Ix's slick writing tips

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Ix's slick writing tips

Hey folks. So here’s a thing that happened: I was over in the writers’ lounge and there was a bit of a general grump going on. Among the causes of the discontent was a general feeling that grammar and ‘good writing’ (whatever that is) are not as well represented as they might be among the top stories on this site. Understandably, people looking for fuck stories are not predisposed to reserve their upvotes for a masterfully employed semicolon; nor are they likely to stay their hand from downvoting a story because of its refusal to carelessly split infinitives.

One of the authors being complained about in the chat popped up and was generally very positive about the criticism and their desire to improve their work. They were much nicer about it than I suspect I would have been. So, as someone who likes to think they know a thing or two about words, I thought providing a few bits of general writing advice might be a constructive response to the whole affair.

Writing about writing is notoriously fraught with danger. Any rule you state is almost certainly one you have broken somewhere within your own work. Frankly, you’re doing well if you manage to avoid providing examples of the mistakes you’re talking about in the very piece of writing you discuss them in. It’s a truism that as soon as you publish something you will immediately see a glaring error, and that goes double when you write something that, by its nature, will provoke gleeful joy from anyone who spots such an error and gets to point it out.

With this in mind, I drafted a few points I thought it would be worth sharing on the thread, and that drafting process produced enough words that I thought it would be better just to publish them as an essay. That’s what you’re reading right now. This isn’t a definitive list of everything a writer should think about, but I do flatter myself that it lays out quite a few things that it’s helpful to bear in mind when reading over your first draft. Some of the points that are made here have their origin in the critique of a single story; others are my personal crusades. So if it feels like I’ve chosen a fairly arbitrary ***********ion of things to talk about, that’s why.

The reader only has your words to guide them

When you have a picture in your mind of what you want to happen in a story, it’s surprisingly easy to leave out details that you plan to rely on. Ideally, important events in your narrative shouldn’t require your reader to reassess their assumptions about what’s going on. This can be tricky, as you don’t want to be constantly adding prosaic details like, “There was a chair on the deck”, but at the same time, if someone’s going to jump on a chair it’s helpful for the reader to know in advance that it’s there. A bit of flowery de***********ion can be useful here. “The deck was strewn with a few weathered wooden chairs and a forlorn patio umbrella” pulls double duty, setting the scene and subtly letting the reader know about a prop you’re planning to use.

A related problem is that the reader can’t hear your voice. When you speak out loud the rise and fall of your voice clears up a lot of potential ambiguity. Write those same words down and there’s a good chance that a previously comprehensible sentence will become confusing as hell. Unfortunately, when you read back your own words it’s tough not to ‘hear’ the emphasis you intended, so unless you’re very careful you can end up with text that reads just fine to you, while leaving other people scratching their heads. An important part of the art of writing, then, is making it completely clear what you mean using text alone. In my opinion, that’s the main trick you should be looking to pull work to turn your first draft into a polished story.

To start with, take things a sentence at a time, then move on to looking at how sentences work with each other, and finally to do a paragraph-level analysis. I think the following checklist provides a good starting point for critiquing any unit of writing you’re examining:

Can it be clearer?

Can it be simpler?

Can it be shorter?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, then it doesn’t immediately mean the writing is ‘wrong’, or ‘bad’. You can usually make a sentence simpler and shorter by deleting adjectives and adverbs. Often that’s a good call, but not always. It’s just something to think about. I advocate erring on the side of clarity, simplicity and brevity whenever you’re in doubt.

Simplicity and brevity are pretty self-explanatory virtues, I think. A sentence that, by being more complicated than it needs to be, confuses with its great number of sub-clauses and myriad conjunctions, not to mention unnecessarily sprinkling in copious amounts of flowery, polysyllabic adjectives and adverbs, will inevitably confuse the beleaguered reader beyond any nascent interest they have, and will hence be extraordinarily difficult to read with any degree of ease. See?

When it comes to clarity though, it’s trickier to pin down what’s clear and what isn’t. This is where a certain amount of technical pedantry can be extremely helpful. It’s not necessary, or even desirable, to follow strict rules of grammar and form all the time, but if you ever want to make a piece of writing clearer, an appreciation of such rules can be very helpful. There are three topics that spring to mind here. They’re not the only ones, but they’re biggies: Pronouns, Tenses and Point of View

Pronouns

Simple pronouns are basically all the words you use to avoid naming the same thing over and over again. It’s clunky to say “Edmund got in the car and drove the car to the shop”, so you say “Edmund got in the car and drove it to the shop”. Examples of these basic sorts of pronouns include ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, and ‘them’.

There are also possessive pronouns like ‘my’, ‘his’, ‘its’, ‘their’ and ‘yours’, reflexive ones like ‘herself’, relative ones like ‘who’ and ‘that’, and others beside. I’m not discussing all those here though.

When looking at pronouns in your writing, there’s one question you should be constantly asking: Is it 100% clear who or what each pronoun refers to? By their nature, pronouns have ambiguous references. Whenever you use one, you’re relying on your reader to infer from the context what it’s referencing. If I write: “David and his dad were arguing. He was obviously completely wrong” then it won’t be clear who ‘he’ is. Depending on how the reader interprets the pronoun they might end up taking away exactly the opposite meaning to the one that I intend.

With specific reference to sex stories, this means it’s harder to write gay scenes than straight ones. When a straight couple fucks, ‘he’ and ‘she’ have very clear references. When two women or two men go at it you end up with problems. The line “As Karen and Elizabeth’s passion grew, she slipped her hand into her pussy” for instance, could mean one of eight different things depending on who ‘she’ and the two instances of ‘her’ refer to. Of course what I meant in this case is that Elizabeth slipped Karen’s hand into Karen’s pussy, but in other cases it might not be so obvious.

Tenses

Stories are usually written in the past tense, which means you’re limited to the past perfect tense if you want to use tenses to communicate that one thing happened before another thing. Let’s just look at how those two tenses work by giving examples.

Past tense: “Sally ate all the raspberries”, “I enjoyed the story”

Past perfect tense: “Sally had eaten all the raspberries”, “I’d enjoyed the story”

The quick rule of thumb here is that the presence of the word ‘have’ or one of its variants indicates a perfect tense, which means a tense where you’re talking about the state of having done something. We’re talking about the past perfect here, so the word ‘had’ will be the variant we’re using. (‘I’d’ is a contraction of ‘I had’)

Once you get used to recognising the past perfect, be careful not to slip in and out of it by accident. You only want to use it when you are referring to something that happened before the main timeframe you’re writing in. Below is an example passage with the perfect tense bits bolded. There’s a little bit of present perfect in there as a bonus, which I’ve italicised.

John went to the fridge. The previous day he had filled it with eels, so it came as no surprise when, after opening the door, he was buried in an avalanche of long, gelatinous bodies. Digging himself out he reflected on the events that had brought him to this point. He had opened the door in the full knowledge of what would happen. The only question was why? It must have been because of the words his mother had said to him in the supermarket all those years ago. “Son,” she had said. “If ever you’re feeling down, just fill your fridge with eels and then open it up the next day. You’ll soon realise that things weren’t so bad before you did that”. How right she had been, he thought.

Past perfect gets awkward fast, so if you want to do a lengthy flashback it’s best to use some other devices to indicate it. Be very careful about nesting flashbacks within flashbacks; that way lies madness, especially if you’re using tenses as your primary way of indicating the order things happened in.

Character POV

Most readers tend to identify with one character at a time, and most stories are written to help them with that. Accordingly, unless you’re going for some weird avant-garde effect it’s best to stick to writing from just one character’s point of view (POV) at a time. This means only writing one character’s thoughts. You can still have other characters show emotions, but show don’t tell. Only speak directly about feelings when talking about your POV character. Check out the little passage below.

“Shelly was mortified. The look on Paula’s face was one of abject horror, while Jennifer seemed more angry than anything.”

Here we’re writing from Shelly’s POV, so when we write about Paula and Jennifer’s emotions we find other ways to communicate them by providing Shelley’s perspective. An advantage of sticking to this rule is it makes pronouns a little bit stickier. Without another clue, the reader will tend to assume she/he/they pronouns refer to the current POV character. This doesn’t always work though. Consider:

“Shelly was mortified. The look on Paula’s face was one of abject horror, while Jennifer seemed more angry than anything. She dropped the fish tank and it smashed on the floor.”

Here the ‘she’ is pretty non-specific. This doesn’t work. However, now consider:

“Shelly was excited to see her friends’ reactions as she carried her new acquisition into the restaurant: a beautiful Japanese koi carp. However, as she came through the door she remembered that a rampaging koi carp had destroyed Jennifer’s rose garden. Shelly was mortified. The look on Paula’s face was one of abject horror, while Jennifer seemed more angry than anything.

She dropped the fish tank and it smashed on the floor.”

There’s still a little ambiguity there (reading it back, I’d still probably edit it to “Shelley dropped the fish tank”). Nonetheless, we could probably get away with this. Thanks contextual information. Thanks POV!

So err… that’s all my thoughts for now. I don’t really have a conclusion or anything, I just wanted to help a fellow author be the best they could be and it got a little out of hand. Peace out fellow perverts. I’ll be back soon with an essay on the ethics of all this shit, and a fair while later with an extremely nasty slow-burn psychological story. In the meantime, please check out my take on Beauty and the Beast, if and only if you like the sound of slowly developing dom/sub romance between a young girl and a seven-foot dog man, which eventually degenerates into depraved carnality, but only after four or five chapters of nothing much happening.

Bye for now,

Ix

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