Declutter your text: beware of repetitions

Repetitions can take different shapes: multiple occurrences of the same word, synonyms, pleonasms, redundancies. When used wisely, repetitions can be an interesting stylistic device. When used unwisely, they can severely harm the elegance of your text.

The easiest repetitions to spot are the multiple occurrences of the same word (or the use of a word in the same family). Of course, some words have to be repeated: “repeat” or its substantive “repetition” have been repeated 7 times by this point. However, it is wise to reduce their number as much as possible.Camouflaged cat c

When trying to avoid reiterations of the same words, don’t succumb to the temptation of the thesaurus. Using a synonym won’t get you rid of the repetition of ideas, it will only camouflage it a little. Or if you use synonyms, know that you are creating a repetition.

To really get rid of the repetition of ideas, you can first see if you couldn’t just delete the phrase or the whole sentence without deleting any useful information. Otherwise, you have to reword the sentence or the two or three sentences in which the repetitions occur until you are convinced that you express your ideas in the best possible way.

A pleonasm happens when you put together two words, one of which was already included in the other’s definition. Some examples would be “false pretence” or “safe haven”. By definition, a pretence is false and a haven safe.

marie_cecile_thijs_4Close to pleonasms are redundancies. How many times a year do you see or hear the phrase “plan in advance”? My own experience is limited, but I’ve never seen anyone plan anything after it was done. Or even plan it as it was being done. The act of planning is done in advance. If you really must stress that the planning process takes time and it should be started X time before the D day, then be specific!

In the same vein, you have the tautology: the act of repeating the same idea back-to-back. “I saw it with my own eyes”, “In my opinion, I think…”, etc.

You can find lists of redundancies, tautologies and pleonasms through search engines or… start analysing each and every word, wondering whether they’re absolutely necessary. Yup, studying writing will make you paranoiac. You’ll learn to live with it.

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Tired of cat photographs yet?

Redundancies can also be a repetition of ideas whether in the same sentence or paragraph or through the entire text. I’ve had started a book quite recently, but the writer’s insistence on the love interest’s beauty and sexiness got old quick. It was like a broken record. The reader is not so stupid that you have to remind them all the time of the aforementioned ideas. Besides, it’ll make you look like you have nothing new and fresh to say.

If you really *must* repeat an idea, do it with intent: introduce it early and “prove” it in your conclusion; change the outcome and make it a progression as in the Three Little Pigs; make everything the same so that one thing stands out.

When finding a repetition while editing my texts, I ask myself 3 questions: 1) Is it there for artistic purposes? 2) Does it serve the text? 3) If the repetition is clumsy, is there any way I could reword the sentence to avoid it?

I think this will be the last post in the series for a while. If the subject interests you, however, I warmly recommend you to read On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

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Other posts in this series: Narrow your scopeUse modifiers in moderation.

Declutter your text: use modifiers in moderation

Modifiers are adjectives, adverbs or phrases whose only purpose is to modify a noun or verb. They are to language what accessories are to clothing. Used unwisely, they can ruin the whole thing.

Let it be clear: I love adjectives and adverbs. They’re an essential part of every language. But as with anything in life, they must be used in moderation.

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Decora fashion shows it is possible for “too many accessories” to look great, but it is difficult to achieve; the same is true with modifiers.

Behold the following sentence, written by me 10 years ago:

A white hand with fine and long fingers was faithfully transcribing the properties of plant handwritten in a book bound with ribbons.

This sentence has… ahem… potential, but as is, it’s terrible. It’s a translation, but the original is hardly better. We’ll leave all of the other problems for some other time and focus on the modifiers:

A white hand with fine and long fingers was faithfully transcribing the properties of plants handwritten in a notebook bound with ribbons.

21 words in that sentence, 14 of which are modifiers or part of a modifier. There are even modifiers within modifiers. Worst: the same exact thing could be said in a tighter and more elegant way.

A white hand with fine and long fingers

Except in certain horror scenes, hands and fingers usually go together… no need for both words. Only talking about fingers make the reader picture a hand in their head. Also, there’s a word for “fine and long”: slender. Let’s use that instead.

faithfully transcribing

When I originally wrote this, I wanted to make the character look as devoted as a monk transcribing the Bible. I could leave it there, but I prefer to take it out.

plant properties handwritten in a notebook bound with ribbons.

There is such a thing as too many details. I won’t talk about it in depth here, but know it: some details do nothing for the story and are therefore clutter. Here, it is unnecessary to point out it is bound with ribbons, but I do want to give it a homemade look… Well that’s it: “a homemade notebook”. Now, let’s change the verb for “written”, since it is implicit that it is written by hand from the very word “notebook”.

Revised sentence:

White, slender fingers were transcribing the properties of plants written in a homemade notebook.

That 21-word-sentence is reduced to 14, with now only 7 modifiers. It is still “flowery” enough, but much more elegant.

girl-4-copieAnother trick to get rid of an excess of adjectives, adverbs or other modifiers, is to use stronger nouns (skyscraper or tower for tall building) or verbs (exhausted for very tired), or more precise modifiers (like slender for long and fine, etc.). If I don’t recommend you to use the thesaurus to avoid repeating the same adjective twice in one sentence, I encourage you to use it to find the right word.

Finally, it is often a good idea to “show, [not] tell”. For example, if your character is moody, it should reflect on his actions and words; that’s how people understand others’ moods. Same with most character traits, weather, etc. Compare: “It was cold outside” and “The cold bit my skin as I walked out”.

Oh wow, there is a lot of information in here, but you made it to the end. You did great.

When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.
– Mark Twain, letter to D.W. Bowser, 20 March 1880

Other posts in this series: Narrow your scopeBeware of repetitions.

How I love my love stories (or not)

I was supposed to post the second episode of “Declutter your text”, talking about editing two weeks in a row felt a bit… heavy, so I figured I’d post something lighter today. That being said, here is today’s program:

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Pride and Prejudice

Before I met my husband, I thought I hated love stories. That is… most love stories. I’ve always been a huge fan of Pride and Prejudice. But the movies my more romantic female friends loved made me want to barf.

I never really asked myself why that was because as a rule, I hated things “stereotypical girls” loved: romance movies and books, pop music, shopping, make-up, skirts and even shorts, talking about boys, public display of emotions, etc. I was a tomboy and didn’t care to pretend otherwise.

My meeting with my husband made me discover a sweet side in myself I didn’t know I had. I started to binge-watch Japanese dramas, I read everything Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë… I thought I had changed.

I hadn’t. I tried watching some TV series the other day, and the well-known “excuse me while I barf” feeling came right back. Now, that series has been super popular, so I again felt like an alien not liking it. I made it my mission to watch that show until I discovered what it was I hated so much, and what it was I loved so much in the guilty pleasure romances I indulge in from time to time. I have finally found it.

Buzzer_Beat
Buzzer Beat

I love when the story revolves around one or both character’s passion for something, be it dance, piano, drawing, cooking or even eating, getting one’s revenge or running a million dollar business. The characters then proceed to support each other in their own passion, and together they’ll be able to accomplish great things. I am drawn to that kind of stories like a fly to honey, because they leave me feeling motivated to pursue my own passion.

I hate when love and romantic relationships are the one thing every single character ever care or talk about. Now, I can be understanding: I had a friend in high school who cared a lot about guys and romantic relationships, so much that she’d talk about that 80% of the time. It’s fine. But that the whole cast is like that? It doesn’t feel realistic and there is no character I can identify with.

Also, I’ve watched or read stories in which the “fated couple” have an extremely toxic influence on each other, sometimes to the point where one of them (typically the girl) wants to commit suicide. And that’s not mentioning those in which suicide happens because those are classified as tragedies, not romances. But still… she loves him so much and blah blah blah. Excuse me, but somebody who plays with my heart strings to the point of making me want to die doesn’t deserve the tiniest place in my heart… Again, I know that some girls can’t help it, they love the jerk that disrespects them… I don’t.

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Densha Otoko

Finally, I love when men feel “real”. I love when they’re shy, clumsy or unsure what to do, but trying to do it right. I love when they won’t say that perfect sentence the girl wants to hear, but end up conveying their feelings in their own ways. In other words, I love when they’re not just there as a handsome prop.

Of course, those are all just personal opinions. There are no “dos and don’ts” here. Just my own tastes. But I am really happy to realise that the single love story I’ve written reflects what I love, and stays away from what I hate… despite it having been written before I analysed my tastes. After all, my goal is to write a book I’d love to read.

Declutter your text: narrow your scope

cat-1429231_960_720Am I the only one who gets discouraged when, scrolling down a possibly interesting blog post, I see that it’s obviously a few thousand words? Unless the writer is a friend or an amazing writer, I’ll tend to pass. Maybe the writer had a lot to say, in which case all is well, or maybe they rambled forever… which is one of the surest ways to lose my attention.

When you start off as a blogger, you try to say everything in one post. I did. Then, that annoying advice my college teacher would repeat me until I got my essay topic approved came to haunt me again:

“Narrow it down.”

That’s when I realised I was trying to fit 3 posts in 1. From there, it was easy to separate them. What’s difficult is seeing that there are, indeed, 3 distinct ideas. They are so intricately weaved together in your head that you don’t see the different threads. Readers, however, could end up confused or bored and you don’t want that.

So you have a neverending first draft. Excellent! Now, figure out the “point” of your article. editingYou have to be able to summarise it in a few words – your title. If you’d be tempted to add commas, or if nothing seems to grasp the entirety of your content… you might have more than one article in there.

Once you know what your point is, analyse every paragraph, then every sentence in your post. Delete or copy/paste everything that’s irrelevant. Even the funniest of anecdotes will fall flat if it’s not relevant in context. If you have such a jewel, keep it and make it shine bright where it belongs.

All of that is a bit vague, so here’s a concrete example. I tried reading a book review recently and I could not finish it. There was a lengthy introduction about the theme of the book, a rather long synopsis and a few opinions scattered here and there.

I don’t know about you, but when I read reviews, all I want is an opinion. I want to know what worked and didn’t work for you. I can read the blurb on Goodreads, and it will be one that has been rewritten several times by professionals. Actually, most of the times when I read a review, that’s because I’ve already read it and was intrigued by it. Retelling me is redundant.

As for the theme… you can mention it, but make it more than a sentence long and it might look out of place. If that theme is important to you and you feel the need to talk more about it… make another post!

yada-yada-1430679_960_720It’s alright to ramble when writing your first draft. That’s what first drafts are for. It’s even okay to post some rambling, especially if you’re talking about your life. But sometimes you have to be to the point.

Of course, time being a limited resource, you have to let go eventually. I’ve rewritten this twice and edited it for several hours… It’s fiiiiine. *publish*

Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can’t believe that it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn’t.
– William Zinsser

Other posts in this series: Use modifiers in moderationBeware of repetitions.

My creative process: writing the first draft

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Bakuman illustration by Takeshi Obata

Learning about people’s creative process or “watching them create” is one of my favourite things. I’ve spent hours watching  YouTube videos of Takeshi Obata just drawing (he’s the mangaka who drew Hikaru no Go, Death Note and Bakuman, among other things). So I thought today I’d talk about my own creative process, because it’s fun to share and because maybe next year or in two or three years I’ll look back to this post and be amazed at how much my process has changed. Or not.

The idea

It all starts with an idea. It can come from vastly different things: a passer-by can sprout a character, a feeling can become a theme, etc. You have ideas, you know what I mean.

The daydream

There is a kind of natural selections in my ideas. I almost don’t consciously “choose” which one I’ll pursue, I just go with the one that obsesses me the most. After all, I write for fun. So, that natural selection occurs during my daydreams. Because I’m busy, I don’t just lie down to daydream like I used to when I was a teenager – I daydreaming while doing other things. rainbow-1445337690d8qMy personal favourite moment is while waiting for sleep, since I can just lie down and be happy in my own world for 15 minutes to 2 hours. It has the added benefit to keep me from worrying about… you know… real life.

The first words

When I have daydreamed a lot and I’m scared I might forget those dreams, I start writing. No plan, no plot, no nothing, just my ideas and my daydreams. And maybe notes taken in earlier steps. Normally, a “good” idea will get me to write over 10k words (sometimes even up to 20k words) virtually effortlessly. Those words would be written very quickly, like 10k over the weekend or 20k in two weeks.

The plot

Then, I stare at the mess reread the thing, and see where that could lead me or what I’d like to do with it. I write down key words for my different scenes on small pieces of paper and paste them on my wall. The mad artist look at that point is desirable. Then I try to come up with any missing element or plot point.

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My wall; there are 7 books there. And a drawing of Haruma Miura because… uh… whatever. Who needs a reason to put up drawings of beautiful people on their wall?

The research

During my initial 10-20k words, I will most likely have broached subjects I know little about, so while plotting, I’ll do some research and see what fun ideas emerge. Then I go back to plotting and alternate both until I have a pretty strong sequence of events.

The plan

Yes, because I don’t consider “plotting” as planning. For me, planning deals with questions like: How long’s it gonna be? What kind of narrator will I use? What artistic direction do I want to use? Stuff like that. I’ll also create an actual outline of the plot with target word counts in Scrivener.

patrick_jane_s_cup_of_tea_by_carlaoliveira-d7bv5fdThe first draft

Then I go ahead and write the first draft. I used to write by bursts until I found that writing between 500 and 1,000 words a day worked better for me. I work on my story every day unless there is a special occasion (Christmas, a wedding, etc.) or I’m sick. At first, it needs some getting used to, then it gets addictive, and finally it becomes a routine that you simply won’t question.

Typically, I’ll do some research all along the way (I try to limit this to 30 minutes a day, otherwise it tends to take up all my writing time). After a chunk of 10-20k words, I’ll also go back to what I have written, rearrange things as necessary (this usually takes 2-3 days, no more than a week), and then go back to drafting. That last step is crucial. I have been caught in a loop of editing the first 20k of a manuscript forever and ending up never finishing the thing. The saddest part is: I now plan on finishing that story at last, and I might just end up scrapping that whole beautifully written intro and starting from scratch.

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That’s it for this week. The editing process will require a post of its own when I’m done with my current novel, which probably means much later this year.

I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.
– Shannon Hale

How to use Myers-Briggs to create life-like characters

My favourite aspect of storytelling is creating life-like characters. For some characters, I’ll have a rather vivid image of their personalities early on because I’ve thought about them so much. For others, usually secondary characters or extras, it’s more difficult. It’s usually because I’ve always had a hard time understanding people with their personality types so I can’t empathize with them. When that happens, I use Myers-Briggs personality types.

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First, I’ll identify that character’s personality type. You can use the test and answer as your character would, though it might be hard, at this point, since you might not know your character all that well. I tend to go with the main characteristic of a character and look up the personality types that could fit.

Here’s one example: popular party guy. I don’t know a lot of popular party guys so I don’t understand them much. I know enough about that guy to know he’s: 1) extroverted (E), 2) feeling (F). That reduces the possible personality types to 4: ENFJ, ENFP, ESFJ and ESFP. Now, the main thing about him (aside from his popularity) is that he fails at having a career.

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In my head, “popular guy” looks like Justin Zabinski

This guy also has an ENTJ brother and they’re fundamentally incompatible. When I look in ENTJ “Friendship”, it says they can difficulty get along with observant (S) types. So now I just have to decide ESFJ, aka the consul, or ESFP, aka the entertainer? He definitely seems like more of an entertainer than a consul.

A look at ESFP’s strengths and weaknesses tells me that people with this personality type are poor long-term planners and unfocused. Sounds to me like a good recipe for failing at having a career. They also have excellent people skills and those are especially useful to be popular. The website I linked above even provides well-known examples any selected personality. An example of ESFP  is Penny from Big Bang Theory. Spot on.

So it’s decided: that character is ESFP (interestingly enough, I’m INTJ, his absolute opposite – not wonder I can’t understand him!). Now I read all relevant sections (or all sections if I feel like I need all I can get) about that personality type and see how it sparks my creativity.

Now, if this guy was more important in the story, I’d go even further. I’d tweak his personality a bit: replace some of his characteristics with another personality type’s. No character should be 100% stereotypical, but with minor characters, the reader will know too little about them to know whether they are or not. With main characters, it’ll be clearly visible.

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I took the test from popular guy’s point of view. I might have exaggerated the extraversion feature – few people are 100% anything.

So I’d go and find a second personality type for him. You can make relatively any mix, so long as there are at least a few similarities. People can even be almost equally extroverted and introverted. One only has to think in terms of “range”, like in the image to the right (I took the test from popular guy’s point of view; I might have exaggerated the extraversion feature – few people are 100% anything). The more extroverted you are, the less introverted. The two highest percentages represent the most distinctive features of the personality, whatever type it is. The two lowest is what you might want to play with. In this case, his “second type” could be either ENFP or ENTP.

I would never, EVER have thought of making ENTP his second type, but as I’m writing this, it suddenly makes awful sense: he is an awesome debater. He is extremely charismatic and very argumentative; that’s how he manages so easily to get whatever he wants. He’d make an excellent public personality or… salesman. Yup, I always kinda pictured him a potential high achieving salesman. So when his father will “cut the cord”, which he will, he’ll struggle and then start selling stuff and be good at it.

You can also use Myers Briggs to “test” possible relationships, whether platonic or romantic. It can help you make sure your characters are compatible, or if they look absolutely incompatible, to find clues as to why it still works for them. For example, a friendship between an INFP and an ESTJ is improbable, yet because they are so completely each other’s opposite, they could be fascinated by one another. Both would have a lot to learn from the other, provided they care enough to try to understand each other. Or, you know, if they’re locked up together and have to cooperate to get out. Fun things.

Do you like Myers-Briggs? What type are you? I’d love to know! I’m an INTJ (T) with some INFP’s characteristics (mainly creativity, idealism, and impracticality).

I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best.
– Marilyn Monroe (said to be ESFP)

 

NaNoWriMo: Perseverance is everything

watercolor-man-standing-in-rainOn October 31st, 2016, I finished my first novel. Or rather, my first novel’s first draft. Over time, I had started to think this was an impossible feat for me. How did I do it? Short answer: perseverance and baby steps.

You see, I have a problem with moderation. An example of this would be NaNoWriMo. When I first stumbled upon it, it seemed like the ultimate solution to finishing drafts. It fit my short an intense mentality so well that I felt it had been created for me.

Except that it was not short enough and too intense. NaNoWriMo wasn’t a sprint, it was a marathon. Only Barney Stinson can run a marathon without training for it first, and we all know how that ended for him. My former attempts ended lamentably just before the end of the second week, my imagination having been sucked dry, my motivation having left for lazy vacations in the Bahamas.

cloud-2The problem, you see, was that I’d basically go from writing a little occasionally, to writing like a madman daily… When you look at it logically, it’s obvious I’d fail. But I wanted to believe in a miracle.

However, today is November 20 and I’m still in the race. What changed? One simple thing: this year, I had already be writing 500+ words a day for 2½ months before I took on myself to write 1,667 a day. I am late though. Today, I should have written 33,333 words and as I am writing this I “only” have 25,250 (which is still 1,262 words a day, more than double my former productivity). But you know what? It’s okay.

It’s okay because this year, my goal is just to finish the damn thing. To get to the finish line. I’ll try to reach 50,000 words, but I won’t make myself sick over being late. I’ve written over a thousand word daily until now and I know I can keep that pace. If I do, I’ll still have written 40,000 words in a single month. This is definitely an improvement. And more importantly, I will still be writing, not curled up in bed lamenting what a loser I am for giving up.

3-gouttes-copieSo my word of advice for you today: just keep going. Slow your pace if you have to. Fifty thousand words is an arbitrary goal. The real goal is to keep writing and finish the thing, however long that might take. Think of it that way: what you really want, in the end, is to write. Publishing and monetizing your writing is just fluff around the goal. Like Henry Miller said, writing is its own reward.

By the way, feel free to add me as a NaNo buddy. Look up Auclond.

Don’t be a writer, be writing.
– William Faulkner