June Newsletter: Choose your own writing adventure

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Give your writing an instant makeover

As writers, we continue to learn from each other through our lives. This month we thought we’d share one of the crucial lessons our years with the All About Writing family have taught us.

It is possible to improve your writing instantly – without holding a séance and channeling Henry James. By following a few directives, by sweating the small stuff, it is possible to transform your writing from clumsy to elegant.

It just takes a bit of care in editing every piece. To help you do so, here’s what you should pay attention to.

  • Read your writing out loud taking special note of the dialogue. Does it ring true or does it sound “written”?
  • Does the dialogue help propel the story forward or is it simply empty chit-chat or, worse, has it been included to explain things to the reader? Check your punctuation. If you’re not sure what’s right, find out. A brilliant resource is Grammar Girl.
  • Pay great attention to the punctuation used in dialogue. To illustrate how it should be used, here’s an extract from Jo-Anne’s The Innocence of Roast Chicken:
    Ja dis lekker,’ said Kobus. Determined not to be outmanoeuvred in this showing-the-others-around contest, he added: ‘Nou ja, well let me now show you something else. You haven’t seen anything. Come, Jonas. Let’s show them what we do with the red ants. And watch it, those ants bite.’

        ‘Ja, we know,’ I said, blasé with my prior knowledge of red ants.
        We searched among the squat anthill towers for a nest of the small vicious red ants. ‘OK,’ Kobus called to Michael when Jonas located one. ‘Go stand by the black ants. And wait till I tell you.’
        I stood with Michael, waiting while Kobus hacked the top from the heap. ‘OK, hold that piece of anthill fast. Now run across here with it as quick as you can.’
  • Take out unnecessary speech tags and synonyms. Notice that there are no speech tags in this extract from The Innocence of Roast Chicken:
    I love you, Ouma.’

        ‘Ja, my kind, ek’s ook baie lief vir jou.’
        ‘Where are you taking me, Ouma? Aren’t we going back for lunch?’
        ‘Ja, but first I thought it was time for you to choose your own chicken. I thought you’d maar enjoy that.’
        She led me to the hok of scrawny-necked teenage chickens, where their silly frenzy made me laugh again. I couldn’t stay cross with them, they were such idiotic, lovable creatures.
        ‘So which one do you want, my kind?’
  • Are your sentences monotonous? Vary the length and allow your sentences to reflect the mood you’re trying to create.
  • Check for and replace repeated words.
  • Don’t start a scene by explaining. Throw us directly into the action, and the moment. Try to identify the most dramatic entry point to the scene. Start late and end early.
  • Make sure your characters are doing something. What “business” can you give them to help your characters through the scene?An old-fashioned housewife might be chopping carrots when her neighbour pops in to tell her that she, the neighbour, suspects that her friend’s husband is having an affair with a real estate saleswoman. Observing how your chief character handles the knife and the carrots will show your reader a great deal about how she reacts to the shocking news.
  • Create a context in each scene. Show the world. Don’t be tempted to write only dialogue. A conversation shouldn’t happen in a vacuum.
  • Use sensory details.
  • Beware of the much overused ‘as’ and ‘while’ sentence constructions. It’s usually more effective just to break the sentence up. Here’s an example: Gunfire cracked across the field. Margaret pulled Jane into the ditch, as the boys jerked and fell like puppets. The first sentence is great. It’s dramatic and to the point.The sentence which begins: “Margaret pulled Jane…” dilutes the effect of what happens to the boys. We focus on the main thrust of the sentence, in which Margaret is pulling Jane into the ditch. How could we improve this paragraph? Break it down into its dramatic components and carry the reader through it step-by-step. After all, the boys deserve their own sentence in which to die. And find the strongest verbs you can. Gunfire cracked across the field. Margaret clamped a hand on Jane’s arm and wrenched her down into the ditch. Scrambling to their knees, they peered through the hedgerow. A burst of gunfire raised small explosions of earth across the field. The boys jerked and fell like puppets.
  • Always check for weak unspecific verbs – pulls, puts, grabs, walks, gets – and replace them with verbs that are strong and specific.
  • Are your descriptions generic? Rather use specific details.
  • Restraint is a writer’s best friend.

Click here to download these tips to use as an editing checklist.

How can we help you in June and July?

Three cheers for the digital age! All events and courses are offered via our online teaching platform and/or Zoom.

If you need to develop a daily writing practice:

Receive advice, stimulation and writing practice, every day for 30 days with our 30-day Hike Through Writing Country programme. On this self-guided programme to better writing, you’ll receive a new module, which includes a writing exercise, each day via email. Sign up to start whenever you’re ready.

Over an intensive two-week period, you’ll develop a daily writing discipline while receiving advice on what works and how to improve, on our Focus on Scenes coaching programme. Any piece of writing is as strong as its scenes. We’ll tackle the ten different aspects of writing you need to focus on in order to write compelling scenes. Sign up now to start on 15 June.

The Logic of Story coaching programme, which is designed to be completed in two weeks, focuses on the logic of story: the glue which holds it together. Each day we will look at a different aspect of writing necessary for building a story – from its characters and the structure of its scenes, to sentence formation. Kicks off 29 June.

If you’re haunted by memories of past travel:

Join our two-hour travel writing workshop, run by published travel writer and non-fiction author Fred de Vries, to learn how to turn your travels into a blog. The June edition is full already, but you can book now for Saturday 4 July.

Attend our free travel writing webinar! This webinar is your chance to ask everything you always wanted to know about any aspect of travel writing – from different styles available to you, how to tackle a particular piece, ethical questions, how to incorporate narrative writing, and much more. Register now for Wednesday 10 June.

If you need more one-on-one attention, sign up for travel writing mentoring offered by Fred. Choose between one-off mentoring or a block of twelve hours of mentoring to be used in a variety of ways, typically a mix of feedback on your writing with discussion and brainstorming. Valid over up to six months.

If you want to focus on a larger project like a novel, short story or memoir:

Our flagship online Creative Writing Course will appeal to anyone ready to embark on a serious writing project, or who has stalled in the process.  It will teach all the skills you need to write a book – fiction or creative non-fiction. Each module tackles a key skill and challenges participants with carefully crafted writing exercises, with personal feedback. Sign up now to start on 1 June.

Or, upgrade to our Virtual Creative Writing Course. Learn in real-time from a tutor you can engage with and listen to. This is our famous face-to-face Creative Writing Course, offered online with discussion, chat, and feedback – and notes to keep afterwards. All we can’t provide is the glass of wine. You’ll have to pour your own. Sign up to start on 1 June.

Join our virtual Story Weekend course from which participants will emerge with the first draft of a short story. All in the space of 72 hours, participants will busy themselves in furious creation, with one-on-one feedback from two experienced writing facilitators and much virtual interaction with a group of like-minded creative compatriots. Runs 26 to 28 June.


If you want to connect with your inner filmmaker:

Our 10-module online Screenwriting Crash Course will teach you the essential elements that make up a screenplay: how to tell a great story, how to develop compelling characters, and rules of plotting and structure. Suitable for beginners. Kicks off 6 July.

Join one or both of our Saturday screenwriting workshops, run by two of South Africa’s most experienced screen- and scriptwriters, Michele Rowe and Richard Beynon for an introduction to what goes on behind the scenes of any movie script. Book now for 13 and/or 20 June.

If you just want to inject some creativity back into your life:

Our flagship online Creative Writing Course will appeal to anyone ready to embark on a serious writing project, or who has stalled in the process.  It will teach all the skills you need to write a book – fiction or creative non-fiction. Each module tackles a key skill and challenges participants with carefully crafted writing exercises, with personal feedback. Sign up now to start on 1 June.

Join our virtual Story Weekend course from which participants will emerge with the first draft of a short story. All in the space of 72 hours, participants will busy themselves in furious creation, with one-on-one feedback from two experienced writing facilitators and much virtual interaction with a group of like-minded creative compatriots. Runs 26 to 28 June.

Our four-module introductory Power of Writing course will help you develop a more creative style by giving you the tools to enhance your writing voice. It will encourage active observational skills and introduce you to the concept of showing rather than telling. Full feedback on all assignments. Sign up now to start 1 June, or when it suits you.

If you need a budget-friendly option:

Attend our free travel writing webinar! This webinar is your chance to ask everything you always wanted to know about any aspect of travel writing – from different styles available to you, how to tackle a particular piece, ethical questions, how to incorporate narrative writing, and much more. Register now for Wednesday 10 June.

Join our free webinar exploring the art of the short story on Wednesday 17 June at 16:00 in the UK and 17:00 in South Africa.

Try your hand at our April/May writing challenge (deadline 31 May), or our June/July challenge (deadline 31 July). For both challenges, our favourite entry receives a literary assessment from us, worth R 2750 / £ 150, or a voucher of the same value to any of our courses.

Writing Challenges

The lockdown writing challenge winner

At the start of lockdown we challenged some of you to brainstorm and draft the outline of a story based on a prompt. Congrats to the winner, Samantha Michelle, who is awarded a free spot on our Virtual Story Weekend which is happening 26 to 28 June.

April / May challenge

There are still a few days left to whip up an entry to our April/May flash fiction challenge, where we’re seeking re-writings of popular fairy tales and myths! Come on, it’s free – and meant to be fun. Plus, you stand a chance to win a literary assessment on 5000 words of writing worth R 2750 / £ 150 or a voucher to the same value to use on one of our courses or programmes. You can read some challenge-specific tips, here.

June / July challenge

This month, we’re seeking flash fiction set on a university campus. What small or big dramas unfold on the plaza, in the lecture halls, in the professor’s offices, in the library? You could write this in any genre you please: horror, romance, adventure (think Indiana Jones), sci-fi or even, at a stretch, a Western. Have fun!

Write no more than 250 words. Paste your entry into the body of an email and send to pam@allaboutwritingcourses.com by midnight on 31 July 2020.

Our favourite entry will be awarded the same as above. You can read some challenge-specific tips, here. 

Happy writing, and stay safe,
Richard Beynon and the All About Writing Team

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