5 English Writing Basics to Remember

writing-basics-title

There’s a lot to be said for writing well.

I’ll admit, if you read anything in Morgan Freeman’s voice, it’ll sound cool. That’s just a fact. But poor writing is poor writing, and not expressing yourself properly can be detrimental to the point you are trying to make. Regardless of how good your intentions, or useful your information, or how great your internal Morgan Freeman voice is; your words will suffer.

It’s easy to forget in this modern world of information overload how important the fundamentals of English really are. You’ve got your basics such as punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Beyond that comes word choice and vocabulary. Beyond even this you enter the realms of wordplay and articulation (the fun of semantics).

The building blocks of English are timeless, even when the language itself can adapt and evolve with each generation.

I like to read something to jog my memory about writing structure rules whenever I’m feeling a bit of writer’s block. We need to know the rules before we can break them (as is sometimes necessary).

So, with that in mind, the lovely people at GrammarCheck.Net have come up with this lovely infographic to help to jog your memory about some of the basics to help make your writing better. For most of us, this will be simple revision. The odd refresher here and there is always welcome in the Itchy Quill house!

5 Basic Rules of English Writing That Everyone Should Know (Infographic)
Source: www.grammarcheck.net

 

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2017

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1,2,3,Go! The Keys to Writing a Good Story Beginning

Beginning Title

Starting a new story is one of the best feelings you can have. It’s that wonderful moment before your insecurities and paranoia kick in and tear your creativity apart from within.

It’s also exciting not knowing where your characters are headed – at least, not finally. You may have some idea. But it’s not set in stone.

The scene is being set, the characters introduce themselves, and the world you have crafted launches into the imaginations of the reader on it’s maiden voyage. You cast them off into the abyss of your mind, the rough seas of your passions and noticings, and the wonderment you’ve constructed out of your skills with craft and narrative.

However, a poorly written introduction can quickly alienate a reader. It’s much easier to quit a book on page 1 than it is on page 100. As Kurt Vonnegut famously said:

“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.“

No siree. This is very important. Reading is a commitment. It could take a few hours to read, or a few months. Either way, it’s going to be valuable time to someone. Cherish it, and respect it.

So, below are some tips to help craft a strong story introduction.

Of course, these should be taken as a guide, as you can’t use all of them at once. There is no definitive way to craft a perfect introduction, as you can’t please everyone. But, with a bit of thought and a lot for practice, utilising some of these will help push your story to the next level.

"Go on..."

“Go on…”

Get Straight To It

“As my cab pulled off FDR Drive, somewhere in the early Hundreds, a low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of lane and sloped in fast right across our bows.”

Money by Martin Amis

Get stuck in. Right away. Don’t worry about building up to something. If anything, get to the thing then build backwards. The mystery of being thrust into the action is much more compelling than “so he woke up and stretched. ‘Yawn’ he said, then made his way to the bathroom to blah, and blah, and blaaaahhh”.

Much better: “The gun went off. That sound of metal exploding, cracking the air like lightning, shook him. He’d never imagined he’d be shot.”

The longer you linger, the more of your precious words are wasted away and lost forever. Trust your reader, and reward them for taking the time to check you out. Jump in two footed, and go from there…

Chop them in the face if you have to

Chop them in the face if you have to

That Said, Don’t Rush Ahead

Obviously you don’t want to chuck them into a situation that will need certain aspects established. If you start off with something too confusing, it will be a struggle for the reader to invest in the story. If it’s too confusing, you may lose your reader.

That’s not to say you can’t leave breadcrumbs in your opening that will make more sense upon reading further, but a good opening will contain both elements for now, and elements for later.

"So that's why the dinosaur had the painting. He's Da Vinci's grandad. Of course!"

“So that’s why the famous dinosaur had the painting hidden on his spaceship. Now I get it!”

Draw the Reader In

“If you’re reading this on a screen, f**k off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands.” Joshua Cohen, Book of Numbers.

Yeah, so you don’t have to be as aggressive as the above example, but the point I’m trying to get across is that you want your reader to stand up and pay attention. One way of doing that is to engage with them directly, so long as it fits with the theme of your story.

For example, if you choose the above style of introduction, don’t then segue into a world of daisies and polka dots. It will feel forced and inappropriate, and the reader will likely feel alienated and confused. But if your character, or the tone of your story warrants it, there is no problem at all with using a little bit of fire and fury.

Of course, you don’t have to be rude. you could relate to the reader, or buddy up to them, or even flirt with them. Let the narrator’s voice gudie you.

"This narrator would like some tuna. Lot's of tuna."

“This narrator would like some tuna. Lot’s of tuna.”

 

Introduce Your Hero

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” — J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

The above intro is a great example of a hero introducing themselves, and giving you plenty of evidence of their character. We all know that Holden Caulfield is a sour lad. We know this because from the very first sentence he utters, he sets himself up as thus.

Your audience want to know who to root for, and know why. If you introduce a character who isn’t very compelling, or don’t give them someone to cheer for, chances are you’ll lose the interest of a reader.

"Oh yeah, they loved your story"

“Oh yeah, they loved your story”

Create a Mini-Mystery

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, 1984.

Unless you live under a rock (and apologies if you do), you should be well aware of the dystopian bleakness portrayed in George Orwell’s (arguably) most famous work, 1984. This opening line establishes right from the get go just how surreal this alternative future is, and the mystery of something we know so well being changed in this way creates all kinds of questions: Why not o’clock? Thirteen, like, bad luck thirteen? What time is thirteen? Is the day still the same length? How would this work with the Gregorian calendar? Does it? Why is there an extra hour in the day?

And it is these kinds of questions, often raised by a sense of unease, that can keep us reading on.

"What does it all mean!?"

“What does it all mean!?”

Set the Scene

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” — Raymond Chandler, Red Wind

This is one of my favourite opening paragraphs in all of literature. Raymond Chandler has a very distinct style, and was well regarded for his gritty tomes set in a crime-riddled LA. This establishes that world perfectly, giving you not only the place but the mood, the people, the atmosphere, and even the opinion of the narrator about all of these things.

See, a setting can be just as important as a character. Some would even argue that the setting is a kind of glorified character in its own right.

 

"Yeah, don't forget about me!"

“Yeah, don’t forget about me!”

Murder Mundanity

All this happened, more or less.” Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five.

In the above quote from Mr Vonnegut, we are confronted with the fact the upcoming narrative is probably going to be unreliable. Those that have read the story will know that as the story progresses, this unreliability is what lends so much charm to the overall tale, and this in itself represents Vonnegut’s own ideas about the ridiculous and unreliable nature of wars, and the men who fight in them.

Many authors would be tempted to write an account of what they saw in a war with a solemn and powerfully intense manner. By not starting his story in this way, we already know we are in for something different, and this intrigue alone makes us want to read on.

By subverting convention, Vonnegut captivates the reader from the very first sentence.

If you haven’t read this classic, I absolutely recommend it. It was one of the first ‘adult books’ I read as a young boy, and it is still one of my favourites.

"It's great!"

“It’s great!”

 

Consider Forking

Call me Ishmael.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

There are a lot of different options above, so using this technique will help you figure out which work and which don’t work with your story.

There is more than one way to cross the ocean, and forking is the process of writing out several different ideas that all lead to the same point. So, you may choose to write three different story beginnings which all lead to the same ending, then show these to people who have opinions you trust, and ask them to choose their favourite.

This way, you can know that what you’ve written is something that has appeal, and that captured another person’s imagination (and didn’t just reflect your own). Obviously, make sure you choose people who will give you constructive and useful feedback. Not just flat criticism.

"I don't like any of your s**t"

“I don’t like any of your s**t”

A Word to the Wise

Of course, it’s not always as easy as what you should do. Sometimes, it’s as much about what to avoid. So, here are some quotes from industry insiders about things they don’t like to see in story beginnings:

I dislike opening scenes that you think are real, then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated.”
Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes & thinking, staring out the window & thinking, tying shoes, thinking.”
Dan Lazar, Writers House

I hate reading purple prose – describing something so beautifully that has nothing to do with the actual story.”
Cherry Weiner, Cherry Weiner Literary

A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue.”
Daniel Lazar, Writers House

Many writers express the character’s backstory before they get to the plot. Good writers will go back and cut that stuff out and get right to the plot. The character’s backstory stays with them — it’s in their DNA.”
Adam Chromy, Movable Type Management

One of the biggest problems is the ‘information dump’ in the first few pages, where the author is trying to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story. Getting to know characters in a story is like getting to know people in real life. You find out their personality and details of their life over time.”
Rachelle Gardner, Books & Such Literary

 

All above quotes were taken from the article The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice From Literary Agents on thewriterslife.com

 

Of course, there are many different opinions on this argument, and (once again) as Kurt Vonnegut said:

“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

Learn how to use these tools to your advantage, but don’t let yourself be restricted by them.
Be different. Be brave. Be you.

 

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So what’s your favourite opening line in a story? Get the conversation going in the comments below.

 

Special thanks to Ambro, Carlos Porto, imagerymajestic, kanate, patrisyu, Photokanok, photostock and stockimages @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2016

Like Clockwork; How Routine Habits Can Change Your Life

routines title

What does the morning mean to you? Is it a long slog of repetitive alarm snoozes and chimes, ushering you violently from slumber into a world of cold air and heavy eye-lids? Perhaps you’re a peppy-pepster, buzzing from sunrise and bouncing about the house in giddy merriment? Or is the morning simply just the first in a series of common events, an inevitability of your daily slog, and a reminder that you are no longer dreaming?

“Morning, tiger”

Wherever you fit, I hear you.

A lot of fuss is made about mornings; the early bird catches the worm; early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise; the morning has gold in its mouth.

These are three sayings that stress the importance of an early morning, the last two coming from a certain Benjamin Franklin (and I’m sure he must have said the first one too at some point).

Are you a morning person? Statistically, only about 10% are. In fact, only another 20% are night owls. That puts about 70% of us right there in the middle, neither late sleepers nor early risers, conveniently non-spectacular.

“Speak for yourself”

Here comes the sun

But what if we could harness the power of the sun? Like a blooming flower opening up in all its glory to spread itself out and bask in the sun’s aura, we too can be so grand and wonderful, no?

I know, I know. ‘I have a job’, ‘I have kids’, ‘I have Netflix’. These are not excuses, they are just facts of life. Obstacles will always be in your path, no matter what you do or where you do it. Life cares not for smooth sailing and calm seas. It will throw grenades, barbed wire and tornadoes, and expect you to take it all!

Pictured: life

Pictured: life

So, how do you get around this?

A routine of course!

It’s simple. Regularity breeds an environment where your body and mind know what is expected of them in certain situations and at certain times. By scheduling yourself to be doing specific actions at designated times, you get yourself into a very productive habit that can lead to serious long term gains. It also removes the chance for dilly-dallying and general horseplay (unless, of course, you have made time for that in your routine. In which case, fantastic!), and replaces this with well planned, well utilised time and activity.

“Hmmm, I’m not so sure”

Why bother?

“”Habits help us get through the day with minimal stress and deliberation,” says social psychologist Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California whose research focuses on the effect of habits on behavior” (taken from the article The Blessings of Routine on ChicagoTribune.com).

Whether the routine is rising early and maximising your productivity in the morning (more on this to come), or structuring your movements and actions throughout the day so as to keep yourself maximising your time for your interests, your day can only get better.

Time is money, but time is arguably more important. They are two things that define and dictate our daily lives, and yet we have so much trouble emphasising to ourselves to need to manage our time as carefully if not more so than how we manage our finances. Are you spending your time on things you really want to? Whether it’s having more time to play laser tag with your kids, bake cakes with your grandma, sell stocks and close accounts, or write and read, we could all do with having a little extra time in our lives for these passions. Squandering time is as big a waste if not more so than throwing money down the drain!

“Aaargh!”

When can I routine?

This part is easy! For those of you interesting in making time at the beginning and end of your day, there is a great video here on The Art of Manliness that explains how you can book end your day with a structured routine aimed at prioritising your time and making the most of setting yourself up to succeed every day!

In the coming weeks we will also be looking into the daily routine of some great people from history, and seeing how their daily structures helped them to be the best they could be. We’ll also give you a breakdown of why making special care of using your mornings in an effective way can set you up for an even better day.

To, y'know, climb mountains and stuff

To, y’know, climb mountains and stuff

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself though. Life is busy, and some of us are truly swamped by the things we have to do, leaving us little time for the things we want to do. Small changes, even anything such as making time for ten minutes of reflective thought every morning, are a start.

Your task for this week? Go forth and add something to your daily life. It doesn’t have to be something big, but it has to be something noticeable, and something you are capable of doing every day. For the more competent among us, perhaps look to try something a little taxing that may take a little juggling to actually be possible to fit in.

Some ideas:

  • half an hour of reading before bed
  • fifteen minutes of emailing friends in the morning
  • 3o minutes of foreign language review before breakfast
  • a morning jog (15-30 minutes is sufficient!)
  • Keeping a journal, making time to write for at least 20 minutes every night (click here for the IQ breakdown of why journals are awesome)
or crocodile dentistry...

or crocodile dentistry…

Ultimately, the person who can control this is you. Don’t waste any more time thinking and yearning. With a planned routine, the thought process is removed and instead you only have moments for action! Knowing that every day you will be playing/practising/learning/growing can be a massive motivator, and a keen reminder that your life is moving in a fulfilling and enriching way.

What’s stopping you? Let us know in the comments what things you make a habit of doing routinely, and any tips you might have for others who are just starting to form routines of their own.

Special thanks to David Castillo Dominici, Kookkai_nak, marin, stockimages, TeddyBear[Picnic] and Tuomas_Lehtinen @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015