Writing Advice: David Farland on Tone

Sometimes you don’t have the language you need to adequately discuss a story’s flaws.

For instance, I used to dread the “pretty good” stories when I was a creative writing tutor. And by pretty good, I mean the stories that were technically pretty solid: they didn’t have any major flaws in characterisation or plot, nor did they have any egregious errors in language or formatting. You’d read them and immediately know that something was missing, but there wasn’t anything mechanical to point at and explain “you need to fix this.”

One of my colleagues used to refer to them as BP stories. Shorthand for “Make this Better, Please,” which appeared all to frequently in their notes.

I’m sure it used to frustrate the students who got that response. Hell, I know it frustrated me – one of my lecturers wrote the comment good, but not great on one of my poems in undergraduate, and I spent the next two weeks bugging the hell out of them trying to figure out what I needed to do in order to improve my mark.

Make it better, please is horribly uninformative to an aspiring writer, but at the time we didn’t have the terminology for articulating what was going wrong with the stories in a meaningful way.

This is one of the reasons I love the internet – given time and enough people posting about the writing process, eventually you’re going to get the language you need. Today, I’ve got some particular love for David Farland, largely thanks to his recent post about tone in short fiction, which immediately hones in on the issue those pretty good stories used to have and talks about what’s really going wrong.

One of the most common problems that I see with unpublished stories deals with “tone.” I reject about 85% of the stories that I see in my first pass, and with most of those, tone is an issue. The tonal problems come in several types…

Are You Tone Deaf, David Farland

A useful tool to add to your writing toolbox, and well worth reading. If you’re looking for follow-up, his book on Drawing Upon the Power of Resonance in Writing is also a pretty killer discussion of something most how-to-write books don’t articulate particularly well.

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