Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Wording For Today

Here's a short passage from a book I'm reading at the moment - Sabriel, by Garth Nix, arguably one of the greatest fantasy authors alive today.

A small figure was busy climbing over the gate, nimbly avoiding the spikes that were supposed to stop such activities. She dropped the last few feet and started running, her pigtails flying, shoes clacking on the bricks. Her head was down to gain momentum, but as cruising speed was established, she looked up, saw Sabriel and the dead rabbit, and screamed.

... here's another, this one from a bloke called Tolkien ...

A nice pickle they were all in now: all neatly tied up in sacks, with three angry trolls sitting by them, arguing whether they should roast them slowly, or mince them fine and boil them, or just sit on them one by one and squash them into jelly; and Bilbo up in a bush, with his clothes and his skin torn, not daring to move for fear they should hear him.

... and a third, from a lady named Jo ...

Harry tried to turn back towards the gryffindor goal posts; he had half a mind to ask Wood to call time out - and then he realised that his broom was completely out of his control. He couldn't turn it. He couldn't direct it at all. It was zig-zagging through the air and every now and then making violent swishing movements which almost unseated him. Lee was still commentating.

To get these quotes, I stood up and grabbed three books from my shelf, then flipped to random pages until I found what I wanted. It didn't take long, maybe twenty seconds.


Recently, I've noticed a pattern in some of the reviews I've been reading on OWW. Someone, somewhere, has put it in people's heads that words ending in "ing" (technically known as present-participles) should be avoided at all costs, and that any sentence featuring the word "was" is automatically passive.

Now, I'm certainly no expert, but I don't need to be. All I need to do is point to the above three quotes. By my count, there's a total of 13 "ing" words, and 5 clauses with the word "was", just in this little selection, the one that took me all of 20 seconds to find.

Here's my understanding, and the quotes above back me up. No word is, in itself, bad. Every word in the English language is there to be used, nothing should be avoided. What should be avoided is overuse - where a word rattles around so frequently it becomes an irritation, a buzzing in the reader's ear. That doesn't just relate to "was", or words that end in "ing" - any word can be overused, and most writers have their pets (mine is "just").

Present-participles are used to express parallel, as opposed to sequential, action. "John picked up the book, looked around, then scratched his head." is sequential. It contains no "ing" words, but if you ask me, it's artificial and stilted. "John picked up the book, looking around and scratching his head." is parallel, three actions are happening together at the same time. In my opinion, the sentence is more alive, more natural. To discourage the use of such helpful verbs, simply because they end in "ing", is (as a teacher of mine used to say) really rather silly.

As for "was" - I think part of the problem is a general misunderstanding of the definition of a "passive" sentence. In a passive sentence, the subject has something "done to it", rather than the subject itself doing the action. Example - "The book was read by John." The subject (the book) has something done to it (it is read by John). Therefore the subject (the book) is "passive" - it just sits there and allows itself to be read. "John read the book." Here, the subject of the sentence (John) is performing the action (reading the book), the subject is therefore "active" - and so is the sentence.

Note (and I think that herein lies the confusion) that the passive version contains the word "was", whereas the active version does not. But it's not the presence or absence of "was" that makes the difference - it's who is acting and who is being acted upon. A sentence can feature the word "was" and still be perfectly active - as in: "A small figure was busy climbing the gate" or "It was zig-zagging through the air".

I don't normally clutter up these blog-posts with writing advice, simply because I don't feel qualified to give any. But I think this is a good encouragement for us to be wary of what we hear, and to think carefully before taking on board advice that could well be deeply flawed. There's nothing worse than a writer becoming hamstrung - their natural style restricted by a fear of using "forbidden" words. Writing is hard enough as it is.

So, if in doubt, go to the greats. Pick up the books on your shelf and see how the so-called rules you have heard stack up. With the likes of Garth, John and Jo on your side, you can hardly go wrong.

Update - I sat down tonight to read more of Sabriel, and this is the first sentence that greeted me.

Gray mist coiling upwards, twining around him like a clinging vine, gripping arms and legs, immobilising, strangling, merciless.

I am resting my case.

Friday, July 17, 2009


I wrote this a little while ago on my personal blog. In response to the article by Sean Williams, which I posted yesterday, I thought it was appropriate to share it here. It's not, I hope, me feeling sorry for myself. It's more an expression of feeling, otherwise known as a good vent.

It's funny, being a nobody in this writing business. You grovel to authors to get them to read your stuff, then wait endlessly while your manuscript gathers dust on their shelves. You grab every opportunity to post comments on agent's blogs, no matter the subject, hoping they might somehow notice you amongst the throng. You write a blog that only two or three people read, trying desperately to come up with intelligent, witty and relevant posts in case some agent or publisher happens to pass by. You battle just to get half an hour of writing time, and often, when you do, you feel guilty thinking about what else you should be doing. Then, all too often, by the time you fire up the laptop, it's so late at night you're too tired to be productive, and you give up, instead of writing something that's not your best. And, worst of all, you just don't know. You don't know whether it will ever happen, because you don't know if you have, or ever will have, what it takes. Sure, a few people have said they like your book, but are they trying to make you happy? Would they say the same thing about anything that fell into their laps? You don't know, and you can't know. Only time will tell.

But still you do it. Still you battle away, because you love it, and it's in your veins, and you're going to keep plugging away and moving forward inch by inch until something finally gives. Most of all, you do it because of that nagging voice - the one that whispers incessantly in your ear, telling you that failure is not even worth comparing to the tragedy of not trying at all.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Something Tough To Chew On.

Sean Williams is an aussie author of fantasy and sci-fi. I saw him speak once at a friend's book launch, and I follow his blog pretty closely, but I've never actually read any of his books (they're on my list, well and truly).

Early this week, in response to the death of Charles Brown, Sean wrote a post about the best writing advice he had ever received, which happened to come from Charles. Ever since I read it, it's been rattling around in my head, so I thought I would reproduce it here. Thanks to Sean, and many thanks to Charles. Rest in Peace.

Original post can be found here.

The best advice I ever received was from a guy called Charles Brown. He edits a magazine called LOCUS, which all the world's SF& F writers read to find out what's happening in the field. He's a big deal, in other words, and he came to talk to a bunch of new writers who'd won prizes in something called the Writers of the Future Contest.

I was among them. This was over fifteen years ago now, when I'd already decided to try to be a writer, but hadn't written any novels yet, or made much money at all. I was just hammering away at it because there was nothing else I wanted to do badly enough. The thought of spending most of my life doing something I hated, like being a doctor or a lawyer, was just unbearable.

Anyway, Charles sat us down and congratulated us on our success. It was pretty cool, he said; we should be proud of getting this far because not many people do. Of every hundred people who want to write, only one goes on to do something about it, to actually try writing something.

If you take a hundred of those people who actually do something about it, whether it's write a few poems or the beginning of a novel, only one in that hundred actually finishes anything.

And if you take a hundred of those finishers, only one of them will actually sell their work professionally.

If you add up all the zeroes, that means that just one wannabe writer in a million will sell or win an award for their story, poem or novel. So sitting around that table of prize-winners really was something to be proud of.

But that wasn't the end of it. If you take a hundred people who have sold a something they wrote, how many of them are likely to ever make a career out of writing? That is, how many will take that one sale and turn it into a regular income on which they can support themselves indefinitely?

Just one.

Well, I looked around the table. There were around twenty of us in the room, and we were all high on that the thought that we were real writers now. All our stories were going to win prizes, and all our novels would be bestsellers.

It doesn't work like that, Charlie said. If the odds are one in a hundred, then the chances were that none of us in that room were going to get anywhere. Oh, we might sell a few more stories, here and there. Maybe a novel, if we were lucky. But earn enough to make a living from it? Unlikely.

It would be better, he said, if we gave up right now. Saved ourselves the years of hardship and heartbreak. Put all that wasted energy into a career that would actually make money, and spare our families and loved ones all that frustration and anger when we didn't ultimately get anywhere. How many zeroes are we up to now? For every one hundred million people who dream of being a writer, there's just one who reaps the rewards. What makes you think you're going to be that one?

I listened to him and thought, "He's making perfect sense. Everything he says is true. It makes me feel sick inside to admit it, but I am crazy for thinking I might get anywhere. I know the odds are stacked against me, and only either pride or stupidity--or both--has got me this far. The bubble is bound to pop eventually, as it will for ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-eight other wannabe writers. And one lucky one will go on, not knowing just how lucky they are. Curse them."

It took me the rest of Charles's speech to realise that, although he was absolutely right, it didn't change a thing. Not one thing. The odds were still awful; I was an idiot for even trying. But if I didn't love it enough to keep doing it anyway, then I would never get anywhere, no matter how much I tried. I would be that one in one hundred million if I had to sweat blood to do it. I would prove Charles Brown absolutely right by doing the exact opposite of what he told me to do.

And I did.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Life in General

At the moment we're in mid-winter. Thankfully, I don't live in Moscow, or any of the other places in the world that get *really* cold in winter. Here, it's just wet and cold, not snowy and freezing. Most days of the week I catch the bus to work, then drive the (newly recovered but still stinking of tobacco) laser from the bus/train station to my home. On friday I did this, in the pitch black, pulling into my driveway to the sound or rain beating against the windshield and wind gusting through the trees. I got out of the car, grabbed my pack and my umbrella, went to the door and - after a struggle with the keys - managed to get it open.

And I'm greeted by light, warmth, the smell of cooking, and - best of all - my two little sons, sitting on their bikes in the doorway, waiting for me. They both have plastic yellow helmets on their heads, and Pip has made them pretend mail-bags to hang about their chests. They're postmen today, it would seem.

As I open the door and walk through, they shriek with delight, and ask me how my day was, and ask me if I got wet, and ask if I rang the doorbell, and tell me they have letters for me.

And I know for sure that life doesn't get any better than this.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Things You Learn

The main character in Ghost of Ping-Ling is named Dillen Applebee. He was called Dillen Applebee even before I started the book in 2001. I love that name, it conjures up a certain rustic simplicity, a wholesomeness, and most importantly, a sense of being absolutely ordinary.

BUT, I am now informed by my American friends on OWW that "Applebees" is a large chain over in that part of the world, selling pancakes or coffee or something (I can't remember exactly what). After the third reviewer told me the name had thrown them straight out of the narrative, I decided it had to go - as difficult a decision as that was.

So, Dillen Applebee is Dillen Applebee no more. After much exhaustive thought, and much scribbling and scratching out, I finally came up with a name that I think carries that same sense of homeliness and simplicity. I'm happy with it - I think it'll do nicely.

From now on, he shall be called Dillen McDonald.

Friday, July 3, 2009

More Short, Fast, Horrific Stories

Anyone with a good memory will recall that a few weeks ago I entered the Australian Horror Writer's Association Flash and Short Story Competition (I wrote about it here). I wrote a story in about an hour, posted it on OWW, made some changes in response to feedback, discovered the competition, and sent my submission with about twenty minutes remaining before the deadline.

Well, yesterday they announced the results, and this will probably suprise you as much as it shocked me, but .................... I didn't win!!

Not a sausage. Not even the complementary box of out-of-date sultanas they promised the runners up.

Really though, I didn't expect to win, and if I had, I wouldn't have thought very much of the standard of the competition. But the experience was invaluable, and now I'm keen to look out for other competitions that might be in the offing. Writing short stories is a great way to have a break from editing an 80,000 word novel, especially if the story is in a different genre than what I'm used to (like horror, for example). It's also a terrific way of polishing up skills.

I'm not about to give up on the story I submitted. With some work it should be in much better shape to submit to future competitions, maybe even the same one next time it comes round. Watch this space.