On Writing a Serial Novel

Violet WarLast Spring, I had announced that I was working on a free urban fantasy website called Violet War. The goal of the website was to promote a series of books I’ve been working on and offer the first draft of the series’ first book (Argentum) for free.

Since starting this project, I’ve found that writing a serial novel comes with its own set of challenges related to the fact that this is a novel of discovery.

In this book, the main character (Sophie Miller) is an exile (think convict) from her magical world. Sophie committed a terrible crime and was later experimented on by the Alchemists then imprisoned by them in a House of Illusion. Those experiments ripped apart her memories, so much so that when the illusion “breaks” she is forced her to deal with the world around her in unusual ways. At first, she doesn’t trust herself but later questions everything she sees.

These questions have turned into information dumps at times, so much so that some chapters rely on discussion rather than action to drive the plot. Fortunately, I’ve been able to catch those moments by sketching out the entire novel from beginning to end. Pacing is really important to me, because as a reader I get very bored when the story doesn’t move, so my chapters are relatively short. They range from one thousand to twenty-five hundred words for that reason.

Another way I’m circumventing those information dumps is by adding chapter breaks which are memories and pieces of info that Sophie knows. Once the “House of Illusion” is broken, she begins to remember bits and pieces of her former life. The things she remembers may seem innocuous at first, but might have a larger impact on the overall story in the end. (*hint*)

Technology has also played a big part in my presentation of this novel. If you look at the physical structure of how Argentum is laid out, you’ll see that there are section breaks in the book. This structure is intentional because of the way this template handles numeric chapters. If I didn’t have a section, then Chapter 10 would have shown up after Chapter 1, which would have made things really confusing for my readers.

I’m pretty excited to have made so much progress on my project this past weekend. This is definitely new territory for me as an author, and I hope you get the chance to read my work.

On Writing by Stephen King

“Long live the King” hailed Entertainment Weekly upon the publication of Stephen King’s On Writing.

Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported near-fatal accident in 1999 — and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it — fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.

Now available in paperback.

Freelance Writing Tip #24: Passive vs. Active Voice

One of the things that comes into play in writing is finding your own style. I will be the first to admit that there isn’t “one correct way” to write. However, I’m sure that you can expect that proper grammar and spelling are two essentials to being taken seriously as a writer.

As I mentioned in a previous post about word conservation, writing styles have, no doubt, changed over the years. If word conservation is the result of how modern communication has affected writing over the years, using the “active voice” is a tool to pare down wordiness or the direct opposite of “passive voice“.

What’s ironic about writers who use passive voice, is that this isn’t the first style of writing they learned. One of my college professors once used a similar analogy to this one in one of my workshops: When you learn to write in grade school, you use active voice. Sally ran a mile. Jim threw the rock. Nancy read a book. Then, somewhere along the line you started learning more verbs and how to conjugate them. So, then you learned to say Sally had run a mile. Jim had thrown the rock. Nancy was reading a book. The final step to your learning, was to write essays and sound intelligent. At the same time, you’re submersed in 18th and 19th century literature that is fraught with verbose passages. The mile was run by Sally. The rock was thrown by Jim. The book was read by Nancy.

After using similar examples, the professor turned to the class and said, “Learning how to write active voice is a lot like un-learning all that you’ve been taught since grade school.”

I’d even take that a step further, and say that sometimes de-constructing your work into [noun] + [description] + [verb] or other simple sentence constructions are great ways to clarify your sentence style.

While I reiterate that there is no “one way” to write, the most common form of writing today is to write using the “active voice.” Whether it be a direct influence of the internet, blogs, long work days or what-have-you, if you only have three seconds to grab someone’s attention, the words need to pop off the page.

Passive voice can be used stylistically, to indicate historical periods or nostalgic themes. You may also be instructed to write this way for legalese or insurance policies. If you’re not, I would strongly recommend reading your work out loud to catch yourself before “your writing was submitted by you to be reviewed by an editor for publication.” Once you fall into that trap, it is very hard for an “editor to review your writing submission for publication.”

Writing Exercises #1: Learning Word Conservation

One of the things that is extremely important to a modern writer’s style is something called “word conservation.” In other words, how can you say what you need to say in the fewest number of words possible? Most people understand word conservation intuitively; ask someone about any legal, insurance, or financial documents and you’ll hear them say things like, “Wow, I can’t understand these documents. It’s so wordy.” Or even things like, “How did I miss that?” when referring to a decision or a sub-clause that didn’t work in their favor. Others, who have read 18th or 19th century literature, know exactly what it means to read long-winded, fancy prose that takes forever to get to its point.

Many modern writers opt to use a writing style which doesn’t mince any words. This is especially true for technical and business writing, since busy schedules require people to ask for information that leaves out the details for water cooler conversations or meetings. In fiction and non-fiction, word conservation is a function of a writer’s style. Of course, styles change for any number of reasons—time being one of them—and you could easily spend years researching the progression of word conservation through different authors, historically. Yet, there is also such a thing as “too much” word conservation—you can easily spot this style attribute when the prose sounds clunky and flows unevenly, making it difficult to read.

Whether or not you decide to use word conservation in your own writing style, it’s still important to know how to write succinctly because in this day and age there are many occasions that will call for a clear, direct writing style that has more of an impact on the reader.

Try these word conservation writing exercises:

Flash Fiction: Flash fiction, or flavor text, is a great way to put word conservation skills to use. After you decide on a word count (typically 500 words or less), spend a few minutes brainstorming about a story idea. When you brainstorm, don’t hold your imagination back and let the ideas flow. Once you have a basic plot formulated, then channel those energies into a story. Don’t worry about how long or how short it is, just get the words out on paper. After you have your new story, whether it’s 20 pages or 2, then pare it down to a 500 word piece of fiction. By forcing your story into tight constraints, you’ll find yourself stripping down your extra words until you get to the bone. Some writers find it best to get it all out before they edit; others can edit in their mind. Definitely work with whatever method is best for you, but often times if you’re not experienced writing in this format, it’s easier to hone and polish your work when you have something down on paper.

Editing: One of the ways to learn word conservation is to edit someone else’s work. Choose the wordiest, passive tense passage you can find; it doesn’t matter if it’s from “Last of the Mohicans” or your life insurance policy. Read through the passage a few times, then hack it to pieces until it makes sense. Change passive verb tenses (ex. was singing) to active (sing, sang, sung), slash prepositional phrases (books of poetry to poetry books), and change indirect phrasing to direct. By editing passages you already identify as wordy, you’ll become an expert at catching verbose phrases that may pop up in your own work.

Classifieds: Imagine you’re selling a product and want to write an ad for it in the newspaper. Limit your word count to 50 words or less. While 50 is typically more than what you might get in a media publication, the point here is to utilize words to sell your product. A variation of this is would be write a personals ad or an “employment-wanted” ad about “you”; highlighting a particular aspect of your talents, abilities, or personality. While the intent of writing an ad is different than writing a piece of fiction, mechanically you are still writing for an audience. The only difference is this time, you’re trying to use as few as words possible to sell an item or service—and not tell a story.

Media Synopsis: If you’re up for a challenge, try writing a movie, video game, book or other media synopsis. Take as much time and as much length as you need to fully describe the story. Once you’re done, pare your description down a couple of times until you can tell what happened in one paragraph. You’ll find that you’ll lose some of the action details, but as your description gets more and more focused, you’ll find yourself able to describe your own work—an essential concept if you want to sell or pitch your work to someone else.

See if you can come up with your own word conservation writing exercises. As you become more and more aware of the way you craft your sentences, you’ll find that you overall writing will improve, regardless of the way that you want to communicate or tell a story. Regardless, remember that while your writing style is your own, in these hurried times there are plenty of occasions that call for “tight” passages that is packed with words that engage the audience and retain readership.

Happy writing!

Monica Valentinelli >

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