly out there on social media. I like the philosophy put forward in a great book called Your Network is Your Net Worth (by Porter Gale) – “Give Give Get.” That’s really what it’s all about.

Speaking of relationship-building, I feel like I’ve gotten to know you a lot better through this interview. I didn’t know, for example, that music was such a large part of your life. I’m a piano player myself, and music has been a great source of energy for me, almost like a form of meditation. Before we wrap this up, I’m curious – do you still play in a band? Do you listen to music as you write? What type of music do you enjoy?

I’m afraid I don’t play in a band any more. What with writing, working, having a family with young children and some voluntary work I do, there just isn’t the time. It’s a shame, though, as I really miss playing live. I’ve not completely let go, however. I have a good friend who plays in a number of bands, runs a recording studio and arranges regular live gigs, and he often persuades me to do things with him. Most recently he asked me to sing backing vocals and develop a few harmonies for his latest track. You can listen to it at https://thegoodyearsband.bandcamp.com/track/run  or even buy the track if you like it enough!

There was one lesson I learned while being in a band that is just as appropriate for writing. You have to put yourself to one side and concentrate on what’s right for the song. It might have a riff that’s boring to play, or lyrics which are monotonous, or a beat that’s not particularly challenging, but you sacrifice your own interest or feeling in order to play a great song because it’s the song that’s king. It’s the same with writing. As Bill Clinton may have once said, “it’s the story, stupid.” I continually review what I’ve written in terms of what’s best for the story. I’m not precious about what I’ve written at all. If deleting a phrase, paragraph or even whole chapters improves a story, then I’ll do it regardless of how much effort it took to write them in the first place. I’ve just come to the conclusion with my current draft that a large part of one character’s journey isn’t necessary to be experienced — we just need to see the before and after. It works for the book but it means deleting four chapters, well over a week’s work.

My personal music tastes are really varied. I’ve always loved film scores, not so much those with a strong melody (like those by John Williams) but those that convey atmosphere and emotion. One of my favourites is the soundtrack to The Thin Red Line by Hans Zimmer, especially the journey to the line. Beautiful.

I have an abiding love for alternative music. Anything with discordant guitars, interesting song structures or just bags of energy will get me going. I’m a great believer that the music you listen to in your late teens stays with you for life. For me, I can listen to songs from bands like Radiohead, Ride, Nirvana, Blur, Pavement, and Elbow that are now twenty years old and they still sound as fresh today as they did then. That said, I’ve become a lot more open to all types of music, from electronica to modern classical, Americana to a good old pop song.

When I write, I can’t listen to music. I get easily distracted and find song lyrics mysteriously appearing in my text. That said, I use music a lot to get into the mood of a scene. I see writing as very similar to acting — you have to get into the heads of your characters. Sometimes this can be difficult when you’ve just dropped your kids off to school and you have to come home, sit down (with a cup of tea) and write an emotionally charged scene. I’ll use music then to help me slip into the right mood.

While I don’t normally talk about my personal thoughts on characters or scenes for fear of altering the picture readers have built in their own minds, I’ll share one example of a track I used. The final scenes of Second Chance were written against a backdrop of the song “Angel” by Massive Attack. If Second Chance was made into a film, I’d love to see this used as the story reaches its climax.

I can’t write with music on, either. I keep getting absorbed into the song. 🙂

And that’s a perfect song for the end of Second Chance. Thanks for sharing it. And thanks for sharing all your thoughts on writing and community with my readers!

***

Image courtesy of Dylan Hearn

For those of you who are interested in checking out Dylan’s debut novel Second Chance, you can find it here.

Do you have a question for Dylan, or a comment on our interview? Please continue the conversation below. We’d love to chat with you!

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?