Saturday, 23 May 2015

Some Grammar Rules Can Be Broken – Part 2


Continuing our look at grammar rules and which can be bent and, on occasion, broken, we’ll look at a few more ‘rules’ that writers do not have to stick too rigidly or are now accepted as the norm in fiction writing.
Using Slang
Slang is something we all use, it’s part of everyday life, so it’s inevitable that writers want to add some realism to their writing by using it, which is fine, if you want to set the tone, but it’s also one of those things that shouldn’t be overdone. Snippets of slang here and there enrich the story, but too much can prove distracting for the reader and they will soon tire of it.
Also, using slang is rather like using salt in cooking. Just enough gives flavour. Too much and you spoil your food. The same is true with any story.
We tend to use slang within dialogue between characters, but it can, in moderation, be used within the narrative, for instance words such as ‘badass’, ‘fit’, ‘hottie’ or ‘selfie’.
Again, it all boils down how writers use slang and how much of it they use.  By all means bring colour to the narrative, but don’t spoil it.
Numbering Protocol
Some rules suggest that numbers less than 10 or 20 are spelled out. The reason for this is so that numbers can easily be read. Using single numbers such as 1 or 5 might not stand out as well as they should, hence the need to spell them. This is actually a good, logical ‘rule’, and many writers actually follow it because it makes sense to do it. That said, plenty of writers prefer to use numerals instead.
There is no real hard and fast rule on this, other than it being a style issue, so whatever you choose - numerals or spelling out the numbers - just make sure you are consistent. If you start with numerals, then stick with numerals throughout, etc. Clarity is just as important as consistency.
Comma Use
Commas are very much the subject of debate because it harks back to the days of education and that, where fiction is concerned, commas should be used as independent clauses, to separate lists or other elements, to use before a conjunction such as ‘but’, or to separate parenthetical elements, however, writing has evolved and most, if not all, writers use the comma as a specific pause within a sentence, to add effect.
Commas can help improve longer sentences without them appearing too fragmented, they bring clarity and prevent confusion. They also prevent the reader tipping over cumbersome sentences. Commas are a writer’s best friend, if used correctly, so make sure you know how to use them effectively.
Pronoun-Subject Agreement
We’ve all been taught that using ‘they’ is wrong when there is no gender to refer to, for instance ‘Once the character is fully formed, they will write themselves.’ Instead we usually use an assumed gender, mostly ‘he’, but this is very antiquated and harks back to the assumption that men garner more importance. But this is the twenty-first century and women have a place is the world and don’t like being generalised as a ‘he’, when ‘he or she’ is quite acceptable.
Some purists argue that using he/she or him/her is unwieldy, when in fact it’s nothing of the sort. If you wish to use he/she, then do so. Otherwise, many people refer to the pronoun ‘they’, which has now gained acceptance and is no longer grammatically incorrect.
Not everything you’ve learned in school about writing is meaningful or useful.
Fiction writing is an ever-evolving art form. Fads will come and go and things may change over time. What is not accepted now may be acceptable in a few years. The main thing to remember is that while we can break some of these ‘rules’, we shouldn’t overuse them. Also, there are some grammar ‘rules’ that are in place for a very good reason – they create better writing and they create clarity, and that’s what we should all aim for.

Next week: How to Write the Passage of Time

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Some Grammar Rules Can Be Broken – Part 1


It’s a contradiction in terms because as writers, we spend much of our time abiding by certain ‘rules’ where writing is concerned, but there is a very good reason why such rules and guidelines exist – to make us better writers.
That said, some rules can be bent and some can, on occasion, be broken.  Some ‘rules’ are now considered old fashioned because of the ever-changing way fiction is written, but writers should consider the context of their work before going ahead and breaking all sorts of guidelines – for instance, is the work to be self-published or will it go to agents and publishers for the traditional publishing route?
Self-published novels tend to ignore every rule and the end result is an absolute mess, because there are no quality controls in place and the author hasn’t taken the time to learn about what they’re doing. Traditionally published work, by contrast, has to be vetted and scrutinised by editors, and so some rules and guidelines are important.
You may have heard a lot about ‘rules’, but in essence these rules are not set in stone. In truth, they are the universally accepted standards for writing, which is why we advocate writers stick to them while they learn their craft. When you become published and successful, you can break as many rules as you please. Until then, it’s better to stay with what works, and has been shown to work, since the modern publishing age.
So, which conventions can you safely break without compromising or weakening your writing? There are a few to choose from, but let’s consider the most common ones:
Don’t use Contractions
No one really pays attention to this one, simply because it’s prevalent in every fictional work. We all use contractions – ‘don’t’ instead of ‘do not’ or ‘couldn’t’, instead of ‘could not’. Purists don’t like them because it makes the writing sound casual, and there are some authors who don’t use them, but in essence it’s more of a style thing.
If you want to use contractions, use them. If you don’t like them, don’t use them. Use what is comfortable for you, but make sure you are consistent, whatever you choose.
Never Start a Sentence with a Conjunction
Conjunctions (and, or, but, so, yet, because etc.) are generally used to join two parts of a sentence, for example, ‘John looked out of the window, but the fog obscured his view’’.
There are plenty of authors who start a sentence with a conjunction, which contravenes the general grammar rules you learned in school.
But the thing with conjunctions is that they work well, if used correctly. Notice I started this paragraph with a conjunction?  I did so to emphasise the importance of the point, which is why writers use them this way. They can add emphasis, depth, gravitas or drama, depending upon the way you use them, for example:
And now it was time to die.
But everything had changed. Everything.
If you want to use a conjunction, make sure you do so to get the best effect from your writing.  A word of caution – use them wisely. Like everything in writing, don’t overuse them.
Don’t End a Sentence with a Preposition
A preposition usually comes before a noun or pronoun to show its relationship to another word within the sentence and usually consist of words such as ‘in, though, on, at, above, near, of, for’. The word preposition describes itself: pre (before) position.
The book is on the table.
The clouds are above the mountain.
The apple is in the trash.
These examples show where the book is, where the clouds are, where the apple is. These are considered correct preposition uses.
Every now and then, however, writers end up placing prepositions at the end of sentences, for example:
This is the reason we write for.
This is the subject I’m interested in.
The name he was known by.
These examples can actually be made stronger by changing the sentence structure and thus improving them:
This is the reason we write.
This is the subject that interests me.
The name for which he was known.
There are times, however, when prepositions are required and the sentence is better with them, so understandably this is a subject of debate. The point is, it’s another one of those grammar rules you probably learned at school, but it’s one that should be tackled with some thought. If the sentence cannot work without the preposition, then use it. If it can be improved by removing it and re-writing the sentence, then do so, but don’t rely on them too much. One good example is William Shakespeare:
We are such stuff as dreams are made on.
It may not be truly grammatically correct, but the effect and emphasis that he wanted works.
Avoid Sentence Fragments.
A sentence fragment is not a complete sentence. If you do a grammar check with Word, you will notice that it will flag up what it thinks are incomplete sentences. But the thing with fragments sentences is that not all of them are mistakes. Some are deliberate and are intended for style and voice, for example:
She knew it was time. Like now.
The cold crept over him. Predatory. Hungry.
She remembered many summers. Such as those of her childhood.
For writers, it’s all about choice and the intended meaning, so if it enhances the narrative, use them. If they don’t add anything to the narrative, then don’t use them and reconstruct the sentences to make them better.
Avoid One-Sentence Paragraphs
This is another one that is taught to kids, but really should be ignored.
A paragraph can, essentially, be any length you want it to be. It can be one word or a hundred words. As long as the point of it is understood by the reader, then a one sentence paragraph is as good as any other.
In Part 2 we’ll look at more grammar ‘rules’ that can be bent and broken in order to create better, more emphatic narrative.
Next week: Some Grammar Rules Can Be Broken – Part 2

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Avoid Getting Tenses in a Tangle


Writers are faced with lots of choices when it comes to writing, especially so when writing a novel – things like choosing the right characters, the right themes to enhance the plot, choosing the right setting, and even choosing the right beginning and ending. But there’s one thing that still make many writers stumble, and that is making the right choice of tenses.
Getting the tenses right is essential for ensuring the writer gets the most from his or her story. If told in the wrong tense, or written with a lack of understanding and knowledge of tenses, the result will be dreadful. Get the tense right, however, and everything falls into place.
This begs the essential question. How do I know which tense to use?
Whatever the tense, there are advantages and disadvantages.
Most novels are written in past tense. It’s the easiest and most expressive tense to work with, but there are novels written in present tense, too, which is less expressive and more difficult to get to grips with. 
Of course, once you have chosen whether your story is past or present tense, you have to maintain that tense throughout the story. And that’s when the trouble starts. Past tense is easy, but present tense almost always makes writers begin tangling their tenses.
So what exactly is tense?
Tense refers to the way a verb ends (usually –ed for past tense and –s for present tense, for instance, ‘He started the car’ is past tense and ‘He starts the car’ is present. This is why your story will either be written in past tense or present tense, using first person or third person, for example:
First person past tense – ‘I knew from her expression she hated it...’

First person present tense – ‘I know from her expression she hates it’

Third person past tense – ‘He knew from her expression she hated it’.

Third person present tense – ‘He knows from her expression she hates it’.

Consider this excerpt, taken from my short story Voices (published 2012):
The stench of humanity poured from open pores in Deckert’s skin, but no matter how many times he wiped his face and hands, the clammy discharge wouldn’t go, and in his frayed mind, the glistening perspiration looked more like streaks of blood.
The description is past tense, thus allowing more emotion and imagery. Not only that, but there is no authorial voice to intrude the narrative. If I had written it in present tense, it would look and read very differently:
The stench of humanity pours from open pores in Deckert’s skin, but no matter how many times he wipes his face and hands, the clammy discharge will not go, and in his frayed mind, the glistening perspiration looks more like streaks of blood.
While the integrity of the example hasn’t changed, the structure and readability has. The narrative voice is a little more intrusive and the emotional effect is lessened.
The point here is that the writer must choose the right tense in order to create the right effect for the reader.
Should tenses change?
There will be occasions where the tense should change, for instance, to show something from the past such as a memory or flashback. This is quite permissible in present tense stories, because by its definition, a recollection of actions in the past has to be written in past tense. This is known as past pluperfect tense.
There are other times when writers have used both present tense and past tense in novels. This works if they are treated separately, i.e. by new scenes or new chapters, but tenses should never become mixed in the same scenes/chapters, and of course this happens all the time when writers attempt present tense, particularly first person present tense.
Problems with Present Tense
Present tense is difficult to write over an entire work because it has a tendency to fool the writer into slipping into past tense without even realising. That’s because some sentence structures can blur the distinction between what is present and what is past, for instance:
I climbed the stairs, aware of how dim the hallway was, and I slowly walked to number 109, feeling wary yet excited to meet her, knowing this is the moment I’m waiting for.
The error with this example lies in the fact that it’s inconspicuous. The tense changes halfway through the sentence from being first person past tense to first person present tense with, ‘...this is the moment I’m waiting for’. It’s that easy to slip from one tense to another, without realising.
The present tense also limits and suppresses the creation of suspense, tension, emotions and atmosphere, because the main character is restricted – he or she cannot possibly know what will happen or what is around the corner (which can be done in past tense), what character B is doing lurking on the stairs, because the writer is working with ‘I’. Everything is done from the main character’s viewpoint, so it’s impossible for that character to have any knowledge of future events in the story. It limits the range of expression and emotion that would otherwise be explored in third person past tense. That is why present tense is more difficult to tackle than past tense. But if it’s so problematic, is present tense actually useful?
It’s well known that present tense creates ‘immediacy’. That’s because the main character is the narrator, and the reader is right there with the main character, sharing all those personal thoughts and points of view.  This is why present tense works wonderfully for short stories – it’s more personal and intense.
Present tense can also enhance characterisation because by virtue of the narration, because everything is seen through the eyes of the main character. Similarly, present tense is also a good way for the writer to drive the story forward, through the main character’s actions, dialogue and thoughts.
Is Past Tense Better?
It would be wise to write in the past tense until you gain more confidence writing present tense.
Past tense allows the writer to explore everything; it allows the viewpoint to change from character to character, this allowing the reader to become privy to all manner of things, it allows them to share the information from characters, to see what lies ahead in the story, to become involved in the emotions, conflicts, atmosphere, suspense, action and tension.
Past tense makes it possible to explore. That’s because the events of the story have happened in a short determinable past, hence past tense. Present tense cannot tell the events in any other way but the present, the now.
The thing to remember with past tense is that writers make fewer mistakes. And that’s because it’s almost impossible to jump from past to present in the same sentence and context, in contrast to how easy it is to slip from present to past to present again.
So, when you consider the story you want to write, make sure you write it in the tense that best tells your story and conveys exactly what you want it to say, but don’t attempt a full length novel in first person unless you know precisely how to handle tenses.

Next week: Some grammar rules can be broken

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Too Much v. Too Little Description – Part 2


Continuing a look at too much versus too little description, in part 2 we’ll look at how writers should actively strike a balance between the two so that the resulting novel doesn’t have too much and doesn’t end up with too little.
In Part 1 we looked at why too much or too little can become negatives, but also how they can work for the writer in some aspects, i.e. having less description in action scenes in order to keep the pace, and more description in longer, tense, atmospheric or emotional scenes etc, which enhances the reading enjoyment.
Where description is concerned, it really is a matter of balance.
Lacing the Narrative
Description isn’t just about describing the obvious in manageable chunks – sometimes description is about subtlety and dropping hints.
Many writers lace their scenes with description by blending dialogue and description or with character actions and description. For example, here’s simple dialogue and description:
‘Nearly there...’ He hauled the log into place. Sinews rippled; dark sun-kissed skin taught with tension. ‘That’s the last one.’
In this simple example, instead of saying ‘He was a strong, well-built man and could lift the logs with ease’, the description tells the reader he’s strong because it shows his sinews rippling as he lifts the log. The reader also knows that his skin is tanned by the mention of ‘sun-kissed’.
With character actions and descriptions, the writer can reveal more about the character, motivations and otherwise unknown details that help the reader build a picture. For example:
Further along the ridge he noticed more people, which only made him more anxious. He hadn’t counted on the warm weather bringing so many people to the park. Months of meticulous plans teetered on an imaginary ledge and now panic – something he’d never felt before – stuttered through his veins.
You’ll notice that the character not only reveals something about himself and his motivation, but also what he is noticing around him. This is important if you want your readers to see things from your character’s perspective. By making such observations, you make the story inclusive for the reader; it will get them more involved, not only with your character, but with the story.
What is Good Description?
Good description does several things – it provides details, it moves the story along, it reveals characters and it heightens emotions and senses, whether it’s fast action, whether it’s a slower love scene, a reflective scene or a scary scene full of atmosphere and tension.
Good description provides imagery, but doesn’t become flowery. It uses more nouns and verbs and less adjectives and adverbs. It enhances the narrative rather than weaken it and there’s just enough to keep the reader sufficiently interested, entertained and desperate to read the next page rather than putting them to sleep through sheer boredom.
Know When to Describe
Easy said than done, right? The more you write, the more you learn about when to describe, because everyone knows that the type of description either slows down the pace or speeds it up. That means knowing when to describe a key scene. In other words, your description should have purpose to move the story forward, to provide detail, reveal character and heighten emotions and senses.
Know What to Describe
If left to their own devices, writers will write about everything.
What you describe is as important as the rest of the story. Describe only what is important, what is necessary and that which enhances the story. Important scenes, action scenes, emotional scenes, reflective scenes – the scenes that serve a purpose and provide perspective. These are what you need to describe.
So, the original question was Too Much v. Too Little Description? Description should always advance your story but never restrict it. It should have a balance, therefore it should never have too many large descriptive chunks (or pages and pages) nor have so few descriptions that the novel looks threadbare.
Goldilocks wins every time: not too much, not too little, but just about right.

Next week: Avoid getting Tenses in a Tangle.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Too Much v. Too Little Description – Part 1


I’ve written about this subject before, back in 2011, but it still seems to endlessly confuse writers on what is deemed the right amount of description in a novel, particularly when the writer needs to get a lot of information across to the reader without destroying the fabric of the story or leaving the reader deflated with the lack of detail. 
But getting the balance right is quite a challenge.
There is a multitude of advice available where description is concerned. Some advise writers to keep things minimal, while others agree that description is a necessity and writers shouldn’t compromise pertinent details, especially as it plays an important role in embellishing the story.
There are advantages of using more description, but that doesn’t negate the use of brevity when it’s needed.
I know I’ve mentioned this before in other articles, but the holy trinity of description, narrative and dialogue falls into what is known as the Goldilocks zone – not too much, not too little, but just about right. And that’s what writers should aim for with description. It’s about finding a balance.
It has to be said that more description is sometimes preferred and at other times less description is better. There is no or wrong. It depends entirely on the scene and all its elements.
There are a lot of options available to the writer to help him or her get the balance right.
When more description is required
It’s entirely acceptable to have lengthy descriptive scenes every now and then. Certain scenes demand it because description helps the writer convey different sensations – mood, tension, atmosphere, emotion and pace. For instance, a foreboding and pensive scene in a darkened house can’t exist on a minimal description, simply because it gives absolutely nothing to the reader. They won’t be able to engage with it or visualise it.
More description is needed in these types of scenes so that the writer can show the sense of foreboding and tension and the primal fears, to make the reader almost reach in and feel the atmosphere. In other words, longer descriptions serve an important function.
At other times, different ‘action’ scenes require more descriptions in order to allow the reader to imagine they’re part of the story. 
Description provides pertinent information that would otherwise be overlooked, things like background detail and setting.
More description is also necessary when the writer needs to elaborate on certain scenes to help the reader become part of the story, to become involved on a personal level, to become absorbed by beautiful the brush strokes and visual imagery.
When it becomes a negative
Too much description can become a problem if left unchecked, since it’s so easy for writers to get carried away while writing. It can be distracting for a reader when confronted with large swathes of description that doesn’t really do anything for the story.
When less description is required
Plenty of writers erroneously believe that description should be brief and concise, no matter what. Brevity is the new buzzword. But brevity only works when description demands it, otherwise the resulting novel will simply not be worth reading because it will provide too much ‘telling’ and will ‘show’ very little.
Brief description tends to quicken the pace, so it’s very useful for strong action scenes. The writing uses shorter, staccato words to keep it taut and fast.
Brief description is also perfect for breaking up long lines of dialogue. Having the character break from speaking, followed by a brief description of something – it could be an emotion, something they notice or an action of some sort -
When it becomes a negative
Too little description at the right moment will kill the overall effect you want to achieve because you are not allowing the reader to become involved, you are not creating enough in the scene to make it interesting, and certainly a lack of description won’t move the story forward.
The wrong kinds of description
Amplification, circumlocution, purple prose...these are the kinds of description that writers should look out for.  Amplification means the writer embellishes the sentence by adding more information in the hope to increase its comprehension. Sometimes that works, but often it just creates more description than is necessary. Circumlocution means the writer creates long and overly complex sentences in order to convey a meaning that could have otherwise been conveyed through a shorter, simpler sentence structures. And everyone knows what purple prose is – description that is just too over the top and flowery and jammed with adjectives.
Another one is the info dump, where too much mind-numbing information is described that serves no purpose for the story and doesn’t move it forward in any way.
Next week we’ll look at ways to best blend description, choose what to describe and when and how to make the most of description.

Next week: Too Much v. Too Little Description Part 2

Saturday, 11 April 2015

More on Chapter and Novel Lengths


By far, this subject has proved to be the most popular among writers, so due to popular demand, it’s time to revisit this very relevant subject, which I first wrote about in 2012.

Firstly, I’m going to repeat a snippet of advice I dispensed in the first article and that is novel lengths are dictated by the story itself, not the writer or the editor or a specific written formula. Secondly, writers don’t have to fit their word count into generic set amounts. The story will dictate how long the novel will be.

But plenty of writers still fret about the length of their chapters, let alone the length of the novel. There is a worry that they might be too long or not long enough, and that perfect ‘Goldilocks’ length just seems hard to pin down, but in truth, it’s not hard at all.

It’s all down to knowing when to stop at a relevant juncture to allow the narrative to breathe and to prepare the reader for the next chapter. The easiest thing to do is to just keep going with story, to get carried away and before you know it your chapter has turned into a mammoth 7,000 words without so much as a breath.

The art of getting chapter lengths right is to write enough to keep the reader entertained, interested, invested and hooked, without the danger of them falling asleep with boredom if the chapter drags on and on. Of course, sometimes chapters can run long because the story arc demands it. But conversely, try not to make chapters too short that the reader loses interest or feels as though the narrative ‘stutters’ and makes them feel short-changed.

Vary Chapter Lengths

Variation is key to getting it right. Some chapters will be short, one or two will be long, and the rest should average out the same length. That’s why variation works so well. But the one thing they should all do is impart information, move the story along and to keep the reader enthralled.

The one thing that chapters should always do is end with a teaser in order to make the reader continue reading. Think of old black and white serials – they always ended on a cliff hanger, which meant the audience were on the edge of their seats desperate to know what happened next. Treat your chapters the same. The reader has to know what happens next, so write the end of the chapter in a way that invites them to carry on reading.

Keep chapter lengths varied - think Goldilocks...not too long, not too short, but just about right.

Novels

But what about the novel itself? Are there set novel lengths for different genres?

In truth, they are not largely different from each other. For example, science fiction novels, on the whole, don’t run as long as thriller or some crime novels. But that does not mean to say that you have to keep the word count at a rigid 80,000 words. In the end, it doesn’t matter. As long as the story is good, then there is nothing wrong with a 90,000 + word science fiction novel.

It’s worth noting that publishers and agents don't reject because of word counts, they reject work because it doesn’t fit their genre, the work is too badly written or it just doesn’t work for various reasons.

If you contrast average words counts with something like children and young adult’s fiction, the word counts can vary between 20,000 words to 45,000. Fantasy/saga novels, on the other hand, tend to be a big read – think Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.

The romance genre tends to run at 70,000 words to 90,000 words (and sometimes fewer words, depending upon the publishing house). It would have to be a very captivating romance story to run beyond 100,000 words.

Average novel counts by the most common genres:-

Children’s and YA: Between 20,000 and 45,000

Fantasy/Saga: Between 80,000 and 110,000

Suspense/Thriller: Between 80,000 and 100,000

Crime/Detective or Noir: Between 80,000 and 90,000

Romance: Between 70,000 and 90,000

Erotica: Between 70,000 and 90,000

Historical: Between 80,000 and 110,000

Literary: Between 80,000 and 90,000

Science Fiction: 80,000 and 90,000

Horror: Between 80,000 and 90,000

Note that these are simple guidelines only. They are not set in stone! They represent averages.

The simple truth is that you should aim for an average word count that falls between 80,000 and 95,000 words because if it spills over 110,000 words and isn’t brilliantly written, the reader may well give up reading and find something better to do. This can happen because writers have a habit of writing far too much of the story and don’t actually know A) when to stop or B) how to edit effectively.

Seasoned writers often write more than is required – deliberately – because they know that during the editing process they will cut upwards of 15% - 25%. It’s very normal for the length of a novel to fluctuate over the entire writing and editing process, which means a book can complete at 85,000 words, swell to 95,000 words after the first few rewrites, then slim down to 90,000 words before finally ending up at 100,000 words. This is quite normal.

The drawback with many writers is that they don’t always know what to edit out and what to leave in, which means they make the fatal mistake of leaving everything in. And that’s why some novels ridiculously inflated with words.

The thing to remember is that novel lengths are not an exact science. When you plan your novel, set yourself an average word count to help guide you. Don’t worry if you go over your goal of, say, 90,000 words and end up with 100,000 words. Sometimes we just need a little bit more than we anticipated in order to edit well and tell the story effectively.

As long as the novel moves the story along, starts in the right place, has a great middle and ends at the right moment, then the finishing word count shouldn’t cause concern. Writers just have to use common sense.

So, where chapter lengths are concerned, remember the following:

  • Be concise. Don’t let it drag on.
  • Move the story along
  • End with by a tease or a statement that makes the reader want to find out more.
  • Vary lengths to keep things interesting.
For novel length, remember the following:

  • Set yourself a word target as a guide.
  • Always write a little more than the target word count to help you with editing – this helps to get rid of the waffle, info dumps, unnecessary scenes and unimportant narrative.
  • Try to stick to guidelines.
  • Remember the Goldilocks rule – not too short, not too long, but just about right.

One final note on this subject – tastes, trends and conventions change from time to time. What is trendy now may change in a few years, so read other novels that are similar to yours, check out their length and look at different publishing houses and their guidelines on various genres.

But most of all...don’t worry so much over your chapter and novel lengths!

Next week: Context – what does it do?

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Fundamentals of Writing a Novel - Part 2


Continuing with the fundamentals of novel writing – those basics of any novel – we’ll take a look at a few more essentials that make up the list for authors to consider before embarking on writing a full length novel.
Part 1 looked at things like Planning, length, plot, POV, characterisation, conflict and structure, so now it’s the turn of The Beginning, Ending, Dialogue, Exposition and Balance.
The beginning/The Hook – the opening must have a good hook in order to draw the reader into the novel. If you don’t, the reader may not bother to read your story.
The hook works like a fishing hook. You dangle it in front of the reader in order to lure them. The best novels do this with great opening lines and once hooked, the beginning gets right into the action. Don’t spend three pages explaining everything to the reader before anything interesting happens. Let that interesting thing happen right at the beginning, in the first paragraph. A life changing event, significant action or, literally, you open it with a bang – whichever way you do it, grab your reader’s attention from the start and don’t let go.
Ending/resolution – The ending is just as important as the beginning. It must tie up loose ends, resolve all sub plots and story strands and it must be a satisfactory conclusion for the reader. If not, then the whole story will fall flat.
You may not always have the exact details of the ending in mind when you start your novel, and that is quite common, but at least have some idea; otherwise you could fall into the trap of creating a deus ex machina (a contrived set of coincidences that help to force the conclusion of the story).
The ending should form organically from the story. Never force it.
Dialogue basics – Too many self-published novels contain so much woefully written and badly structured dialogue that it is fundamentally clear that the writer hasn’t even learned the craft of fiction writing. Many writers don’t know a thing about dialogue tags, punctuation placement or order of dialogue to action, so it’s vital you understand the basics.
The best way to understand how dialogue structures work is read other well known, successful novels. You will see how it’s laid out, how to introduce characters when speaking, how to break up dialogue with brief description and how to punctuate correctly.
Exposition – lack of exposition, too much exposition and indirect exposition. We’re talking description. Most new writers are under the misguided impression that novels don’t need that much description – it takes up too much room and it’s boring to read.
If that’s the case, what is the point of reading a book? Without description, how does a writer expect the reader to understand what’s going on, how can they empathise with the main character, how can they immerse themselves in the story?
Like it or loathe it, a good book needs plenty of description in the right places. In other words, description is vital for those key scenes to help build a picture for the reader. For example, imagine a painting with no colour, nothing in the background, nothing in the foreground, no textures, no perspective and no shape, other than a drawn stick man. This kind of picture lacks imagination, it consists of hardly anything. It tells the observer absolutely nothing. And that’s how a book without description appears. Who would want to read something that has no substance?
Description in the right places gives the reader colour, background, foreground, textures, perspective and shape. It allows the reader to imagine themselves within that scene; it draws them in and lets them be a part of it. It’s the staple of any good book.
Indirect exposition is known as ‘show, don’t tell’. This is where action scenes, important scenes or atmospheric scenes help with tension, atmosphere and pace. This type of exposition allows the reader to share those moments.
On other occasions, the exposition can be minimal, just to allow the story to flow. This is the ‘telling’ part, the unimportant stuff that writers don’t have to show the reader and it should be brief and to the point. Writers often make the mistake of explaining far too much, when it’s not actually necessary. This is known as an ‘info dump’.
So, if the scene is important, then it demands the right depth of description to show atmosphere, tension, emotion or conflict.  Other, less important scenes will require brief descriptions here and there, just to give some colour and layers to bolster the narrative. Peripheral, transitional and low key scenes need nothing more than very brief exposition = the writer is ‘telling’.
It’s all about getting the balance right. And talking of balance...
Balance – in novel writing that means finding the right balance of everything, but most importantly it’s about the balance of dialogue, description and narrative. Get that right and the reader will enjoy the novel because it has the right amount of dialogue, the right amount of description and the right amount of narrative.
Get the balance wrong and the reader may not enjoy the book so much because the other elements are lacking or missing or there is too much of one or more of them, but finding that balance becomes easier the more you write and understand your own strengths and limitations.
Finally, learn the conventions of fiction writing and respect them. Until you become an award winning, best-selling author with millions in the bank, you should stick to guidelines; otherwise you’ll get nowhere fast. When you become successful and famous, then you can break as many rules as you want, so until then, keep to the tried and tested formula if you want success.
The best way to study all these is to read plenty of well-written books by established authors. It’s the best way to learn.

Next week: More on Novel Lengths