Saturday, 24 January 2015

Sorting Fact from Fiction

Sometimes it’s very easy to get so carried away when writing a novel that the lines between fact and fiction often become blurred.
It means that writers sometimes end up mixing fact with fiction (otherwise known as faction), which isn’t a new phenomenon; it’s been done for years and is extremely common. There is nothing wrong with using real places or events as a backdrop or setting for your fictional characters. There is nothing wrong with using historical figures within the story, but bear in mind that you can’t really put words into their mouths and treat them as you would fictional characters, because you cannot truly know their personalities, so you can’t presume to know what they would say or do. Also, you can’t write about what is unobserved. It’s a very thin line to tread, so for beginner writers, it’s best avoided.
Writers blend fiction with fact because they can apply a fair amount of artistic licence to the story, but mixing known facts with fiction requires attention and focus from the writer to ensure these two elements blend in a way that seems perfectly natural and factual to the reader, without deliberately misleading them.
Novels such as The Da Vinci Code used many fictional elements and tried to pass them as fact. This is where fiction and fact become blurred and misleading.
The dilemma for the writer is to sort fact from fiction in order to maintain a sense of reality. And that means any writing, no matter if a novel or a short story, should always aim for clarity. Writers should ensure that the facts don’t get swallowed or overshadowed by the story. Some good examples are Roots, by Alex Haley, or In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
When done correctly, the factual lends a voice to the fiction. That said, facts are not fiction or vice versa, so it’s important to keep them separate if you are aiming for clarity, but you want to reflect reality within your story without distorting, changing or even erasing the truth.
So, how do you sort fact from fiction?
Facts are what we know as true. This is important from a research point of view because writers should avoid warping the facts (unless the novel is specifically a sci-fi or fantasy novel and such facts can be subject to manipulation), because readers are very astute and will pick up on inaccurate information or deliberate bending of the truth.  For instance, the assassination of President Kennedy happened on 22 November, 1963. That’s a factual occurrence you cannot change, so writers have to understand that factual elements such as these form the interior strength to your novel by providing an accurate background.
Don’t try to fool the reader by skirting around facts or making them up as you go along – they won’t thank you. This is especially important if you are writing an historical novel using fictional events around factual characters, or fictional characters interacting with historical events.
Whenever you research for your novel or story, the first place you might look is the internet. It is an ocean full of information, but not all of that information is accurate. And because facts are vital to back up any story, the approach to research should be thorough. That means writers should double check everything and cross reference any facts they wish to use. Sometimes the best way to do that is the old fashioned way – by going to the library.
Sources for factual information:
  • Internet – some sites like Wikipedia, are full of flawed information, so don’t think that anything here is established fact.
  • Library – probably the best place to research and cross reference your information.
  • Groups, Associations or Organisations – they can provide the kind of information that isn’t always easy to come by.
Remember, if you miss anything or your facts are full of errors, the reader will spot it and it will put them off reading anything else you’ve written. If you can’t get your facts right, why should they bother reading any of your work?
Even though we’re in the business of writing fiction, that does not mean we have to ignore the facts. If you are writing about a specific period in time, ensure that you reflect the reality of it. If you are writing about an actual place, again, make sure you have the correct information to describe it and integrate it into your narrative.
  • Don’t ignore research.
  • Don’t make up ‘facts’ and pass them off as accurate.
  • Don’t deliberately mislead your reader with facts
  • Double check/cross reference your research – be thorough.
  • Aim for clarity – ensure the facts endorse the fiction.
  • Keep it simple.
Fact and fiction can co-exist in any novel. Just be clear that facts remain facts and the fiction doesn’t envelop them.
Next week: Reading your novel out loud

Saturday, 17 January 2015

A Novel is More Than Plot or Characters - Part 3

In the last part of this series about a novel being more than just a plot or characters, we’ll take a look at some of most overlooked elements of novel writing, the kind of things that are either simply ignored or barely shown by writers – Setting, Background and Time.
Does it matter about setting? Is the reader likely to care even if the setting is hardly mentioned?
Again, setting is one of those elements that writers pay less attention to, but shares equal importance with any part of a well-constructed novel. The setting tells the reader where and when the story takes place – whether it’s just one location or many.  They can be real settings or fictitious, but whichever they are, the setting gives the reader more information, instead of an empty story.  The more information the author can supply, the stronger the story.
Many writers make the mistake of either not making the setting known, or they go overboard with far too much description that the result is badly written and quite boring for the reader.
Clever writers often use setting rather like a painting backdrop. A brief description is enough for the reader to build a picture in his or her mind, rather like brushstrokes on a canvas. The best way to help the reader understand the setting it is to sprinkle the narrative with palatable snippets so that the description doesn’t overwhelm the reader in large, daunting chunks.
So, whether the novel is set in the Civil War, the Wild West, warn-torn Europe or the middle of space, make sure the reader knows from the outset.
A thoroughly researched background will give your reader plenty to think about, not only in terms of your characters but also in terms of the setting and the things that are happening around the characters. 
Think of that oil painting again. It's just as important to know what is happening in the background, as well as the foreground. Brief, vivid descriptions will bring a background to your reader's attention, and will enable your reader to see the whole picture, without destroying the whole view.
And, just as with a setting, make your reader aware of where the action is happening, but drop some hints about the circumstances of the story, the reasons why the events are happening in that particular setting with your characters.
Background can be anything that relates to the story and your characters. Take the Civil War example. There is plenty of background here – the turmoil of war, the experience of those who lived through it, the stakes...they all form the background to a story.
Just don’t ignore it; otherwise you’ll leave your reader guessing.
Does your story have a sense of time?  Again, it’s one of those things writers rarely think about, but every story has a time – the period in which the writer tells that story.
It doesn’t matter if your novel takes place in a 24 hour period or spans generations, what is important is that the reader understands this adequately. It is surprising how many writers fail to tell the reader what time of day or night it is in a novel, instead they concentrate on all the action.  
A writer doesn’t have to necessarily tell the actual time to the reader to do this, unless the story involves a clock, or clock-watching, as part of a motif, however, any subtle hint is enough for the reader to understand the time of day or year. The setting of the sun will tell the reader evening is approaching. The glare of streetlights or the moon denotes night time. The long shadows cast by the sun in the afternoon shows the reader.
Writers can also hint at the seasons to show the reader the time of year without blatant exposition, for instance the leaves on the ground in autumn, the fresh crisp air or the touch of frost of winter, or the sweat and discomfort of heat in the summer. All it needs is a little artistic thought.
But what about days, months or even years? How can a writer show the passage of time without writing about every minutiae? Again, there is no need for huge descriptions, but rather hints at the passage of time.
Writers do this in a number of ways:
  • New chapters or sections allow the writer to show a time shift. From one chapter to the next, the writer can show that time has moved on.
  • Transitional scenes – they bridge the gap between one moment of time to another by hinting it in the preceding scene, either done through narrative or dialogue – and then start a new scene in the new time frame.
  • Indirect exposition – this hints within the narrative or a character’s dialogue that time will elapse, so when the next scene starts, the reader will know that a certain amount of time has passed.
Whatever method you choose, always let the reader know when, where and how. The more information you give them, the more committed to the story they become and the stronger your story becomes.
It’s very easy to miss out a lot of these elements simply because we don’t consciously think about everything, but the more a writer understands these essentials, the easier it will be to write a fully realised novel.
Next week: Sorting fact from fiction

Sunday, 11 January 2015

A Novel is More Than Plot or Characters - Part 2

Part 1 looked at some of the more obvious elements that make a novel, things like plot, characters, subplots and viewpoints. Part 2 will look at those elements that are less obvious to writers, ones they wouldn’t normally stop and think about.
A good novel needs themes. Themes form the moral fibre of the story. Plenty of writers worry over what themes – if any – should be included, or how they should be used, but more often than not, some themes grow organically with the story. 
You might have a couple of themes already in mind. For romance writers, themes of love, betrayal, deceit and happiness are usual staple fare. For thriller and crime writers, themes of revenge and death or hatred tend to be top of the list, for horror writers main themes might be death, resurrection, the black arts etc. 
But the interesting thing about any story is that, aside from main themes, smaller sub-themes also emerge.
Themes help to connect the reader with the story and the characters, because they are associated with emotions – we feel the giddiness of love, we feel the sting of betrayal; we stew in our hatred of someone or something. We identify with the feeling of loss or grief. We know what it’s like to feel sad. We can empathise with the characters. We feel what they are feeling.
That’s why themes are so important, they help the reader identify with the characters and the story, they bring the reader closer.
Every story should have conflict because it’s the driving force of your story, the fuel that stokes the narrative fire.
A good story can’t survive without conflict. In a story with no conflict, nothing happens. If nothing happens, then there is no story to tell.
Conflict can mean many things. It doesn’t just mean two people getting into a fight or a huge argument. There are different types of conflict, some which don’t involve violence or arguments. Some are subtle, such as wanting to buy an engagement ring for your sweetheart, but not having enough money. Or perhaps someone has told you some information about your best friend, and you’ve been sworn to secrecy. What about choosing which dress to wear? The red one or the blue one? All of these are varying forms of conflict.
There are three kinds of conflict (which can be broken into sub-conflicts):
  • Man against man
  • Man against nature
  • Man against himself
In a novel there will always be the main conflict, and usually takes the form of the protagonist versus the antagonist. This is man against man.  Then there might be a struggle between the main character and himself, an internal conflict, perhaps a fear of something, but he knows he must overcome the fear to save the day, which is man against himself.
From these three types, you can create as many sub-conflicts. But remember, if you create conflict, you must also resolve it by the end of the novel.
How many writers fail to add backstory? 
It’s often overlooked because writers, beginners especially, simply don’t think about it, while others don’t think it important enough. But it is important. Without a splash of backstory here and there, your reader will never know why your main character acts or reacts in a certain way to something or someone.  
Backstory provides the reader with snippets of explanation to help with plot points in order to move the story forward and, most of all, it helps with characterisation. For instance, you may have a character who was abused as a child – this will have an impact on him or her in the present, so therefore drop some of these backstory hints into the narrative so that the reader can understand your character’s actions and reactions.
How is it done? Backstory doesn’t have to take the form of an info dump over two or three pages – it could be a couple of sentences or a paragraph. Think of little morsels on a fishing line. Go fishing every now and then.
But backstory is important – it lets your reader know why and how, it helps them understand.
How many writers pay attention to the structure of their novel? Surprisingly, there are plenty of writers that don’t yet understand the concept of structure.
But what is meant by novel structure?
The structure of a novel needs to be solid – it’s the framework by which your narrative will form to help it flow from the opening sentence to the closing sentence. The basic structure is made up of three acts – the beginning, the middle and the end.
The beginning is the set up – what the story is about, whose story it is, why they are on that journey and the conflicts that will arise from it.
The middle is the story and how it develops through a series of obstacles and conflicts, each one escalating in tension as the main character overcomes them, until finally it leads to the climax, the ultimate crisis moment.
The ending is that final conflict, the end game, quickly followed by the resolution, where the main character changes in some way, they’ve learned something about themselves and all loose ends are resolved.
The flow of the story should – if it were plotted on a graph – slowly escalate, constantly moving up towards the pinnacle, the denouement – the climax.  It should also graduate logically – in other words it should all make sense as it progresses, rather than deviate or go off on a tangent, otherwise you are in danger of confusing the reader.
Most of all, every story structure should have a great beginning, a solid middle and a powerful ending.
In the concluding part of this series, we’ll look at the other, less known aspects of what a fully conceived novel should contain.
A Novel is More Than Plot or Characters – Part 2

Saturday, 3 January 2015

A Novel is More Than Plot or Characters – Part 1

There are many parts that make a novel and without them, the structure of a novel wouldn’t exist. Every writer knows that there should be a plot – the basic story structure – and that the story will have characters, but they won’t always know about the other ingredients that make a good novel.
In the first of this three part series, we’ll take a look at the obvious elements that all would be novelists will either already know or should have some basic knowledge about. These are the easy ones for writers to concentrate on. But of course, there are others, less well known, that help make a novel whole.
So let’s look at the basics:
A plot is the skeleton of the basic story. It involves a series of events that happen throughout the story, through the eyes of its characters, and happens in a certain sequence.
A basic plot would be: ‘The hero has 24 hours in which to solve a series of puzzles set by a psychotic killer, who is holding his family hostage…’
In simple terms, it’s how the hero goes from point A to point B and finally achieves point C.
No story is complete without a compliment of well-defined characters to populate the story.
Characters have to have meaning. They shouldn’t be in a story if they don’t actually do much and don’t contribute to the story (except to be a specific background character). Characters should never make up the numbers.  Every character you create must count. Every character must be there for a reason.
There are a number of characters that inhabit a novel. There are lot of sources that say the number of character types ranges from seven to over twelve types, but most of these are just sub-divisions of the basic character development, for example, rounded characters or static characters.
All characters should be rounded. That’s the point of characterisation. And if characters remain ‘static’ then there is little point is developing them or including them in the story if they are not going to grow with it. This is why there are only three character types that you should concern yourself with:
Main characters – these usually combine the protagonist (the hero, whose story it is) and antagonist (the adversary or villain trying to thwart him/her). They are the driving force of the story, and the main cause of the required conflict that every successful novel needs.
Basically, they are your good guy and bad guy and they have the greatest effect on the story arc.
Secondary characters – the next step down from main characters, they are the support cast (and are often involved in sub-plots). They are there to help move the story forward and are there to compliment the main character(s).
Secondary characters should be just a well-developed as your main characters because they will appear in many important scenes with your main character(s).
Peripheral characters (or background characters) – these are the less developed characters, usually with walk-on parts or non-speaking parts, but are there to provide additional background to an otherwise empty scene.
Remember, all characters must have meaning, so if you have a scene in a restaurant, for instance, then you will have a main character, a secondary character and lots of peripheral characters to populate the scene. A waiter will be a peripheral character. He may only say a few words, but he is necessary for the scene.
If you find a character doesn’t actually contribute anything to the scene or the story, get rid of them.
A subplot is a secondary strand of the main story, but will directly relate to it.
There can be one, two or more subplots in a novel. They can be simple strands or they can be quite complex, depending on the type of story. There are no hard or fast rules. Obviously, a writer doesn’t want too many otherwise there is a danger that subplots can overshadow the main plot.
Subplots will often involve secondary characters, but the structure will always relate to the main plot in some way, either thematically or symbolically and must support the main story in some way.
Let’s take the earlier example of our hero trying to solve a series of puzzles in order to save his family from a psychotic killer. One of the secondary characters will be the hero’s wife. A subplot might involve her efforts to try to escape with the children as the time ticks away. Another subplot could involve the hero turning to an unlikely source for help, perhaps.
Every writer knows that their novel must have a viewpoint, whether first person, third person or omniscient.
First Person – Told exclusively through your main character. This creates immediacy, it brings the reader closer to your character and allows you to explore what your character is feeling and thinking throughout the story. The main drawback with this viewpoint is that it is quite limiting and is quite difficult to maintain in a full length novel because of tenses.
If you want to use first person POV in a novel, you must be proficient with tenses.
Third Person - Longer stories, usually action/thriller style, tend to work better in Third Person. This is the most common POV and allows you to employ more description, narrative and emotion within the story. This works really well for action scenes, particularly when dealing with multiple characters. It is also the easiest POV when dealing with tenses.
Third person POV is not as limiting as First Person POV. The majority of full-length novels opt for this because writers can explore third person multiple viewpoints, which means the writer can write from the viewpoint of many characters while keeping the main focus on the main character.
Omniscient (or all knowing) – this is the most impersonal viewpoint, and rarely used, simply because it makes the narrator god like, ‘all knowing’ and ‘all seeing’. In other words, the narrator jumps from one character to another character, but mostly it intrudes the narrative, for example:
‘This is the moment John must to decide what to do, and as you might imagine, he’s quite undecided in his actions or fortitude, but the time is upon him and so his next action might surprise you…’  
This is not an altogether defunct viewpoint – many contemporary writers have used it, such as with the Lemony Snicket books, or Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy – but it would need some consideration, since it is not as popular with publishers or editors these days.
Beginnings and Endings
Every story must begin and end. What we do in the middle is what makes the story.
But of course, writers should know that the beginning is incredibly important – the very first sentence must grab the reader’s attention and not let go. The beginning must also set the tone of the story immediately and open at a significant moment in the main character’s life – something that pushes him or her to undertake the journey they will share with the reader.
Writers should give careful consideration to the beginning of the story and their opening sentences. Hook the reader, reel them in and make them want to continue turning the page.
Endings are just important, a necessity of even the simplest of novels. The conclusion of your novel must always be satisfactory, believable and leave the reader with the feeling that it’s the right ending.
Make the ending convoluted or trite and the reader won’t thank you. It has to make perfect sense; it has to credible and must be a logical conclusion to the whole of the story, not just snippets of it. And like any beginning, a writer should consider his or her ending very carefully.
So, those are the basic elements of any novel – plot, characters, subplots, viewpoint and beginning and endings.
In the second part of this series, we’ll look at less known aspects of what a fully conceived novel should contain in order to make it more than just a few characters and a plot.

Next week: A Novel is More Than Plot or Characters – Part 2

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Are Plots Really All the Same?

There’s nothing worse than spending months, years even, writing your novel, only to find that the moment you come to publish it or submit it to agents or publishers, there is one already one the shelf with virtually the same plot as yours.
While this can be quite disheartening, it does not mean writers should abandon their projects with failed hope. The simple truth is that plots are not limitless, but ideas are. 
How often have you watched a movie or read a book and the story is so familiar to something else you’ve seen or read? That’s because they are inevitably similar; they share the same plot outline, but they’re not exactly the same.  That’s because they will have very different characters, different themes, different subplots and different styles. They will have different titles, too. So even if you have a novel that is very similar to one that has just hits the book shelves, don’t despair. Yours will, inevitably, be quite different.
All stories are unique. They can share similar story arcs and themes, but intrinsically, characters and situations will be very different.
How Many Plots?
You may have heard of plenty of suggestions about how many plots actually exist, with those who say there are only 7 basic plots, or 20 plots, but most of what is proffered in these cases are not actual plots, but conflicts.  Conflicts are not plots. Other lists are less definitive.
Christopher Booker lists seven basic plots, which are: Overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy and rebirth. While there is nothing wrong with this list, there is a lot left out where plots are concerned. There are definitely more than seven plots available to writers.
Ron B. Tobias suggests there are 20 plots, ranging from Quest, Escape, Forbidden Love, right through to Ascension and Descension. His list covers a lot, but like Booker, it’s not extensive enough and doesn’t have as much clarity as one of the best lists out there, written by Frenchman, Georges Polti, who put together a list of dramatic situations. It is said that the originator of these dramatic situations was Carlo Gozzi (writer of Turandot, on which Puccini based his opera), and Polti simply organised them into a definitive list.
According to Polti, in reality, there are 36 true plots available to writers. Logically speaking, he is fairly accurate with his list. There can be a limitless amount of subplots created from these plots, which is why so many other books out there may share similarities with your masterpiece.
And here they are, all 36 plots:

1. Supplication (the supplicant is seen to beg something from power/or authority)
2. Deliverance
3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
5. Pursuit
6. Disaster
7. Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
8. Revolt
9. Daring Enterprise
10. Abduction
11. The Enigma (temptation or a riddle)
12. Obtaining
13. Enmity of Kinsmen
14. Rivalry of Kinsmen
15. Murderous Adultery
16. Madness
17. Fatal Imprudence
18. Involuntary Crimes of Love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother, sister, etc.)
19. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognised
20. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
22. All Sacrificed for Passion
23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
25. Adultery
26. Crimes of Love
27. Discovery of the Dishonour of a Loved One
28. Obstacles to Love
29. An Enemy Loved
30. Ambition
31. Conflict with a God
32. Mistaken Jealousy
33. Erroneous Judgement
34. Remorse
35. Recovery of a Lost One
36. Loss of Loved Ones.

Don’t Panic

In truth, all plots are the same, but it is how the writer applies the story, the characters, the subplots, themes and so on, that really matters. That is what sets the story apart from every other story.
If twenty writers are given the same plot, they will write twenty very different stories, so even though it seems that someone has beaten you by publishing a story that mirrors your plot, you can rest assured that your story will be quite different.
Every plot follows the same premise – something happens in the main character’s life that changes their life and they have do something to solve the situation and overcome problems that arise from it. But it’s how we make it all happen that sets our work apart from others.
Be Different
Being fresh and unique helps you get ahead because while you can still write the same basic ideas, by being exceptional and different in your approach to your characters, story perspectives, themes, situations and outcomes, you create something very different for the reader.
Remember, all books are not the same. Just similar.
As long as you are fresh in approach with your story ideas and you can offer a different twist on the plot, then it doesn’t really matter.
Your story will still be unique.

Thank you to all readers and followers for your continued support. I’d like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a wonderful New Year.
Allwrite will return 3rd January 2015.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Passive & Active Voice

You may have heard ‘passive’ and ‘active’ voice mentioned in previous articles, or seen something written about them online and wondered if they are really that important in fiction writing, especially with the emerging consensus among self-published writers they can ‘write what they like’. Of course they can write what they like. It’s just most of it isn’t worth reading.
So what is passive and active voice? Is it really that important?
When we talk about active or passive voice, it means that the verb is either active or passive. For instance:
John answered the door = active sentence.
The door was answered by John = passive sentence.
The first example is active because the subject and verb is in the correct sequence. In active sentences, something that is doing the action is the subject of the sentence. The thing receiving the action is the object.
Therefore in the above sentence, John is the subject. ‘Answered’ becomes a verb because it is the action being used with an object. The object is the door.
Subject – Verb – Object = Active.
In the passive sentence, the subject of the sentence has the action done to it by someone or something, or the object.
So, in the above example, the object is the door. The verb ‘answered’ is the action and the subject is John.
Object – Verb – Subject = Passive.
In the grand scheme of things, passive and active voice is very important to understand for any writer.  It’s essential to show the story and your characters with an active voice rather than a passive one, especially when this has a direct relationship to the tenses, either making them active or passive tenses.
Passive voice examples:-
The plant was watered by John.

The eggs were beaten by the chef.

The phone was answered by Jane.

The number was memorised by Pete.

While not entirely grammatically incorrect, the way the sentences are structured leaves them weakened and clunky compared to today’s modern tastes and desire for the active voice. (Trends come and go in fiction writing, but on the whole some of them get consigned to the bin for very good reasons. Passive voice in fiction is one of them).

If those examples had been active tenses – dynamic in nature and more immediate than passive ones – they would be like this:

John watered the plant.

The chef beat the eggs.

Jane answered the phone.

Pete memorised the number.

You can see from these examples that the focus of the action is sharpened by the switch from passive to active and making sure the subject is doing the action. There is no doubt which voice is better.

Why Use Active Voice?

In the past – the last 200 years especially – there was a trend to use passive voice in literature, however, over the last 50 – 60 years, modern readers enjoy the active voice, the immediacy and instant connection it creates, giving them the feeling they are right in the thick of the action. The active voice keeps the narrative from wandering into passive territory.

Passive voice does the opposite - it slows the pace of a sentence, it stifles immediacy and makes it difficult for the reader to feel that immediacy. It will prove hard for the reader to become involved with the story, and that is precisely what you want for your reader; you absolutely want them involved, right from the very first page.

Passive voice also adds more unnecessary words to the sentence, and more often than not it relies heavily on the word ‘was’. This is a word to watch out for because it often makes sentences ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. And passive sentences are all ‘telling.’

So where creative fiction is concerned, writers should keep the voice active.
So, is it really THAT important?
In a nutshell? Yes, it is. It’s the difference between writing quality fiction and writing utter crap.

Next week: Are plots really all the same?

Saturday, 29 November 2014

How to Improve Writing Skills

None of us start out as experts at writing. We all have to start at the beginning and learn and grow as writers, but there are many ways writers can improve their writing skills. Some of them are very simple.
Know the Basics
The basics of fiction writing should not be beyond the comprehension of any writer, even newbies. By basics, I mean things like a good grasp of vocabulary and grammar, a familiarity with the language (i.e. to have some knowledge of verbs, adverbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns and so on), and syntax, the ability to provide decent narrative composition.
When these basics are not in place, then learn about them, otherwise the resulting attempt at a blockbusting novel might be a mess. The easiest way to learn about the basics is to read lots of books on grammar and writing.
Observe and Listen 
Not many writers give credit to this, or they fail to see how it could possibly improve their abilities, but observation is vital to learning and improving writing skills, because the more you observe, the more experience you store in the memory banks to help you construct better descriptions. For example, if you have a scene that involves rain, have you ever scrutinised it; how it moves, the shapes it makes when it hits a surface, the sound it makes? Ever just watched and listened to it? 
If so, then you can translate it into your fiction with better imagery and description. If not, try it.
This applies to anything you observe, be it clouds, storms, people, situations, sounds, nature, working systems/mechanics...anything that you can call upon to help enrich your narrative with that hint of realism that the reader loves.
This is the cornerstone to self-improvement where fiction writing is concerned.
Every writer will tell you that reading is paramount to improving writing skills.  Why?  Because you get to see how other authors write – their styles, their voice, their narrative constructions and so on. The more you read different authors, the better you will recognise and understand the writing process and what it takes to write effective fiction.
Reading allows us to widen our understanding of fiction writing, it helps us discover new words and meanings, it helps understand how things like flashback or foreshadowing works, it shows us how scenes are constructed and set out etc., but most of all, reading others helps provide writers with inspiration by motivating us to write, to be the best we can be.
It is still one of the best ways to help writers improve, and that’s to simply write. The more you write, the more you learn and understand and the more you improve. It’s that simple and it works.
Practice is what makes us better and more proficient. The more you write, the better you become.
Pay Attention
It’s easy for writers to do their own thing and ignore common advice about writing, especially general guidelines that are there to help them, whether it is about writing or whether it’s about submitting to agents or publishers. 
If writers don’t pay attention to general rules and guidelines, then the result will be obvious for readers – a badly written, badly constructed story not worth a moment of the reader’s time.
While there are no rules set in stone – other than grammar and syntax – instead there are guidelines, which are in place for a very good reason, so pay attention or ignore them at your cost.
Learn to Edit
Being a writer is the whole deal, you’re in it for the whole nine yards. Not some of it, but all of it. If you write it, then it’s your responsibility to do the hard work and edit, not someone else. It has become so easy now for writers to palm off their novel to an editor who may improve the work, but they don intimately know the work like the writer does. 
Learn to edit your work. Not only does it make you appreciate your own writing ability and your limitations – every writer has limitations - but it also improves your skills and knowledge of fiction writing because
Plan what you want to write. You don’t build a house without a plan first. Fiction is no different. Having a plan – be it a plan outlining the plot, a simple line diagram, a mind map or a thoroughly constructed strategy – it helps keeps the writer on the right track, it provides a catalyst to creativity, it prevents writer’s block and it stops the writer wandering off on a tangent.
A simple plan is the fiction writer’s best friend. Those who don’t plan will end up stumbling by the middle of their book; they will face a brick wall and won’t know how to develop the story further. They will drift off or other characters may take over, or the story will get so messy it become unclear whose story it is.
Plan or not to plan? That’s down to the writer, but if you fail to plan on where you are going or what you are doing, then you quickly end up going nowhere.
To summarise:

  • Know the basics
  • Observe and Listen
  • Read
  • Write, write and write
  • Pay attention to guidelines
  • Learn to edit
  • Plan your work

Next week: Active and Passive Voice