Writing 101 revisited

DATE: Sept 2

TITLE: Writing 101 revisited

This is from 2013 blog called “Writing 101 by Cat, or what would I say?” in response to a suggestion I offer a course on writing. The only major change is that I’m now ten years older.

On my recent posting “Blogs: opinion pieces or news reports?” one person left a comment and made reference to teaching them how to write in the style I use. I thought about that for about thirty seconds. I didn’t want to spend more time analysing it lest I become the centipede. You know the story of the centipede, don’t you? You don’t? Well, I’ll tell you then.

One day a tiny ant was watching a centipede pass by, legs all moving with military precision, not tripping over its feet or kicking the leg in front of it. The ant stopped the centipede and asked how he managed to keep everything so well organized. Having never thought about it, the centipede had to admit he didn’t know. After the ant went his way, the centipede sat and thought about the question and tried to analyse his actions. Not finding an answer he liked, he gave up and decided to carry on to wherever he had been going. That was when he discovered that in his attempts to figure out just how he did it, he’d managed to lose the ability to co-ordinate his legs and he kept tripping. I didn’t want to spend time analysing how and why I write as I do for fear I’d end up like that centipede and forget how to write.

I know that people are told “write what you know”. Well yes, it is always good to have some knowledge of your topic before you put a single word on the monitor (or on paper– I still prefer to write in longhand) especially if you’re writing an instructional piece.

In addition to “write what you know” I would add “write what you feel strongly about”, be that the antics of your local politicians or something else. If you want to write an opinion piece, write it with passion. If you feel strongly enough about something that you want to voice your opinion, let that fire show through in your writing. My personal view where it relates to opinion pieces is that if I haven’t upset someone then I haven’t done my job properly. Of course that attitude is probably helped by being 68 and not really caring what others think of my opinions.

If you choose to write fiction, depending upon what kind of fiction, some research may be necessary to get the details right. People will pick up on anachronisms very quickly if you choose historic fiction so try to ensure you aren’t introducing something that hadn’t been invented until well after the period you’ve chosen.

My preferred field of fiction is speculative fiction (commonly called science fiction). Given the scientific advances in many fields that gives me a lot of leeway should I choose to introduce some new technology. But, as I wrote above, even there some research is required. For example I may have to look at the current state of a field and try to find out what is being looked at. Perhaps a news item on a new scientific process under investigation will spark a thought process best summed up by asking myself “what if…?” Then I try to answer that question in a story.

Many years ago I wrote a long piece about an intelligent computer (artificial intelligence anyone?) and to start I described the setting as follows:

The city was one of those anonymous places that comprise what politicians and pollsters commonly refer to as “the industrial base.” The signs at the city limits proudly proclaimed population figures from the last census, but several minor recessions and a major depression had taken their toll and the signs were wildly optimistic.

Industry had been just diverse enough that when the major employer closed its doors and moved to another location promising low taxes and even lower labour costs, the remaining factories could only slow the decline. Suppliers to “The Factory”, as the locals called it, had either followed their market, or just turned off the lights and walked away.

Along Main Street, vacant shops outnumbered the combined total of those offering “going out of business” sales, and those offering similar prices without going to the added expense of signs. The sparkling new mall at the edge of town (fifty great stores to serve your every need) echoed to the footsteps of lonely shoppers as they passed store front after store front, each closed and locked; and each bearing the legend “for lease – reasonable rates.”

This was the sight that greeted the planners as they descended upon city hall one day, armed with graphs and plans and colourful artists’ impressions and visions for the future; and enthusiasm. Oh yes, they were certainly enthusiastic. They would convert this dying factory town into a model for the future. Self-contained and computer controlled, it would rely on the outside world mainly as a supplier of provisions and raw materials and as a market for its products. The planners had anticipated every objection from city council and included in their schemes a new seniors’ apartment complex; upgraded hospital facilities; and even a refurbished city jail. But the plum in the pudding was their promise to revitalise industry through computerisation and make the city prosperous once again.

This description was essential to the rest of the novella for it shows a city in decline and the willingness of the city council to do whatever they could to keep their town alive. Could I have written the piece without these 300 words? Of course, but I’ve given the reader just enough information for them to form their own mental image of the place.

My last piece of advice to anyone writing is simple: write the way you speak. If you commonly use multi-syllable words in your every day speech, by all means write that way. But if you don’t please don’t make the mistake of trying to use them in your writing. I recall reading an interview with a writer who perhaps said it best: “Don’t use ‘ten dollars words’ even if you buy them at a ‘two-for one sale’ because you’ll probably use them incorrectly” unless those form part of your daily vocabulary.

And that ends today’s lesson. Class dismissed, and remember to hug an artist, we need love too.

Cat

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