Saturday, 28 March 2015

Fundamentals of Novel Writing – Part 1

There are some things that every writer should get right before any thought of publication (either through self publishing or traditional). With the onset of self-publishing, especially, there is a tendency of complacency (and lack of writing ability) in so much that a writer can write however they wish, because there are no ‘rules’ to follow.
While this is indeed true, it is also misleading. There is also no quality control with self publishing, so if writers do break those ‘rules’ then the result will be a terrible, unreadable mess. Fact. That is why there are guidelines in place, to ensure a writer produces a quality written piece of fiction.
If you want to write a novel then you have to know the fundamentals. If you ignore the fundamentals, then you’re not going to achieve much as a writer.
The Fundamentals:
Planning – a little planning goes a long way. A lot of planning goes even further. The less prepared you are to embark on a novel, the more problems you will encounter. So plan your novel - sketch out the chapters, make sure all your important characters are well defined, know a rough ending and know where the story might go.
Length – have some idea of what the length your novel will be and try to stick to it. Anything less than 60,000 words will be a novella. Any more than 110,000 words will end up being a saga (and probably a huge bore for your readers). Average length novels run from 80,000 to 100,000 words.
Plot – what is the plot? What, essentially, is the story about? What is the point of the story? What will it achieve, what is it trying to say? Make sure your plot is as tight as it can be, otherwise readers will pick out the holes, the obvious plot flaws, quite easily. If your plot isn’t watertight, then the rest of the story will fail.
POV – there are certain guidelines for this, and there is good reason for it. Too many writers believe that there is nothing wrong with jumping from one POV to another, mid scene. This is not a good idea, and it’s another classic error made by beginners. And those too arrogant to want to accept any different.
The general rule for POV is that viewpoints should not shift until there is a new scene or a new chapter to introduce them.
The reason for this ‘rule’? Try reading a novel with viewpoints all over the place. It’s hard to figure out whose point of view it is and whose story is being told. It’s confusing and difficult to read. If there is no clear viewpoint and it’s not clear whose story is being told, then the story has failed on a major level.
If authors can’t get these basics right, then they have no place writing.
Characterisation – A good book always has great characters. Lack of characterisation makes for a poorly written book. Make sure your characters are interesting, dynamic, but ultimately flawed. Make the reader care about them. And make sure the reader can root for your protagonist. There’s nothing worse than a hero we all hate.
More importantly, whose story is it? Many authors make the mistake of letting secondary characters take over. The main character’s story becomes lost. This is a classic mistake made by beginners.
Conflict – where is the conflict? What kinds of conflict will it have? A story without conflict isn’t a story.
Conflict usually takes the form of good guy versus the bad guy; it is the fuel of any good story. But conflict can come from different things - the environment or surroundings; it can be internal conflict from your main character. It could be conflict between secondary characters or with companies or even authorities. Whatever the conflict, make sure it works as part of the overall story.
As with every aspect of fiction writing, don’t force it.
Structure – The importance of structure shouldn’t be overlooked. But what exactly is structure?
When we talk about structure, it means the construction of the novel. In other words, are the scenes set out properly (do they flow instead or do they stutter and jump from one thing to another?). Is the dialogue structured properly? Are the chapters clear? Are POVs correctly done? Does the whole thing move the story forward in a logical manner? Do you have a tight plot in place, with clear subplots and themes to underscore the story?
Above all, does your story make sense?
All these things working together make up the overall structure of a novel, and if one of them is lacking or flawed, then the structure isn’t working and the story won’t be as strong as you may want it.
In part 2, we’ll look at more fundamentals for writing a novel, such as the beginning and ending of the novel, dialogue structure and exposition.

Next week - Fundamentals of Novel writing – Part 2

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Writing Short Stories

How different are they from writing full length stories such as novels or novellas? 
Despite their similarities, short stories are quite different, certainly where structure and content is concerned.
Unlike novels, short stories have a limited amount of space in which to tell the story; usually around. 1000 – 10,000 words, so how the story is told is dictated by its length. In contrast to novels, there is a lot to cram into the short story, without it feeling too cluttered, rushed or contrived.
There are no hard and fast rules where short stories are concerned, but there are certain aspects writers should consider and a number of things they should pay attention to, especially as there is a limited amount of words to work with. That doesn’t mean writers have to be so economical with words to the point that description suffers and falls prey to ‘telling’, rather than ‘showing’ but instead it means writers have to be very careful about which scenes require more description and which scenes don’t, because even short stories need adequate description and imagery to help make them more believable.
What does a short story need?
From the outset, your short story must identify whose story it is and what the central point of the story is. If you have only 1000 words in which to tell that story, then it’s vital you engage the reader from the very first word. That means introducing the main character immediately and letting the reader know what the situation is within the first two paragraphs.
It’s important that the reader understands the story from the opening lines. Establish the time, the place and the action (the Greek Unities) as early as possible. It makes life easier for the reader and for the writer.
Get the POV right before you start. Whether it’s first person (popular with short story writing) or third person, make sure you’re comfortable with it – and stick with it – otherwise you’ll end up doing more work in the long run to correct a POV that just doesn’t work.
Just like the novel, a short story needs a great beginning, an interesting middle and a satisfactory end, which is no mean feat when you don’t have many words to do it. Not only that, but the story must make sense. There is nothing worse than a short story that doesn’t have a theme and then wanders off the beaten track and doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say.
It also needs a significant starting point. Jump straight in right at a pivotal moment that something affects your main character. Short stories don’t have the luxury of lots of exposition, so it’s important to establish the defining opening scene because that then sets the tone for the rest of the story.
Don’t skimp on tension, atmosphere, emotion and conflict. Just because short stories are short in length doesn’t mean that writers should overlook some very vital ingredients. It might seem a lot to fit in, but it can be done. It just means that every word and sentence is precious, so make each one count.
Don’t complicate the story with too many characters; otherwise it will be hard for the reader to follow them. The fewer the characters in the story, the less likelihood there is for complication. Fewer characters make for a better story because it makes the narrative tighter and allows the writer to concentrate fully on those characters. It will also prove easier for the reader to follow and much easier for the writer to establish immediacy with the reader.
The short story structure is less complex than the novel because there are fewer themes and almost no subplots (that just takes up valuable wordage). All the aspects of a novel can be found in a short story, but they are considerably pared down, like a miniature novel.
Why do some short stories fail?
1. The writer has used too many characters, so it becomes too confusing for the reader to follow who is doing what and when.
2. The writer has failed to let the reader know the time, the place or action and simply blunders on regardless.
3. The story hasn’t opened at the most crucial point in the character’s life and instead it rambles on before anything interesting happens.
4. It hasn’t set any scene or revealed what is at the heart of the story.
5. It doesn’t have a very good beginning, with a muddled middle and a poor ending that gives no answers.
6. There is no central theme.
7. The writer just hasn’t thought it through.
Some people can write short stories with ease, but find novels more complex, while novelists find it bothersome to contain a whole story in 1000 – 10,000 words. Others can do both.
The best way to understand how short stories are structured and how they work, however, is to read as many as possible. The more you read, the more you will learn.

Next week: The Fundamentals of Novel Writing

Saturday, 14 March 2015

The Primary Causes of Character Conflict – Part 2

Part 1 looked at some of the main causes of character conflict, the kind of things that give our characters motivations, things that make them act and behave in certain ways which raise the tension and keep the reader interested - such as love and hate, the need for a character to reach his or her goal, desire, the good guy versus the bad guy effect, making choices and facing dilemmas.
In this concluding part, we’ll look at a few more causes, ones that we don’t always readily give a second thought to, but they are important ones nonetheless, because they are elements that can cause conflict, and where there is conflict there is tension and emotion, the very substance of stories that readers love.
Ignorance might not seem an obvious choice of the cause of character conflict, but characters, like people in real life, have a tendency, and a great capacity, to be ignorant of a lot of things, and when someone doesn’t see the truth or refuses to believe something or someone, that’s when the trouble starts.
Characters who are ignorant of the things that are happening around them will always attract conflict, because there will always be other characters desperately trying to change their opinion or outlook. This kind of external conflict can exist between one of more characters.
Look at it this way - what if your main character can’t accept something, despite everyone else telling him differently? In real life we are all probably guilty of that at some point in our lives, and that goes for your readers, too. They will know this feeling, so this kind of conflict will certainly resonate with them, because they understand the emotions going on with the all the characters, they will relate to this type of conflict.
Another one is prejudice. This is something that we all fall prey to, in one form or another. It’s human nature to prejudge. No one is perfect, and your characters, with all their imperfections and flaws, should be no different.
When we prejudge, we make our own assumptions about something or someone – more often they are unfounded and completely wrong. And that’s the kind of prejudice that causes conflict – characters being treated in a different way because of who they are, who they are with and what they do, or they are treated differently because of their skin colour, their gender, their looks, beliefs or their sexuality.
Some of the best novels contain characters fundamentally weakened by prejudice – think To Kill a Mockingbird, Driving Miss Daisy, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Human Stain.
And so to our final primary cause of conflict...fear. Good old-fashioned fear of the unknown always causes conflict because ultimately we fear what we do not know or understand.
It’s also closely linked with prejudice and ignorance, since fear, prejudice and ignorance go hand in hand.
Again, it’s human nature to fear something we’re not quite sure of. And those fears don’t have to be external. They can be internal fears – fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of making a fool of oneself. All these fears lead to a heightened sense of emotion, and that can lead to friction with other characters, especially if they don’t really understand what your main character is thinking or feeling.
In real life we have encountered many of these fears, so we know what kind of tensions and conflicts it can cause to those around us. Fear is a powerful reactionary emotion and one of the strongest emotions used in literature. And because it’s so powerful, it causes a great deal of conflict.
Whatever the reasons behind it, characters love to fight and disagree and argue – it’s what makes an interesting story. But next time to you sit down and create a story, think about the very reasons why your characters act the way they do, and the very real causes of character conflict.
Next week: Writing Short Stories

Saturday, 7 March 2015

The Primary Causes of Character Conflict – Part 1

No story is without conflict. It’s a driving force not only for the plot but also for the characters. It makes characters do things they wouldn’t normally do. It makes them behave in ways they wouldn’t normally behave.
But to understand why characters react to conflict this way, writers should learn the fundamental primary causes of character conflict and why they’re so important in fiction writing, the kinds of reasons that universally make sense and provide the catalyst to create such tension and conflict.
You have the characters, you have the plot layout, you have a rough idea of the ending, you have scenes plotted and prospective subplots, but your novel lacks the tension and the conflict, so you might wonder: exactly what kind of conflict do I create for my characters?
That depends on the plot, other characters and the surroundings, because there are certain types of conflict to help writers:
Man v Man – This is external conflict
Man v Himself – This is internal conflict.
Man v Nature – This is external conflict.
The most important thing for any story is that the main character wants something, but he or she is somehow being prevented from getting it. Think how you feel if you couldn’t reach your goal? Think of the frustration and anger and disappointment this would create because your goal is in reach but you are thwarted at every turn. This is external conflict.
Another cause of any conflict is good old fashioned love and hate. Characters love to hate each other just as much as they love to love each other. Characters who don’t agree – even best friends - will clash, thus providing lots of different tension and varied conflicts. This is also external conflict.
Another cause is desire, which covers a large spectrum of emotions. Desire is falls under this type of cause, because sometimes what we desire isn’t always what we get. It’s not just desire of another person, but sometimes it’s the desire of a special object or place, or the desire to achieve something. The desire can be obvious or it could be profound. It really doesn’t matter, because the true conflict comes when the character’s desires are not fulfilled, which causes internal conflict.
Let’s not forget another primary cause – the antagonist versus the protagonist, or sometimes known as ‘good versus evil’. Every story will have a protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (the bad guy) who will clash throughout the story, each time growing in intensity until it culminates in the final showdown or ‘end game’ where the hero might win the day.  Or he might not. This is another example of external conflict.
Here’s another one to consider: Imagine being faced with many choices – what do you do? What path do you take? What might happen? Will you make the right choice? Choices make for good conflict because there is always the danger that your main character will make the wrong choice, which will result in danger and tension and lots of conflict.
Most stories will involve the character making important choices; whether right or wrong. This is internal conflict.
Similar to choices, another primary cause of conflict is the dilemma. No one likes to be faced with a dilemma, but unlike choices, which can be right or wrong, the dilemma forces the character to make a choice between two bad outcomes. In other words, there is never a right choice. But the decision behind whichever the choice the character decides on will be full of conflict and tension. This would take the form of internal conflict.
Think about the states of conflict we create for ourselves in everyday life – the emotional conflict, dramatic conflict and sometimes physical conflict. Somehow we resolve them in our own way. Sometimes it’s a good outcome, sometimes it isn’t, but nevertheless we are forced to behave in certain ways, we lash out, we react badly or irrationally, we act hastily.
Sometimes we do things we regret. And that’s because such conflicts awaken our instinctive desire to act and react.
In the concluding part of this look at primary causes of character conflict, we’ll look at some other familiar causes of conflict, which are important to any story.

Next week: The Primary Causes of Character Conflict – Part 2

Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Psychology of Characters

The writer’s relationship with their characters is a fundamental component of a successful story. The strength of those characters says a lot about the story and how they interact with other characters, but more importantly, it’s essential to focus on the motivations behind what they do, and why.
The psychology of characters isn’t about doing a character outline. A character outline is, in a nutshell, characterisation – the little things that make your character multidimensional, such as the colour of their hair, their eyes, skin, how tall they are, their fashion sense, their nationality, their beliefs, likes and dislikes, flaws and so on. Character traits make a character. It doesn’t tell us why they act the way they do.
The psychology of characters, therefore, goes much deeper than mere likes and dislikes etc. It’s about what truly drives the character and, consequently, the story. It’s all well and good having a character that has lots of recognisable character traits and so on, but it means nothing if the he or she lacks the essentials that drive that character to act in the first place.
There are certain elements that provide the building blocks to a character’s physiological make up, and from a simple story perspective, these are set out below:
Motivation – Every main character must have motivation. In other words, it means that there is ultimately a specific goal to achieve. Motivation is what drives the character.
When pushed, people are capable of many things; things that are sometimes ‘out of character’. We are motivated by many things - many influences, experiences or situations, and we act upon them.
Primary Goal – This is the very reason the story is created, to find out why the character sets about on his or her journey. The main character will have a primary goal, which he or she will need to achieve by the end of the story. That goal could be anything, but it must be reached, whatever happens, so the incentive is strong and palpable.
If there is no primary goal, there is no story. There may also be other goals – these would be considered secondary goals, and again, it’s important such goals are reached by the conclusion of the story, because if they are satisfactorily closed out, what would be the point of the story?
Through the course of trying to reach that goal, the character will undergo series of actions and reactions, mostly because of a combination of obstacles to overcome – deliberately placed in the way of the main character to stop him or her achieving the main goal - and the resulting conflict that it creates.
Actions and Reactions – the character’s actions as the story unfolds are an important indicator of his or her psychology. As mentioned above, actions and reactions normally happen through conflicts. In other words, the motivation, the need to reach that goal, the obstacles in the way that must be overcome all lead your main character to act and react, depending on the situation and the people.
If someone steals something from you, then it’s very likely you are going to react in a certain way, or if someone threatens or attacks you, then you will act or react in a certain way. How we act and react is down to our individual personalities. This is not dissimilar from cause and effect.
Another factor to consider is the past. What has happened in the past often drives us in the present. It serves as a foundation to behaviour traits, hence certain actions and reactions from characters.
So motivation, the primary goal and the actions taken by a character during the story play an integral role in understanding and developing the psychology of your main characters.
Personalities are one thing, but the psychology of any character always goes much deeper than that.

Next week: The primary causes of character conflict

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Is Backstory Necessary?

To answer that question, firstly we have to define what backstory is. There are plenty of variations on what it means, but in simple terms, backstory refers to your character’s background story, that which precedes the present events in a novel.
It’s about the things that have occurred in the past to shape the way your character behaves in the present. Every character has a back story, just as every person in real life has a history. What has happened to us in our lives – from early childhood to adulthood - has shaped how we behave, how we think and how we react to certain things. Some elements are very happy, some are sad, some are traumatic or problematic, some crazy.
Your main character will also have gone through childhood into adulthood and will have experienced various things that shape they way they think and influence the way the act and react in certain situations, but the crucial question is whether backstory is actually necessary.
The best way to answer that is to look at the fundamental reason your character goes about the story acting the way he or she does. This is down to motivation. What motivates your character to do something or react to something or someone? What motivates them to reach their goal? Often, but not always, the answer lies in the past. That’s when back story becomes a useful tool.
Back story should be pertinent only if you have to show the reader something from the main character’s past in order to explain certain behaviours happening in the present story, the kind of things that you wouldn’t be able to explain in a few paragraphs.
There is another valid reason for backstory. It helps to establish a connection between character and reader. It is true in life that the more you get to know someone, the more likely it is you will like that person. The same is true for fiction. By allowing the reader to gain a little more background knowledge about your main character, the better. Backstory helps with this kind of characterisation.
The good thing about backstory is that you don’t have to show lots of it. Either small amounts at a time or snippets sprinkled throughout the narrative are enough for the reader.
How is backstory shown?
There are various ways to do this without it making it look like obvious, stilted exposition or a huge info dump, since readers don’t like them and can be particularly put off by large chunks of boring information.
One way is to use flashback, either through a direct flashback scene or by the character reminiscing about a past event. This is where flashbacks prove useful. They don’t have to be long – flashbacks can be a few paragraphs – but the dip into the past provides insight into the present.
Another way is to slowly drip feed snippets into the narrative, slowly weaving them into the story, this avoiding both flashback and prologues. It also avoids unnecessarily swamping the narrative with too much information in one go.
This ‘weaving’ process is far more palatable for the reader and if done correctly, they will barely realise that the writer is showing backstory.
Another way is to use prologues, but these are now falling out of fashion simply because they are considered large ‘info dumps’ and can be more of a hindrance than a help. They are not the best way to get your story off to a good start, so the use of these would need careful consideration.
Another method for delivery of backstory is dialogue, where characters talk about past aspects (in order to explain the present situation or events or behaviours etc.).  But a word of warning here – many writers fall into the trap of ‘explanation exposition’. In other words, it sounds like two characters are simply discussing something to explain stuff that the writer wouldn’t be able to do without info dumping.
This occurs a lot in movies, when a character starts explaining all sorts of stuff to another character for no real reason other than to tell the audience, but in truth, the audience are not that stupid.
For example, would the bad guy really stop mid-way through killing his victim and explain why he was killing him or her, or how he came to this moment? Of course he wouldn’t.  Or what about the classic villain and hero cop stand off? The villain has to explain everything to the cop just before trying to kill him. That would not happen in real life. So don’t let fall into the same trap.
Let your backstory reveal itself naturally through dialogue; don’t force it.
Most novels will have a mix of flashback, the dialogue technique and snippets woven throughout the narrative to provide the most effective delivery of backstory, and if done correctly, a very effective way of letting the reader know the nature and motivation of the main character(s).
It’s not to be underestimated, but writers should think carefully about how they want to deliver backstory, but most important, why.
Next week: The Psychology of Characters

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Creating Lasting Images

Writers are always striving to ensure that their stories leave a lasting impact upon their readers because if they can do that, then there is every chance the reader will come back for more.
One of the ways that writers can leave the reader with the idea that they have read the most incredible novel, a story that, whatever the genre, leaves them believing the story and the characters, is to make use of lasting images.
Lasting images act as memory markers for readers. Think of some of the most memorable movies – certain scenes or images remain with us, because they are so strong or vivid or surreal, so we remember them. Literature works in the same way. By creating lasting images, the writer is creating instances that make it memorable and not easily forgotten. That’s how many of the great novels have remained in our subconscious.
We create the kind of lasting images that will stay with the reader, and that’s down to the strength of the description and characters. For example, some of the most well known books have created lasting images. Here's a few examples:
Jaws – One of the most memorable scenes that Peter Benchley created for Jaws involved a swimmer at the beginning of the story, unaware of the huge shark skulking just beneath the surface. Benchley uses fear and visceral description to create a lasting image that stays with the reader.
Carrie – Not many people can forget the scene at the Prom where Carrie is crowned prom queen, unaware of the joke about to befall her. The pig’s blood streaming down her face and body creates a lasting image, cleverly constructed to invoke disgust (the sight of the blood), sympathy (with Carrie’s treatment and torment) and a dislike for the perpetrators. It’s vivid and strong and uses colour and fear to make a lasting mental image.
Lord of the Flies – William Golding uses a wild pig’s head mounted on a wooden stake to symbolise the deterioration of group dynamics among the boys stranded on an island after an air crash.  Slowly the flesh rots and the flies gather to infest it. The image Golding creates is so evocative that one could almost smell that rotting, decaying flesh.  It provokes the reader, it creates emotions like horror and disgust, it creates fear within the characters and so it makes us remember the story – it has done its job.
2001 A Space Odyssey – The image of the mysterious monolith stays with the reader because Arthur C. Clark maximises our interest and mood with its power and mystery. Even though the object is static and doesn’t move, he created a lasting, tangible mental image for the reader.
Why create such images?
It’s our job, as writers, to make sure the reader not only enjoys the story we create, but also remembers it, or most elements of it. The story should leap from the pages of your book, such images should make the reader sit up and take notice.
Like movies, we tend to remember certain images, be them funny, shocking, emotional, intense or surreal. In fiction writing we do that by evoking reactions within the reader – the sensory, psychological and emotional reactions, because a mental image is a composite of all the various elements we can descriptively put together, encompassing senses like touch, taste or smell, but also mood and atmosphere, vivid or visceral description or heightened emotions and the use of colours.
Writers use all this to provoke a reaction within the reader. Such strong images contain certain motifs, symbols or metaphors. Think of Golding’s pig’s head – a symbol of the beast, or the colour of the blood that is poured over Carrie. The colour symbolises life and death. The monoliths in 2001 are a metaphor for intelligence and destruction.
By tapping into the reader’s subconscious, these examples proved to be memorable. So when you write certain key scenes, make them memorable, make them vivid, make them stand out, and create a lasting mental image that stays with the reader, so that ultimately they will keep coming back for more.

Next week: Is back story necessary?