Writing advice, Writing and Editing

8 Rules For Beginners (And We’re All Beginners)

Sir V.S. Naipaul is the Nobel Prize winning English author The Mystic Masseur and many other works of both fiction and nonfiction. As an aide to a younger writer (who was struggling to overcome the academic-style jargon of the University) Sir Naipaul wrote up seven rules for beginning writers. By following these rules studiously for six months, the young writer was able to reinvent her writing style and publish her first book.

The key here (in my mind) was that the struggling young writer was not truly a beginning writer. She already knew how to write, well enough to at least successfully complete a University education. She was not learning to write, so much as she was learning to write seriously.

I would posit that no one reading my little essay is truly a beginning writer (I doubt many seven or eight-year-olds are reading this.) However, many of us are just beginning to try our hand at serious writing. Writing stories and novels that captivate readers’ imaginations, poetry that describes the indescribable, or nonfiction that makes the universe of reality come alive on the page.

These are the beginners Sir Naipaul wrote his rules for: us.

  1. Do not write long sentences.

A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words. It’s hard for most readers to keep track of such a complicated string of ideas. It can often be hard for the writer to do that too and it shows in the writing. I call it making the sentence work too hard. Have pity on the poor things.

  1. Each sentence should make a clear statement.

This builds on the previous rule. A sentence has one job and that is to make a statement, state one truth. By creating complex, intricate, sentences, we are often asking them to do too much. We overtax them. And like anything, when we overtax it, the sentence gets less and less efficient at its job. Short statements have power. Short sentences have impact. They are also much easier to read. If your prose seems confusing or disorganized, one of the first things to check is your sentences. You’re probably asking them to do too much.

  1. Do not use big words.

If you go back and find your word processor says your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small, common, words forces us to give great thought to what we’re writing. Though it isn’t easy, even the most difficult concepts can be expressed with small words. But it takes more work, more creativity. Do that work. Be creative.

  1. Never use words whose meanings you are not sure of.

Nothing marks an amateur than misusing words. As the movie said: “I do not think that words means what you think it does.” The writer needs the reader to believe her authority enough to buy in to their story. Using the wrong word kills that authority quicker than anything. We are writers. If want to be respected, we need to be professional users of language.

  1. Avoid adjectives and adverbs as much as possible.

Most adjectives and adverbs do little for your writing but slow it down and soften its impact. You can’t always make your project work without any at all, but you should try. Your prose will be crisper if you do.

  1. Avoid the abstract.

The concrete is always more powerful than the abstract. It’s why the folklore of virtually every culture developed fables and folktales. It is a much more effective way of teaching an audience, than simple telling them to follow a rule. Think of the fable of the grasshopper and the ant. The grasshopper lounges away the summer days while the ant works hard gathering and storing food. When winter comes, the grasshopper is starving, but the ant has gathered plenty of food. The tale is much more effective than simply saying: “You need to save for the future.” Concrete is more effective than abstract.

  1. Every day, practice writing this way.

Small words; clear concrete sentences; one idea at a time. It is training you in the use of the language.

These rules are intended to help with those periods (which we all have, sooner or later) when we get bogged down in some writing project or other. Often it’s because we have lost focus. More often, it’s because we have overestimated our own writing abilities and have tried to do too much. Returning to these basic rules can often show us how to work through our problem. As with much in this life, simple is often better than complex and that’s the gist of these rules: try to simplify.

writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Writing the Set Piece, An Analysis

One of the most difficult things to write, in my experience and opinion, is what the film students call a “set piece.” By this, I mean a large, often chaotic, scene or series of scenes involving multiple people and closely linked events. Think of a complicated battle scene, or a large cocktail party, a crowded nightclub, or a concert.

Now think about rendering it so that your reader feels the chaos, the over stimulation, but without having the event become a novel in itself. It’s difficult.

Providing we aren’t using an all-seeing omniscient narrator looking down from above to point out events, but are trying to show how one, human character experiences them, how do we render such scenes? How do we let the reader feel the chaos, the excitement, the fear? How do we do it, yet still keep the narrative moving forward?

To attempt an answer to these questions, I consulted an expert: John Sanford. Recently, I finished reading one of his very good novels (I have yet to read a bad novel by John Sanford, to be truthful) named Dark of the Moon. In this novel, a mystery/thriller hybrid, Mr. Sanford has his protagonist, an investigator named Virgil Flowers, accompany some DEA agents on a meth lab raid that turns into a firefight.

It’s a very effective scene, done very well. So I decided to analyze it. What did Mr. Sanford do to make this firefight scene so effective I remembered it weeks after finishing the novel.

Here are the techniques I noticed.

First, though the entire firefight sequence takes only seventeen of the novel’s three hundred seventy-three pages (not a major scene by any means), Mr. Sanford renders the action in twenty-one scenes. Some of them are only a few sentences long. This serves to speed up the action by having the reader process many short scenes quickly.

Second, Mr. Sanford reinforces the sense of urgency and danger with his sentence structure:

The third truck went past the driveway turnoff and set up on the road. The fourth stopped across the driveway, and the fifth stopped short, the agents out in the road. Virgil swerved around the back truck and put the Explorer in the ditch opposite the end of the driveway and shouted ‘Out the left side, left side,” and they both got under cover, saw running agents on the road, and then the gunfire.

Notice that Mr. Sanford uses almost no adjectives or adverbs in the previous passage, just enough to tell the trucks apart. That speeds up the pace of the story tremendously. He also structures his sentences in short, powerful phrases: ‘…the fifth stopped short, the agents out in the road.’ Long, complicated sentences are slow and mellow. People in high stress situations neither think nor talk in complicated constructs. That they reserve for lazy afternoons out on the back porch.

Third, he occasionally goes to the other extreme and uses a run-on construction:

Heard somebody screaming. Another agent, behind the other truck, was shouting at him, and Virgil saw a bloody patch in the dust behind him, but the agent was still operating and he pointed out between the trucks and Virgil saw a third agent down and he shouted back, and the other agent screamed, ‘You get him, I’ll unload on the house, I can’t move, I’m hit…

It works as a run-on sentence tied together with no less than five uses of the conjunction “and.” Normally, this type of sentence is a no-no. But in this case what it does is give the reader a sense of a lot of things happening at the same time. It is chaotic and above all rises the sensory memory of the first powerful statement, ‘Heard somebody screaming.’ Together, the sentences render a brilliant picture of a chaotic, dangerous and terrifying situation.

He uses the same techniques in the dialogue of the scenes. They reflect and reinforce the urgency of the situation. Under the extreme stress of a battlefield situation, where lives are in danger, people don’t converse like they would in a coffee shop.

At one point, the protagonist, Virgil Flowers, grabs a first aid kit and goes to the aid of a wounded colleague:

“…Virgil crawled up and shouted, ‘How bad?’
‘It hurts. I think it broke my shoulder,’ Pirelli shouted back. Everybody was shouting. Virgil could hear men screaming all around the house and hundreds of rounds pumping out. The house seemed to be falling apart, but there was still fire incoming.

Short, declarative sentences. No time or energy wasted in pleasantries. Everything, every word written screams the urgency of the situation. Then:

’No artery, don’t see any arterial bleeding,’ and Pirelli nodded and said. ‘Reload me.’

Now, let’s return to Mr. Sanford’s use of scenes to render the firefight. As I said before, he used twenty-one scenes over seventeen pages, which serves to speed the action along. But there is more to the story. Of those twenty-one scenes, fully half of them are very short, little more than a paragraph or two.

What does this do? It speeds things up even more. But more important, it gives the reader a break and simultaneously increases the urgency of the action that appears in the existing scenes. The problem is that the human brains is built in such a way that it won’t accept a great deal of intensity at one time, not voluntarily.

If John Sanford had written his firefight sequence as one continual scene, even using exactly the same language, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. Whether the reader recognized it, or not, all those scene breaks gave her exactly that: breaks. Breaks from the intensity.

If it had been written as one long scene, odds are the reader would either be forced into skipping ahead over the more intense parts, or would grow accustomed to that intensity, making it less effective.

Together, John Sanford used all these techniques to create a wonderfully memorable scene. With practice, and the lessons learned from this master, perhaps we will be able to do the same in our own work.