My husband has recently decided to take it upon himself to turn a dream he had a while back into a novella (he thinks it’s too long for a short story, and he doesn’t have the attention span to write a novel). I’m not sure what’s prompted this new pursuit, but it’s a good story and it has put me in the position of offering some general writing advice. First, there is the massively important “Learn Proper Grammar & Punctuation” (we won’t talk about the errors in punctuation I corrected in his first 10 pages…[shudders])–for which I highly recommend you train yourself to read your favorite books to observe–it’s much more effective than ye old diagramming sentences. If your grammar stinks, nothing else will be noticed.
But just as salient as the ability to properly construct your sentences, you have to develop a voice, and hands down the best advice I have ever received on that is to write like you talk. Thank you Mrs. Key (my 8th grade English teacher)! This sounds overly simplistic, but you would be amazed
by how many people think that the language you use in writing things down is totally different from the language you use in speech. I passed this little jewel of advice onto my husband last night–who promptly said “That’s what I’m doing. That’s how I talk.” Um, no. Read whatever you’ve written aloud, and you’ll see the parts that are stilted or don’t flow well or simply sound funny. People rarely have trouble speaking properly. You don’t hear people run around avoiding contractions or talking with stilted, formal language. Why should writing be any different? This is especially true in first person narratives. Look at chick lit, for example. I open my favorite Katie MacAlister books and it’s like Aisling or any of the other heroines is speaking directly to me.
Now, that having been said, prose is not meant to be read aloud. It’s not like, say–poetry or a play. These mediums simply do not have the same impact when they are read silently. They are meant to be heard! The words are chosen very much for their sound as much as for their meaning. Prose, on the other hand, deals in meaning and imagery. Lawrence Block notes in Telling Lies For Fun & Profit, “Prose is not written to be read aloud, and the effect of a short story so presented has little to do with its effect in print.” That’s not to say that prose can’t have a lyrical quality or sound pleasing to the ear. But it’s not written with the intent of being read aloud, so that makes the word choice, the diction, the arrangement of words very different from poetry or plays. Different doesn’t mean better or worse, and there are certainly aspects of poetry and playwriting that can be applicable to prose. But I just suggest that you be aware.
And one final piece of writerly advice: marriage and critique partners do not mix. In the name of connubial bliss, try to find uninvolved third parties to critique.
For Pot’s take on the subject, hop over here.