Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How to be a Weaver Bird - And Write a Great Story

Are you a peacock or a weaver bird? Some writers - peacocks - flaunt their lovely words and beg us to admire them. Others are weaver birds, patiently building a structure that’s serviceable but dull.

Some preen. Some delve.

Or so I’ve discovered from three years of judging the Writers’ Village story competition. Who wins the prizes? Peacocks or weaver birds? Neither. The cash goes to those who combine both colour and craft, preening and delving - with flair.

Here are three fast ways to blend colour and craft and write a best-selling story - or, at least, win a cash award in a story contest:

1. Draft it quickly

You have a plot idea, right? A few dramatic events? A snatch or two of dialogue? Scribble it all down as fast as you can. Don’t wait for the ‘right’ words to come to you. Clich├ęs, stagy incidents, clumsy expressions? Welcome them. They’re fine. Just get the tale written!

Then throw it in a closet for a month.

Pluck it out with a sniff, tone it down and tune each sentence so it sings. The job should now be easy.

‘She rolled her eyes to heaven. “Joe,” she spat. “You are a lying bastard!”’

That’s formulaic. Boring. What are you really trying to express?

‘Camilla toyed with her bread stick. She wouldn’t look at me. “Is there somebody else?”
I tried to smile. “Of course, not.” I leaned back in my chair.
“That’s what you said before.” The bread stick crumbled in her hand.’

Now the incident, underplayed but loaded with body language, has gained depth.

2. Knock out the ‘show off’ language

Peacocks love to display their metaphors, fine sensibilities and erudite tropes. Tropes?  ‘Tropes’ is itself an erudite term. They wouldn’t buy it at WalMart. Why didn’t I simply write ‘tricks of style’? Because I was showing off.

‘Show off’ writing stops the reader. It says: ‘forget the story. Look at me, the author.’ In commercial fiction, we are allowed to use just one show-off expression per thousand words. More than that and our name is Umberto Eco and the reader loses the plot.

‘Literary’ works are another matter. If our name is Umberto Eco we can strut our ego in every line. Alas, our name is not Eco.

3. Firm up the structure

A good story is a ‘globed compacted thing’ (Virginia Woolf). Every word, incident and exchange of speech should support the plot. Is your structure strong? Does your story cling close to the plot? Is your first paragraph arresting and the close emphatic and clear?

Does the reader finish your story and sigh? Like somebody who has just consumed a filet de bouef without a shred of gristle?

True, you can end with a mystery or question but the reader must feel: ‘nothing could have been added or taken away from this. The story works.’

Here’s a tip. Give your tale to a friend who has no cause to love you. Ask: ‘Does it work? Can you spot my deliberate howler?’ Bless them when they frown and chortle and ask you: ‘What’s the point of all that silly chatter between Joe and Madge? Why does Joe dump her? Why doesn’t Madge protest? And what, exactly, is the wretched story all about?’

It’s music to your ears. We’re all too close to our own story to spot passages that do nothing or are obscure to the reader. Or, for that matter, stories that make no sense at all.

Just apply that three-step process. Add flair. And you’ll be points ahead of the average story contestant. Gulp, I might enjoy your story. I might love it so much that I read it three times. Worse, I may even have to pay you a cash prize!

 Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at: Writers-Village.org/Academy-intro


  1. Your both/and answer is more of your good writing sense, but I have to differ in one area. Umberto Eco is both a brilliant writer and a gifted storyteller. Just because his erudition and scholarship are deeper than mine or yours does not mean he is showing off.

    I won't echo old debates over his style, but I will take exception to the dumbing down of vocabulary that has taken over popular fiction. By not using the right or best word (a trope is not the same as a trick of style), we contribute to growing illiteracy and possibly to our own demise.

    I write intelligent fiction for intelligent readers. If along the way I send them clicking through to dictionary.com, all the better. That's what good writing does; it expands our horizons. And our vocabularies.

  2. Larry, I sympathize totally with your admiration of Umberto Eco. The Name of the Rose is deservedly a classic and Foucault's Pendulum is very clever (and funny) once one has skipped the impenetrable first chapter. (As Eco made clear in his Prologue to the Rose, he liked setting up his first chapter as an obstacle course. Only those readers who got past it were 'worthy' of him, he wrote.)

    That said, his later works - Island of the Day Before and The Prague Cemetery are defining examples - are, in my opinion, very badly written. Eco has become tedious and lazy, careless of readers' opinions. If his name had been other than Eco, I doubt if any publisher would have brought out those works.

    My point was: if we have a name, we can afford to relax. But most of us don't, so we can't!

  3. A delving preener ... that's me!

    Umberto Eco? Does he write mysteries?

  4. Like you said, the most important thing is to get the draft down. It's like a pencil sketch. Then you can use multiple revision layers to block in color, add light and shadow, and show off your style.

  5. I have yet to draft a book beyond, "this will be XX's story and what can I do to get him out of his comfort zone?" I'm 88,000 words into the novel now and I keep asking that same question. I guess I'm more of a delver, but I like to think my finshed product isn't "dull." I edit as I go, and if I put away a manuscript idea for a month, I don't think I'd go back. Then again, ideas come for the next book while I'm writing the current one, so maybe that counts.

    As far as 'dumbing down' -- I think one has to remember that in commercial fiction, one's characters have to sound like themselves, and their vocabularies have to suit.

    If I use words that I know but my character wouldn't, he's not going to be believable. It's finding the metaphors/idioms that fit the character's world view that's the challenge.

    Terry's Place

  6. Terry, that's so very true. I'm just starting to read your wonderful novel Finding Sarah. Wow! You walk your talk. It glows!

  7. John, I'm flattered that you're enjoying Finding Sarah. Coming from you, that's high praise.

    Terry's Place

  8. "Give your tale to a friend who has no cause to love you." Hahaha. I love this tip, Dr. John. We all need a few friends like that to keep us from becoming too self-important.

  9. Dumbing down vocabulary to accommodate lazy readers who would never crack a dictionary doesn't work for me. Dumbing down characters to make them true to themselves -- now that's a different story. In the final analysis, a smooth blending of color and craft is essential to great storytelling. Great post, Dr. Yeoman.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.