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About this book

Drawing on years of experience of writing, teaching and publishing, this book offers essential tools for writers interested in honing their craft. Whether you’re a poet, non-fiction writer, novelist, journalist, student or simply a lover of words, it will take you on an exciting and challenging journey to becoming a sophisticated writer.

As in the learning of any true craft or art, first the focus is on specific skills, then on consolidating those skills, which by the end will be innate. Through a variety of exercises and freewriting prompts, Playing with Words will help you develop your writing, trying out new styles and approaches along the way. Use this book in a class, in a group, or alone in a writer’s attic.

Table of Contents

1. Playing with Words: Flaubert’s ‘le mot juste’

Abstract
I left South Africa, where I was born, a few months after I had won a national literary award for my first book. The most compelling reason for leaving: a journalist friend of ours, who was black, was shot dead in front of his home by white Apartheid government agents. He had been writing about the value of a creative, freethinking education for all South Africans so that the whole nation might achieve freedom and self-fulfilment. This was too much for those in power who wanted to keep black people oppressed and servile. So they silenced him. I couldn’t live in a place where writers were killed for their words. So I left my country as soon as I could, having learned at the very beginning of my writing career what power lay in the written word. I grew up in a civil war, and when I was eighteen, I was conscripted by a minority government to fight against the majority population. During the two years I spent in that war, I kept a journal in which I recorded everything I saw, and heard and felt. Fellow soldiers mocked me for doing it (‘He’s writing his memoirs!’), and when I left at the end, I had to sign a declaration that I would never write about the things I had seen.
Paul Williams, Shelley Davidow

2. Stunning Sentences and Powerful Paragraphs – and the role of the Grammar Police

Abstract
‘I like sentences that don’t budge though armies cross them,’ says Virginia Woolf (2007: 99). Just as words are the building blocks of sentences, sentences become, in any work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, the proxy of our thoughts – the distilled representatives of our ideas. A sentence that maintains its integrity over time is a worthy one! If we read back over pieces we’ve written long ago, and those pieces don’t make us cringe or feel self-conscious, then we can be sure we’ve written sentences that won’t budge even when armies (or time, or editors or readers for that matter) cross them! The pace and tempo of a chapter or a whole book is impacted by the length of its sentences. We’ll take a look at how sentence length can be used as a specific tool to create tension or give the reader a languorous look into the inner world of a character’s thoughts. We’ll also explore some common sentence structure errors and shed some light on the idea of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in grammar.
Paul Williams, Shelley Davidow

3. Sound and Rhythm in Voice

Abstract
William Gass tells us that we are doing much more than constructing sentences, paragraphs and poems when we write: ‘You do not tell a story; your fiction will do that when your fiction is finished. What you make is music, and because your sounds are carriers of concepts, you make conceptual music, too’ (Gass, 1977). The mark of any great work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry is the ‘voice’ of the narrator. Voice can elevate a piece to greatness beyond any plot, subject or genre. Voice is ghostly, though, and nebulous. It is not located in a single word, or even a sentence. A writer’s ‘voice’ is the most elusive element in any piece of writing. It is located in all of the narrative techniques we will discuss in this book, but also in none of them alone. So chapter 3 focuses on one of the most essential aspects of voice: the rhythm and sound of our writing and its role in creating an unforgettable original ‘voice’. If we can find the ‘voice’ in our poetry or prose, then we have uncovered the heart of the piece … it brings our work to life.
Paul Williams, Shelley Davidow

4. Angling for a View – Who’s Telling?

Abstract
We are all storytellers. Every day of our lives we are telling someone something about something. We are, in essence, narrative creatures. Our brains are fine-tuned for it. We love it. Living without it would be near impossible. Sit for five minutes in a coffee shop on a Sunday morning and listen to the air – it is frantic with narratives tumbling over each other, some true, some truly made up, some poetic. Whether we’re telling a friend about the discovery of an earthlike planet in a distant solar system or gossiping about another friend’s dubious affair, no listener really cares about anything except whether the narrative is interesting. And how we as writers hold the interest of a listener or reader is with our narrative voice. It’s a skill to be able to craft the identity of the teller of our narratives – to put that teller in the appropriate position. We’ve learned how to mesmerize readers by the rhythm and repetition that makes up the essential scaffolding for building voice. But ultimately, voice is non-local – it is the effect of a whole piece.
Paul Williams, Shelley Davidow

5. Really Bad Writing: Melodrama, Sentimentality, Overwriting and Lazy Writing

Abstract
There is an empire built on the overuse and abuse of adjectives. ‘Descriptive words’ are the lifeblood of school English classes. It’s a safe assumption that from the time we first start writing our own creative stuff, we are encouraged by our teachers and parents (well-meaning editors that they are) to make our work ‘colourful’, to add a plethora of rich, perfumed and full-fat adjectives that apparently enhance our poetry and prose. The empire extends further and includes vampires who burn the pages of young adult fiction and who catch innocent and unsuspecting readers in their nets of repressed and unresolved sexuality. Romance and horror can easily be fed by the juicy overuse of adjectives, and with regular frequency some 700-page book, saturated with melodrama and mindlessly overwritten, makes it onto the bestseller list. But those books do not pass the time test. They vanish quickly into oblivion.
Paul Williams, Shelley Davidow

6. Silences and the Spaces Between

Abstract
We don’t need much. A piece of paper and a pen or pencil for starters is everything. Words are our only essential material. We can make anything out of them, and the worlds that emerge can be all consuming to the consumers. This, of course, ensures that those of us who use them well will always have a line-up of readers waiting for the next poem, book, instalment or chapter. And as story makers of one kind or another, we may well be the only artists in the universe who do not have to spend any money at all on our materials. If we have a voice, we can tell a story. But not only that: the element that makes our written material work well is invisible, intangible and as cheap as a single sheet of paper – emptiness, space. Between words. Behind words. Between lines. Beyond narratives – space where words could be, but where they’ve been left out or taken out. The ‘spaces between’ honour the creative power of the writer’s imagination – and importantly, the reader’s imagination.
Paul Williams, Shelley Davidow

7. Painting the Picture: Images that Light up the Sensory Cortex

Abstract
Our brains love unique metaphors. In a paper published in Brain & Language, researchers from Emory University demonstrated through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that metaphors involving texture activate the sensory cortex of a reader’s brain (Paul, 2002). The research shows that if we read a sentence like ‘The singer had a velvet voice’ or ‘He had leathery hands,’ our sensory cortex lights up. But if we read, ‘He had strong hands,’ no sensory activity is detected. ‘Strong’ must be an overused adjective that evidently does not wow the brain in any way. Language that is suffused with compelling details, with allusion and metaphor allows the brain to create representations that engage the same regions that would be active if the scenes were taking place in the reality of the reader. Picture making is the writer’s world as much as it is the visual artist’s or the film-maker’s.
Paul Williams, Shelley Davidow

8. Those Who Speak: Avatars, Characters, Selves

Abstract
Jahare is a ten-foot-tall fire mage. Inna is a small green elf with a quick mind and a warped sense of humour. For two long earth years they have fought dragons, made narrow escapes and grown to trust and understand one another. Night. The ice-dragon lies dead at Jahare’s feet and he stands victorious outside a cave beneath a rising moon. This isn’t high fantasy. It’s virtual reality. Every month, thousands of real people in the real world meet avatars and characters created by other real people in other places, and get to know them and, according to their own admissions, fall crazily and hopelessly in love with virtual constructs. Is it possible to know someone without having met the person? What about loving someone? Aside from online dating sites, gaming sites are a popular and populous arena for people to meet up, people who spend most of their time in virtual reality anyway.
Paul Williams, Shelley Davidow

9. Building Narratives: Movement through Time and Place

Abstract
We spend much of our lives living in imaginary worlds – worlds of made-up stories and hypothetical situations. Imagination is big business. As a species, we spend so much money on watching the fictional realities created in films that people involved in movie-making live multimillion dollar lifestyles and are treated like gods – their fashions, words and thoughts splashed all over the media. We live in the virtual realities of computer games; we read books, watch TV. And if that is not enough, we then go to sleep and spend all night creating stories in our heads: our dreams are wild fantasies, fictions we create for whatever reason – in short, we are, without a doubt, creatures with a huge hunger and capacity for narrative in any shape or form. One of the most interesting elements in the universe is the way our brain processes things, works out problems, expunges emotions and deals with grief, loss and so on, through story making.
Paul Williams, Shelley Davidow

10. Innovations

Abstract
In my last year of high school, my English teacher, Miss Botha (we never knew her first name then), inspired a whole generation of boys (I went to an all-male school) to write. I remember the exact moment I was inspired to become a writer. She asked us to read a passage from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the protagonist is walking on the beach. He is about to become a priest and take his vows, but he sees a woman swimming in the sea and walking onto the beach. Her beauty is a vision that inspires him to leave the Church and to become a writer, to become, in his words, a ‘priest of the imagination’. I too decided then and there to become a priest of the imagination, to explore new worlds, to experiment, to dare to dream, to write. Every so often, a new book explodes on the scene that takes everyone by surprise.
Paul Williams, Shelley Davidow
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