Archive | Composition RSS feed for this section

Pro-Tip: Setting

5 Oct

It’s important to ground your writing in a time and place. This isn’t just for fiction writers, either. Every discourse needs a context. It’s not enough just to say that someone is in Philly on a Saturday afternoon. Yes, that is a place and time, but it doesn’t tell the reader anything about the larger scope of the scenario. Is this past, present, or future? Go beyond that, as well. If your character is in Chicago in the present, but your narrative flashes back three years to that time she visited Quebec, you’ll still need to tell the reader when NOW is and when THREE YEARS AGO was. Is NOW actually now, 2015? Or, is the NOW in your story 1955? From that point, the flashbacks and flashforwards will be greatly impacted. 2012 was a lot different than 1952. So, while visual (and other sensory) descriptions of your setting are very important in order for the reader to get a sense of what physically surrounds the characters, that setting isn’t just floating in some ambiguous time in history.

Example: Marley and Chris rounded the corner of 5th Avenue to hail a cab. It was a beautiful summer day, and there were lots of people about. Chris stepped to the littered curb and coolly signaled the yellow minivan. When it skimmed the sidewalk, leaves and papers rustled past. Marley approached, lost in thoughts of three years earlier. Not much around her had changed. The air smelled the same—hot, vaguely polluted, with mingled aromas of ethnic foods—and the buildings around her still stood watching in their fading brick skins. Beneath that, though, deeper, where the city had no jurisdiction over her thoughts, autumn was creeping in, and with it the rusty color-change of her feelings for Chris. Leaves drying before a fall.

Now, the paragraph above has a physical and geographical setting. It has a seasonal setting. It has sensory details about where they are currently, where they were three years before, and how that is impacting her emotionally. However, this paragraph would not be able to hold its own in a novel if this were the only indication of time and place. There are no markers to tell me when NOW and THREE YEARS AGO actually happened. The inclusion of a vehicle gives a better indication of NOW, but it still isn’t exact. We also can’t tell how old they are. Old enough to have been in a relationship for three years, but that still leaves a lot of options.
If this were a scene in the middle of a novel where those factors in question had already been established, there would, of course, be no need to repeat that information. If Marley frequently flashes back to three years ago, and that year was detailed in depth during the first flash back, it would be redundant to dig up those details every time. A casual reference of this kind would suffice.

The take-away, then, is situational. If you’re placing characters for the first time, the reader needs to know enough about that moment to ground them in the geography and era. You don’t want your readers imagining your futuristic, silicone body suit-wearing protagonist in a 1920s flapper dress. I assume. The pictures we imagine as we read are informed by what the author chooses to disclose. If you want a certain conclusion reached, or in this case a certain visual, lead the reader to it. Assess your situation scene by scene. Decide if you need that additional information or if it would be redundant to include it. Write accordingly.

And remember, this isn’t just for fiction despite my first example. A research paper, a piece of journalism, and editorial, a blog all need a context. It might be sufficient to say of a blog piece, “I’m on my couch with the cats writing this to you now.” A blog post will be time-stamped by the hosting website. Readers will know when NOW actually happened. An editorial on a great new restaurant might need more. “In order to miss the dinner crowd, I ate at Chez New Restaurant with my husband at 4pm. They just opened a week ago, which is a shame because opening a week earlier could have earned them the last of the summer vacationers, but I digress. We ordered the…” You get where I’m going with this. Without being overly detailed, the reader sees that I ate dinner, but early in the day, and that the restaurant is new as of the end of summer/early fall. Even without a specific date in the narrative, it gives a clear picture of the setting/season. I won’t bore you with more examples; the point is clear. Assess your scenario and the need-to-knows of your readers. Premeditate their questions and answer in advance by being detailed.

How do you ground your readers in a setting? I’d love to hear your methods in the comments!

Thanks for reading.

Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

Join me on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/marsicowritesite

Pro-Tip: Clarity in Paragraphs and Transitions

30 Sep

It’s easy enough to say that each paragraph you write should make sense. It’s an obvious thing for me to say, and all of you reading this are probably thinking,”Well, that’s not advice.” And you’re right. But beyond that, clarity in a paragraph means that each segment of text should have a distinguishing factor, a reason that it is its own paragraph. In short, a main idea that is summarizable. So, if a paragraph is separated from the one before or after it just as a break in text, for visual appeal or as a small breather, that’s not enough reason for the segment to stand alone. If that separate segment doesn’t have its own main point, its own idea or skeleton that makes it exist separately from the previous paragraph, then it shouldn’t be separate. 

Don’t let high school lessons on paragraphs trip you. Forget the “a paragraph has about five sentences” lesson, and forget the “that paragraph is the entire page” complaint. If there is a reason for all of those thoughts to exist together, then so be it. BUT, that is the great and determining question, both for deciding if you need to break into a new paragraph or group smaller segments into one large piece. Ask yourself: 

  • Are like ideas together?
  • Does this paragraph have a main point?
  • Although related overall, does it exist independently of the previous and following paragraph?

Depending on your answers, you’ve either created a clear paragraph with backbone and purpose, or you haven’t. Revise accordingly.

If you have no reason for a paragraph to be on its own, if it’s a continuation of the previous paragraph, put it with that other paragraph. Keep like ideas together. Otherwise, have a good reason for your choices.

  • Example: Breaking a paragraph in the middle of one narrative moment because the paragraph looks too long on the page versus purposeful/stylistic dislocation or repetition of an idea apart from the main narrative that contains it to achieve flashback or flash forward

When you do need to start a new paragraph, use topic sentences or transition sentences. They say, “Here I am. I am related to the general ideas of the text as a whole, but I am my own entity. I am taking you from the idea in that paragraph to this one, and even though we’re different, we belong together. I’ll prove it.” And then you use the body of that paragraph to prove it. I’ve always said, and any of my formers students reading this can attest, that if you want your reader to reach a certain conclusion about your ideas, you must lead them there with transitions. What you see as related may not seem so apparent to others without that clear signal. You’re the writer. Of course YOU know what you’re trying to say. Will your reader? As such, use that transition as the topic sentence which lends the new paragraph clarity for being its own thing, clarity/summarizabiltiy in its topic, and clarity in its purpose for existing in the story at all. Again, if the paragraph doesn’t do these things, it probably shouldn’t be there (either on its own, or maybe at all–see pro-tip on letting go of the junk).

Finally, keep in mind that all of this advice on paragraph breaks applies only to narrative and content paragraphs. Dialogue, of course, does not fit in this scenario because all new beginnings of dialogue, whether switching between speakers or switching between speaker and narrative, begin a new paragraph. This is a rule of formatting not to be confused with what I’ve said here about lumping large pieces of text together if it all has the same main idea. Please don’t do that with dialogue. 

For more discussion, see the comments section below or email me at marsicoam@gmail.com! In the meantime,

Happy writing!

Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

Pro-Tip: Reigning in the Obsessive Reviser

4 Sep

Reigning in the obsessive reviser, also called moving on.

As authors, we are our own worst critics, and there will always be those features (in our writing and in ourselves) we’d like to strengthen. A piece of writing (or art of any kind) never feels completely finished in the eyes of its perfectionist creator. And let’s be real—authors, for the most part, are just like that by nature. I know I am. You may realize after adding more material, completing some revisions, or going through a total overhaul of ideas that what worked during an earlier iteration of your project no longer achieves the desired goal in the newest. So, if a story-line, character, sentence, or word isn’t doing the work you need it to do, change it. Just remember that, when revising, the goal isn’t to get it perfect or even good enough, but to make it good for now. Revision is a recursive process. You will do it again. And again.

If your text isn’t perfect after that one mid-write edit, oh well. Keep going. If your text isn’t perfect after that midnight revise, oh well. Come back to it tomorrow. If your text isn’t perfect after your 5-minutes-until-due-date scramble, oh well. Turn it in anyway. You must resist the urge to edit so fiercely along the way that you cease to write anything new and, instead, produce one-hundred versions of the same paragraph, page, chapter, without progressing or meeting deadlines.

I’ll say it again: Revision is repetitive, but it is not meant to achieve perfection—especially if that obsessive quest for perfection results in late or no submissions. That’s not perfect at all. The point is, you WILL have the chance to make more changes (even if you are working on a deadline). What I mean by this is that, if on a deadline, you get the text to a “good for now” status—the best work you can do in the time given—and you pry your pen out of your hand or off of the keyboard in order to submit it. If the compulsion to continue revising remains, go ahead and work more on your copy of the text knowing that the submitted work was good for now, as complete or concise or creative or accurate as it could be with the time and resources allowed, and just move on.

Pro-Tip: Dump the Junk

2 Sep

If something in your writing isn’t working, CHANGE IT. Don’t get too attached to the first version (or second or third) of something. Jot it down and save it for later before erasing it from your work completely. It may become useful again in a different area of the text. If not, it may apply to another project at another time. This is especially useful for those lines we write and really, really love. You know the ones. They’re hard to delete even if they’re no longer serving your purpose. Sometimes things get said just right. So dump the junk, but save it. Be a line-hoarder. Your literary house is spotless, but you’ve got that crammed closet your friends don’t know about. If and when they find it, you know what it’s there for. Like Monica says in the video link, it’s where all the things that don’t fit in belong.

Pro-Tip: Purpose

29 Aug

Every text begins with a purpose which its author must decide.

  • What do you want a particular piece to achieve?
  • What do you want your reader to get from it?
  • What’s the finished product for in terms of the type of text and the value/meaning of what’s said?
    • Examples: If fiction, is it meant to entertain? If research, is it meant to inform, call to action, argue or influence, etc.?

Answer these questions before you start writing, and check in with yourself periodically to make sure every choice you make works toward that goal you first set. If you’ve veered away from the purpose, get back on track. If your purpose has changed (and it’s fine if it does–it happens), make sure the entire text follows suit. It can’t seem as if you jumped ship half way through to begin on some new and unrelated adventure. The takeaways here are consistency and usefulness. The entire text must work toward the same general end result, and every single item mentioned must have a reason for being there, a job to do in the context of that purpose. If not, chuck it.

Questions or comments, chime in below! Happy writing.

Amanda Marsico

-Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

Self-Editing Tip #24–Cliches

19 Sep

The most basic definition of a cliché that I can give you is this: A cliché is any phrase that is so overused, hackneyed, and tossed about carelessly that it has lost all the power its meaning once had. Like I said, that’s a basic definition. Entire situations, settings, and plots can be cliché as well.

Give it the cliché test–When you read it, try to imagine the profundity and impact it made the very first time it was ever put on paper. If it doesn’t seem all that special anymore, it’s probably a cliché. If you groan when you hear it, it’s probably a cliché. If you lose faith in the originality of an author simply for its inclusion in the text, it’s probably a cliché. Or, you could also just go to this website and see if the phrase is on the list.

Phrase Examples:

  • “All over the map”
  • “Axe to grind”
  • “Fan the flames”
  • “Nice guys finish last.”
  • “Pay the piper”
  • “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

There are an abundance of clichés, but don’t forget that it’s not just what is said, but where it takes place and how that can make a reader want to put the text away.

Plot Examples:

  • Love triangle
  • Supernatural/fantasy creatures
    • Think about how innovative Tolkien’s creations were. He was on of the first true fantasy writers. Now think about what you see as soon as you walk into the book store—hundreds of teen fantasy books that differ only slightly. Even the covers look the same (check out BuzzFeed’s 19 Book Cover Cliches).
    • Bad guy change of heart
    • Break-up aftermath

This list could get extensive as well. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s hard to be totally original in plot creation, and there’s a good reason for it. We all write from and about the human condition and experience (whether our characters are human or not). Because we are human, these are the ideas that inform our creative process. In addition, there are only a fixed number of character interactions possible to create a plot. Carlo Gozzi and Georges Polti were creators of the list of 36 Dramatic Situations. So, most plots are cliché because there really is not a way to be totally original in our time. If you take something that is written about countless times, it might be boring, or it might not. It’s up to you. What makes it cliché is that the plot follows the same predictable path of unfolding events. Change things up and you’re set.

Happy writing!

–Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

marsicoam@gmail.com

www.facebook.com/marsicowritesite

https://twitter.com/MarsWriteSite

www.linkedin.com/pub/amanda-marsico/7b/ab8/b/

http://pinterest.com/wordsnsounds/

Self-Editing Tip #23–Taking a Step Back

13 Sep

Even editors need an editor sometime. AND IT’S OK. Don’t think of it as an admission of imperfection or as a sign of incapability to improve your own writing. The reality is that after working on your own project for a considerable amount of time, it becomes nearly impossible to see certain mistakes. After reading through a 300-page manuscript three times, you know what you’re trying to say. That doesn’t mean the writing makes the point so clear. It’s OK to need an outsider to say, “Hey, that section isn’t very cohesive,” or, “I don’t think you followed through with that thought.”

So, it doesn’t matter how great of an editor of other people’s work you are—you can’t always be that great editor for your own work. Yes, do your self-editing, do your grammar checks, spell checks, typo checks. Yes, try to make sure you tie up all the loose ends, the Chekhov guns and Red Herrings. But don’t get your pride hurt for realizing you need a second, third, fourth reader to make sure you’ve found all the missteps. Besides, what aspiring writer would ever turn down valuable input from the people that could one day become a paying audience?

Take a step back and enjoy what your writing has become.

P.S. It’s OK to get help.

 

Happy editing!

–Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

marsicoam@gmail.com

www.facebook.com/marsicowritesite

https://twitter.com/MarsWriteSite

www.linkedin.com/pub/amanda-marsico/7b/ab8/b/

http://pinterest.com/wordsnsounds/

Image

Don’t Get Attached

4 Sep

CHANGE IS GOOD!

     

Self-Editing Tip #21–The Known-New Contract

28 Aug

In keeping with our composition-related topics this week, we’re going to talk about the known-knew contract. Simply put, this states that you give readers a little bit of what they already know as clarification, reiteration, or summary in order to lead in new material. It’s a way to keep the text cohesive by relating it back to what you’ve already stated. This principle is generally taught in relation to academic writing, but I’ve always thought it applies to every type of text (except poetry).

In its originally intended use, the essay, you’d put this to work by grabbing bits of your introduction statements, or details from previous body paragraphs, to clarify and link the new points you make as you move forward.

Ex. Known-New at paragraph level (bold type = known, underlined = new)

Thesis: Solar panels are the future of energy efficiency.

Paragraph 1—a fact is stated: Solar panels are efficient because they reduce x, y, and z.

Paragraph 3—remind readers of the fact to lead in a new idea: Since solar panels reduce x, y, and z, advocates of green living are pushing for tax incentives for those who purchase panels for their homes.

In business writing, this is especially important. Consider a project proposal or summary with lots of technical jargon. Those documents are meant to make a very specific type of (often persuasive) statement. It’s the known-new contract that helps a writer make sure the reader walks away remembering the most relevant points.

Ex. Known-New at sentence level and paragraph level (bold type = known, underlined = new)

Proposal Topic: New Ad Campaign

Paragraph 1—proposal for ad campaign: We propose a new ad campaign for television. A television campaign will increase our company’s exposure to potential customers by 60%.

Paragraph 2—supporting facts: Increasing our exposure by 60% will cost us $x in resources with a potential $x profit.

In fiction, you must remember your audience. If the story is geared towards younger readers, the action of linking previous plot details to the new ones is more important than stories for older readers. The reading skill of tying events together to get that “Oh, I see what just happened,” moment develops with age. Plainly stated, the little ones need the writer to connect the dots for them more often than teens, and teens more often than adults. Don’t insult your audience’s intelligence by including too many breadcrumbs back to the “known.”

Ex. Known-New at chapter/plot level (bold type = known, underlined = new)

Chapter 4—“Melissa, did I tell you about that guy I met at the mall yesterday?”

Chapter 6—“Chris, the guy from the mall, never called.”

There’s a fine balance to strike in order to make a cohesive story that isn’t redundant or dumbed down. It takes practice. Ask yourself, “If I don’t restate this point in some way, will my audience forget about it/no longer understand the text as a whole/fail to put together a key dramatic moment meant to coalesce in this moment?

 

Happy writing!

 

–Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

marsicoam@gmail.com

www.facebook.com/marsicowritesite

https://twitter.com/MarsWriteSite

http://pinterest.com/wordsnsounds/

Self-Editing Tip #20–The Red Herring

26 Aug

Ok, guys. I promised on Friday that today’s discussion would continue the composition-related tips. Let’s talk about the good ol’ Red Herring principle. Like Chekhov’s Gun, this topic deals with the motivation behind including details in a piece of text. However, while Chekhov’s Gun is inherently good in its intentions—advising writers how to follow up on details—a Red Herring is more mischievous. It might be something you want to avoid for genres outside of mystery/detective or action/suspense/drama.

The label is used to describe two instances. The first is a more general situation not limited to literature: the logical fallacy. The logical fallacy is something you’ll want to avoid no matter what you’re writing. Check your text. You’ve got one if, whether intentionally or accidentally, the premise stated never truly supports the proposed conclusion. As a literary device, non sequiturs do this to the extreme as a comedic tool. Non sequiturs in logic are similar in that the conclusion does not logically follow the support given beforehand, but in logic, the goal is not humor.

Ex. You’ve got so many books in your office! I bet the trashcan gets full quickly.

As a literary device, a red herring is a purposefully misleading detail that distracts from the true plot point or conclusion and, therefore, leads readers to believe x,y, or z is different than it is.

Ex. You tell your readers that Joe is dead. They stop wondering if he was the killer. All the while, the killings continue. The readers don’t realize yet that Joe isn’t dead, he is the killer, and he has continued killing under the cover of his “death.”

This would be a great use of the Red Herring concept. When written in a way that improves suspense, shock, or mystery there’s nothing wrong with misleading readers a little. It just needs to be done within a genre that can support that type of trickery, and done in a way that enhances, not irritates. And remember, confusion is not the same as mystery!

There are so many real-life variations of the red herring, wild goose chase, and other similar plot distractions named after wildlife. Check out the Chewbacca Case and Cherry Picking if you’d like to know more. I can’t list them all.

 

Happy deceiving!

 

–Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

marsicoam@gmail.com

www.facebook.com/marsicowritesite

https://twitter.com/MarsWriteSite

http://pinterest.com/wordsnsounds/

%d bloggers like this: