Saturday, 13 February 2016

Editing Hacks – Part 1


Editing isn’t the most enjoyable process for some, or the easiest, but there are ways to make the process simpler, especially for beginners, so these insights will help make it easier for writers – regardless of their experience – to help themselves when it comes to editing their work.
Hacks, tips, snippets of advice – whatever you want to call them, they provide a starting point for writers, something to work to, and while there is never a right or wrong way to do things, they’re all tried and tested, and they all work in their own way.
So, what’s the best way to try to edit a novel?  What are the best tips? In this first part, we’ll start will the basics and work our way up.
1. Finish the Manuscript
There is a valid and important reason for this particular piece of advice, and it’s now an accepted an accepted universal guidance. The reason why we say it’s better to finish the manuscript first is because it makes the entire editing process easier.
There are writers who prefer to edit as they go along. There is nothing wrong with this approach – but by doing it that way, the writer might be at a disadvantage because:-
a) They may miss something critical because they are not actually focused on the entire novel as a whole, but only the last few pages or chapters they’ve written.
b) Mistakes, such as spelling and grammar, are often missed because the writer “can’t see the wood for the trees”. In other words, the writer is so involved in the work that he or she is oblivious to the obvious. This is very true. When we work on something for a long period of time, we become too close to it to be truly objective and we don’t always see the minutiae.
c) The writer isn’t allowing enough time between writing and then editing, for the reason above. Time plays an important role in good editing (see hack No 2.)
d) Editing straight away tends to skew the writer’s objectivity, which means lots of small mistakes and larger flaws will go unnoticed.
For those who want to avoid these pitfalls, it’s best to wait until the entire story is written, i.e. completed, before editing. That way, the entire work can be assessed cohesively, objectively and thoroughly.
2. Leave it Alone
There’s good reasoning behind this.
The longer we leave something once we’ve finished, the better we see things. If you start editing straight after you’ve finished the work, it’s less likely you’ll spot the most blatant errors. That’s because you’ve spent months (or even a year or two) writing it, you’re so close to the work that you know chapters back to front, and so you just won’t be able to see what is obvious. If you spend some time away from the work – weeks, even a month or two – you come back to the work completely refreshed and focused, and that’s because you’ve forgotten about the story completely, which is the whole point.
After a break from it, you would see the work as editor or reader would see it.
3. Print the Manuscript
This might seem like overkill, especially as you can just read direct from your computer and edit, however, without a doubt, the best way to edit is by having a physical print out of what you’ve written, because staring at a screen for hours on end can make the brain and eyes tired, and often you won’t spot the simplest things.
One reason authors do this is because a printed version helps to cast a fresh perspective on the book.  It makes it easier to focus. It mimics the way a reader would read a book, either in a Kindle or in actual book form. The story is seen properly and not just words on a computer screen.
Another good reason is that a printout also allows you to make notes as you go, which you can refer to when you start re-writing. Again, this makes the process so much easier.
4. Read Your Work Aloud
Another universally accepted bit of advice. You may feel silly doing it, but this really does work and plenty of authors do it. Reading aloud helps the writer listen to and hear the narrative.
But how does this work? 
Reading your words aloud helps you to spot errors that would otherwise go unnoticed. Saying the words, rather than reading them, gives your manuscript a whole new outlook. You can judge just how well your narrative, dialogue and descriptions flow together and whether the story makes sense. It helps you to get a feel for tone and pace, to see if there is any atmosphere or emotion (or lack of).
Reading aloud forces you to hear the story, so you’ll notice if you stumble over the words, or whether sentences are clumsy. You’ll notice whether it reads smoothly and succinctly, or makes no sense at all. 
Another useful tool is to use the Text to Speech application in Word. This will read the text for you, and because you are ‘hearing’ it, you will spot any bad sentences or clunky words or nonsensical narrative. The voice is slightly robotic, but it does exactly what you would normally do by reading aloud.
If you’re not sure how to apply this, go to your Start button and type in Speech in the search box. From the menu choose ‘Change text to speech settings’. This will bring up a Speech Settings menu. Choose the Text to Speech tab. Here you can choose the settings. One you’ve chosen your settings, click apply, then click OK.
In your Word document, click on the ‘Customize Quick Access Toolbar’ arrow. (This is usually located on the ribbon above or below the main toolbar, along with the save, undo, repeat and draw table icons).
From this drop down menu, choose ‘More commands’. This will give you the More Commands menu. Look for ‘Choose commands’ drop down bar. Click on ‘All commands’. This will list all the commands that are available to place on your toolbar in Word. It’s in alphabetical order, so scroll down to ‘Speak’. Click on it and then press the Add button to add it to your toolbar, then click OK. It should now appear on your ribbon**
**(Windows 7)
Sometimes it’s not possible to read aloud, so Text to Speech is really useful and a great way to hear the words you’ve written. This leads nicely into Hack No. 5…
5. Make Notes
Sometimes the simple things help more than complicated processes. And none more so than taking notes. The best way to edit is to make preliminary notes during the read through. The urge to go full throttle and do a full on edit might be tempting, but to use a well-worn cliché, it’s best to learn to walk before you can run. Many writers make several passes over the manuscript, and the read through is the ground work on which the rest of the edit will take place.
Notes with the familiar red pen might take the form of spelling and grammar errors, change of sentences, or the order of words or new paragraphs. You might spot a flaw, you might see your tenses are incorrect or you might want to delete certain sentences etc.
The notes you make on your first read through are essential building blocks from turning a raw first draft into something solid and coherent and stronger. It’s not unknown for authors to scrub out sentences, entire scenes or even crap entire chapters, or make even more additions. Making notes is a fundamental part of the process.
In part 2 we’ll look at more editing hacks, all designed to make editing that much easier and. All of them work; it’s just up to the writer if they want to embrace them.

Next week: Editing Hacks – Part 2

 

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Rewrites – Is There a Correct Process?


Some writers love rewriting, others loathe it. But it’s a process every writer must do in order to get to a publishable standard.
Every piece of work needs rewriting – no writer is perfect, and no first draft is ever perfect either, fact, so any writer that boasts that they don’t need to rewrite is a liar or an incompetent fool.
Rewriting is a fundamental part of the writing process because there will be times when you will want to add scenes, cut scenes, change things around, add characters, remove them and so on.  Some writers chop and change whole chapters – whatever it takes to get the scene or chapter right. Not only that, but often chapters overrun, or scenes just drag on, so some judicial cutting and rewriting is a must.
Is there a correct process for rewriting? 
The simple answer is that rewriting is an individual process, and writers approach in it different ways; however it’s an important process that every writer should get to grips with.
Beginners, in particular, struggle with rewriting because they’re not exactly sure what it is they have to rewrite – they don’t see what elements need changing and if they do spot something, they are unsure what to do about it.
The correct process, if we could say there was one, is to follow a standard check list when it comes to re-reading through the novel to check for errors. First drafts are always crammed with errors; no matter how advanced you are at writing. A first draft is the bare bones of the novel, where a writer has thrown in all sorts of thoughts and ideas as the novel has evolved, and sometimes writers don’t write in chronological order, so inevitably there will be parts of the story that won’t make sense, things that don’t belong, characters that shouldn’t be there and things that seem out of place.
The main things to look out for that usually mean a rewrite include:-

1. Overly long scenes that have nothing meaningful to say.
2. Overly long chapters that drift on and on.
3. Unnecessary peripheral characters clogging up the story.
4. Gaping plot flaws.
5. Lack of cohesive subplots.
6. Info dumps or long narrative exposition.
7. Secondary characters stealing the spotlight from your main character.
8. First person skipping into third person POV and vice versa.
9. Glaring continuity errors.
10. Some of the story just doesn’t make sense.


Rewriting is all about reading with a critical eye, recognising the problems and knowing what to do about them. Writers who are well read will have an advantage here, because the more you read, the more you become aware of how plot, themes, characters, scenes and chapters all come together in an effortless flow.

By far the best way to spot these is to be judicious – however much you love your work, you have to be objective enough to know that if something can be improved by removing or rearranging something, then you have to do it. This is often referred to as ‘killing your darlings’. But to be objective and to rewrite efficiently, you have to sometimes destroy, kill and obliterate parts of your novel before you can rebuild.

A rewrite can range from minor to major work – sometimes novels change characters, with the secondary character becoming the protagonist, or some of the events change considerably. A writer might change the setting to something that fits the story better. It’s not unknown for writers to change their entire novel from third person POV to first person and vice versa.

Reading is a key ingredient to a good rewrite, especially if you read your novel aloud. You will soon notice if something doesn’t work; if sentences lack rhythm, if there’s no pace, if there is too much narrative and no description. You’ll detect if there is no tension or conflict. You will become aware if absolutely nothing happens for pages and pages. You will notice huge holes in your plot, or you may spot silly continuity errors, such as the bad guy’s weapon changing from a handgun on page 40 to a hunting knife on page 81.

You will instinctively know when something isn’t right, and the more you do this – writing, reading and rewriting – the more proficient you’ll become as spotting the obvious.

Rewriting isn’t a quick fix. It takes time and patience – it should be a methodical process, page by page, chapter by chapter. If something clearly isn’t working, sometimes we have to kill our darlings, as the saying goes, and revise until it works. Starting from scratch is not unheard of. Whole scenes, whole chapters. Whole novels.

So, if it isn’t working, rewrite it. If it still doesn’t work, start over. Sometimes we have to tear our work to shreds to find the very obvious.

Next week: Editing Hacks Part 1

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Cadence in Writing


Following on from last week’s article about purple prose, cadence – something many writers haven’t heard of – is something that writers aspire to but don’t always manage it, yet it’s the fundamental difference between poetic language and over-indulgent, flowery prose.
Cadence in writing is a sense of rhythm and pace, it lifts the narrative from the page and makes it dynamic; brings a certain tempo to the words and sentences; it’s what makes prose poetic, layered and fluid without it being extravagant. Cadence makes the writing visual and evocative, and to an extent, beautiful. It’s an important element in fiction writing, because without it, narrative certainly won’t be as effective.
Writers don’t actively think about cadence – they simply want to write and get the words down. It’s not until later, while editing, that they realise that a sense of rhythm might be missing from their narrative.
When poetic description works, it’s called cadence. When it doesn’t work, people refer to it as purple prose.
How Does it Work?
In laymen’s terms, it’s rhythmic writing. It works by conveying mood and meaning and emotional impact. It guides the reader to how the narrative should be read, and it does so by altering pitch, for example:
Sullied tears forged a path from eyes to chin; unhurried, where they lingered momentarily on the mouth as though to capture the light, while the golden band on her finger glimmered beneath the stark lights, an unbreakable reminder of what had been.
At first glance there may not be anything extraordinary about the prose, but if read aloud there is almost a beat to this; it flows and ebbs evenly, and it creates a certain reticent tone and sad mood.
Of course, it’s not just emotion or mood; cadence also helps to give the impression of varied pace, which can be quickened or slowed to suit.
How to Convey Cadence
It works when sentences are constructed with the right words, with effective punctuation, pauses and an understanding of the sounds that words create – known as sibilance. Sentences should be so smooth and fluid that the reader won’t even notice there’s a rhythm.
But it’s not just sounds or punctuation or pace; cadence is also created when writers employ other literary devices, such as polysyndeton, asyndeton, assonance and the aforementioned sibilance.
Polysyndeton is when a writer uses conjunctions close together to form a complete sentence, thus creating a slower, but rather rhythmic flow, for example:
Up and down and round and round…
The rain and wind and leaves and everything around them whirled…
Asyndeton does the opposite to polysyndeton – instead of using conjunctions, it omits them, leaving the sentence fragmented, which gives the impression of tempo and a quicker pace, for example:
Up, down, round…
The rain, the wind, the leaves; everything around them whirled…
You can see from these examples how they differ in pitch and rhythm with conjunctions and without. Whichever one a writer chooses, it lends to the cadence of sentences.
Sibilance is the softness of sound - usually the ‘sss’ sound - that certain words create when used close together, for instance, ‘the soft, silky sunset’ or ‘silent, the ship shifted through water’.
Assonance is the name for strategic repetition, which can also create cadence, because it naturally oozes rhythm, or a beat, for example:
The slow slow heartbeat of the woodland…
She turned, turned, turned...yet they had gone…
Always be aware of the words you’re using, even when in the throes of writing, and even more so when you edit your work, when you have the chance to add a sense of rhythm and punctuation and tempo.
You can also vary sentences – use short ones with longer ones, create an undulating rhythm, like the movement of the ocean, for example:
The colour of treason inked the assembled alabaster faces; carved elite in silent pose, their stern expressions rounding on him with disdain. Bold streams of fading sunlight found a path between robust columns, struck the marble floor with delicate patterns. His vision shimmered; an optical illusion in the heat.
His sandals were soft across the floor.
The right punctuation, such as commas and semi-colons or full stops can stress certain elements of the sentence to create fragmented sentences.
By combining many of the elements listed here, a writer can create cadence, something that would emphasise mood, tone and fluidity of prose. Done properly, the reader won’t know that the rhythm, pitch and flow of the prose is cadence at work, but they’ll read it and enjoy it. Without cadence, narrative wouldn’t be half as effective or indeed as beautiful to read.

Next week: Rewrites – Is there a right way to do them?

Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Truths and Myths about Purple Prose – Part 2


Part 1 looked at some of the myths, or misconceptions, that surround purple prose, so it’s time to look at some truths – or at least realities - about this misunderstood concept.
It’s Down to Perspective
The plain truth is that it’s not as bad as people assume.
Assumptions aside, prose – purple or otherwise – is about individuality and perspective. Some people love the poetry and nuance of prose, others don’t. Some appreciate its form, others simply can’t see it. Incredibly, some writers don’t like vivid writing.
For the most part, it’s a personal judgement call.
That said, prose should only be colourful and descriptive for the important scenes, rather than every scene. So if a reader comes across some intelligent and wonderful description, it’s immediately labelled as purple prose, when in fact it’s nothing of the sort. This generally happens because the reader doesn’t understand the concept of context.
You can’t please everyone.
Purple Can be Pretty
Pretty prose lifts the scene from the page – the reader can see, hear, smell and touch it. Choose the right words, the right sentence constructions, and let the narrative breathe. Purple can be pretty if it’s done correctly and sparingly – there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have the odd dash of vibrant, colourful description nestled in otherwise boring beige narrative.
Without adjectives and the adverbs, the purple diminishes from your prose and becomes less noticeable, making the work easier to read.
Description Must be Vivid to Work
If prose doesn’t come alive on the page, if it doesn’t afford the reader any imagination or it doesn’t bring fictional worlds to life, then prose isn’t doing its job. It has to be vivid, to a degree, to be effective.
Who would be brave (or foolish) enough to assert that Shakespeare’s vivid and brilliant writings are just purple prose, that his works are chock full of fancy words, or indeed that his ornate narrative just isn’t plain enough?
The truth is that Shakespeare used wonderful, evocative description, he used fancy words because they were perfect for the scenes and he would have balked at the idea of plain, grey prose – all the things the dissenters say we should be doing, and yet they are the very elements that make vibrant description work. Any well written novel will have a healthy balance of dramatic, colourful and evocative description. Poorly written books won’t.
Purple prose is vivid; it’s just that it’s simply been written in the wrong way. Write it the correct way and you have pretty prose.
Purpling is for Beginners
Writers would do well to study Shakespeare’s grasp of poetry and cadence with words, because the real truth is that ‘purpling’ is more a product of beginners – they have not yet learned about the negative impact of adjectives or adverbs, the effect of overwriting or constructing overly complicated sentences. They haven’t discovered their style or ‘voice’. They haven’t enough experience of writing a balance between description, dialogue and narrative and many beginners are self-indulgent because they haven’t yet learned that writing is never about the self.
Ways to Avoid Purple Prose
There are plenty of things you can do to prevent your narrative from slipping into writing prose that’s just too elaborate, verbose or overpowering. By far the worst culprit is the use of adjectives (or a string of them). These descriptive words make already descriptive narrative awkward to read and overly rich. Description works better with nouns and verbs.
The other thing to avoid is too many adverbs. Along with adjectives, they are not as strong as verbs and too many of them lead to over-description and awkward, clunky sentence structures.
The other thing to avoid is self-indulgent writing. It’s not about you.
Don’t construct overly complicated sentences by using long, vague words plucked from a Thesaurus in the hope you’ll sound clever. Use words that fit the description and context.
Don’t overwrite – in other words, don’t string out the description of something over an entire page, when a couple of paragraphs are more than enough. There is a time and place for lengthy or more detailed description. Describe only the things you have to describe in key scenes, those elements that really matter, that the reader should know. Those are the elements you should show or exaggerate a little.
Always ask – is it too much? If so, pare it back. Description should be vivid, poetic and intelligent, but never boring, plain or grey.
Remember, description should draw the reader’s attention. It should never draw attention to itself. Brilliant, well written prose doesn't just tell a story, it conveys ideas, themes and concepts that stimulate and inspire the reader.

Next week: Creating cadence in writing

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Truths and Myths about Purple Prose – Part 1


In order to get behind the truth of what purple prose is, or the myths that surround it, writers need to understand what Purple Prose really means. The phrase is so often used – sometimes arbitrarily, and at times to the point that it’s misused – that it’s become synonymous for “flowery” or over descriptive, extravagant prose. This kind of writing is a turn off for most readers, since it overpowers the narrative and interrupts the natural flow of the story. 
But one certain thing about purple prose is that it’s not that straightforward. There are a lot of myths surrounding its use, and what is actually is, so it’s important that writers should learn to recognize when writing is too melodramatic or over the top, or whether it’s just simply descriptive and vivid.
The phrase originates from the classical period, when the poet Horace described ‘purple patches’ tacked onto “weighty openings” and “grand declarations” within his Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry). The trend for flowery prose became very prominent in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when florid description was the norm with the likes of Charles Dickens, Edward Bulmer-Lytton and the Bronte sisters, but of course, times and tastes change, and modern writers now frown upon the practice.
So, what are the myths behind purple prose?
Purple Prose is Bad
That depends on the interpretation of what actually constitutes purple prose. The name is a bit of a misnomer, and what one person thinks is flowery description, another might think it evocative or beautiful. It’s very individual.
Narrative only becomes purple prose if it is utterly filled with adjectives and adverbs, or the description is so pretentious that the reader might laugh out loud rather than be enthralled by it. Take a look at this example:
The wind gushed through the strong, tall trees with maddening harshness, and each golden coloured leaf wavered as though caught in a black maelstrom, which provoked the branches to shudder with a heavy sigh before whipping the leaves into the air.
This example would be considered flowery because of the ridiculous number of descriptive words crammed into the paragraph. This makes the narrative overbearing for the reader; it’s too much. But that doesn’t mean that purple prose is bad, since every writer has written something akin to flowery narrative at some point in their careers – at the very beginning, no doubt.
It’s all to do with the way it’s handled by the writer that makes the difference. Here’s the same example, but with certain words changed and cut:
A harsh wind gushed through the trees. Branches shuddered and autumn leaves rustled; the sound carried on the air like a hiss.
This example is it still descriptive, but because it isn’t overloaded with adjectives, it’s not flowery or extravagant, and in literary terms, this is not purple prose (although for those who still think less description is better, any intelligent description might be construed as purple prose).
The example shows vivid description, not silly description.
Purple Prose is a Sign of Bad Writing
Not necessarily. Purple prose is usually a sign of a beginner who is still learning, not bad writing. Beginners are not born with the innate skill and experience of someone who has been writing for 20 years, so their writing isn’t going to be perfect.
For many people, purple prose is a writer’s attempt at overcompensation – in other words, the quality of the story and the narrative isn’t that good, so the writer uses lots of descriptive words and adjectives to divert the reader from an otherwise flat, lacklustre story.
The truth is that purple prose isn’t that far removed from poetic prose, but too many see poetic prose or very imaginative description as purple prose and they don’t seem to understand the mechanics or dynamics of how it’s constructed, therefore they confuse the two.
For example, take a look at these three descriptions. Which one is purple prose, if any:
Example 1 - Rolling clouds billowed forward and smothered the land. The wind blustered across the hill, stripped leaves from trees and rattled fences. The bitter air snapped at the man’s heels as he made his way home, roiled in his wake.
Example 2 - The rain lashed against the thick windows with unceasing pressure so loud and hard that it threatened to break every pane of glass. Huge lightning prongs forged a pronged a silver path across the dark underbelly of night and lit up the hilly landscape with a startling purple-tinted candescence.
Example 3 – The sound of the surf sounded like soft whispers on the air, it soothed her, and she closed her eyes, relaxed, and rested on the edge of slumber.
All three are descriptive, but which one might be considered a bit over the top? Clearly, example number two is the one we’d consider overindulgent and flowery prose. The other two are descriptive in different ways, but they achieve a balance that prevents the description from becoming excessive and flamboyant.
Example two is something that is common from beginners – not because they are bad writers, but simply because they are not yet familiar with power of verbs and nouns rather than adjectives and adverbs, and they don’t yet understand how descriptive narrative works.
Writers Shouldn’t Use Fancy Words
Why not? You’re a writer, that’s what you do.
Why use boring plain words when a poetic or beautiful word might be better? Again, this myth – perpetuated by the (inexperienced) self-published authors on Amazon – seems hell bent on crushing creativity and imagination.
Fancy words have a place in modern fiction, but like everything, it’s how they’re used that matters. For instance, if you are describing a scene that takes place at night, how many times can you mention the word ‘dark’ or ‘darkness’? Well, once, because thereafter it becomes repetition. So you need another descriptive word. That means being imaginative with words, therefore you might use ‘umbra’ or ‘maw’ or ‘gloom’. 
Or what about the sun setting, to create atmosphere? In this instance, ‘It was orange’ will not suffice. Show the reader the sunset and use the right words to describe it. You don’t have to state the obvious, but the idea is that you draw the reader’s attention.
The general rule is simple: you don’t need to be pretentious when choosing your words, however if there’s a better word, use it. If there isn’t, leave it.
Plain Prose is Better
Better for whom? The reader or the writer?
This is yet another myth from certain sections of the writing fraternity, who are under the illusion that plain prose is best, which is fine if you like your narrative flat, uninspiring, lacking atmosphere and has all the intensity of a damp mop.
Prose sums up the essence of the writer’s style and voice, their distinctive way of writing. We identify other writers by their writing styles. There’s no voice or uniqueness if the prose is ordinary or plain. That’s why description is a necessity.
Look at these two examples:
Example 1 - He looked into the distance and saw the sun set. He turned and left.
Example 2 - He looked into the distance. A blood-red disc draped the landscape in a warm golden glow. He turned from the last slit of light and left.
The first one is plain, it tells the reader. The second shows the reader. Neither is purple prose.
Plain prose is for writers who can’t be bothered. If you want to be a serious writer then use your imagination and create. Show, don’t tell. Plain prose suits some scenes, but it’s definitely not a ‘better’ option.
Purple Prose is Genre Driven
This is thought to relate to certain genres and their reliance on more ‘bosomy’ descriptions – in particular romance or erotic stories. Noir and chick-lit are also favourites for more colourful descriptions.
Romance in particular doesn’t fare well, what with ‘rippling loins’, ‘heaving bosoms’ and ‘throbbing manhoods’ and some really over the top descriptions of sex, however, it’s a myth that purple prose is genre driven. It’s not – it crops up in all types of genres, everything from thriller, humour, crime or horror.
The thing about myths is that they are perpetuated in various ways, so getting to the nitty-gritty is important. In Part 2 we’ll look at the truth behind purple prose – why writers fall into this trap, and ways to avoid making descriptions too extravagant.

Next week: The Truths and Myths about Purple Prose – Part 2

Saturday, 9 January 2016

The Essential Fiction Writing Checklist - Part 2


In part 1, we looked at a number of essential prompts that can help writers, the kinds of things we often forget about from time to time when writing, but they’re aspects which are important to achieve better writing.
So let’s take a look at some more of these essential prompts.
Show, Don’t Tell
This is the mantra all writers should know, and at its heart is a simple principle: rather than telling the reader, instead describe to the reader, show them so they are able to imagine what you describe.
The art of showing rather than telling is all to do with choosing the right scenes to show, so these should be important scenes, key scenes; the kind of scenes that love description and hidden layers. And that’s what ‘showing’ the reader does – it gives them more than words; it brings the scene to life.
The idea of telling versus showing still baffles some beginners, so this example should help show the difference between the two:-
Clouds blocked the sun and shadows moved from the doorways. The remains of buildings lay scattered all around. Someone moved forward.
Another survivor, they assumed, to join the rest of the people sheltering from the bombs...
Telling is not to be confused with ‘info dump’ - that’s covered further in the article. Instead, telling is exactly that. The example above simply tells the reader the details. It does not let the reader imagine the scene for themselves. There is little imagery for the reader to work with.
Now compare the same example that shows the reader:
Lithe spectres, shaded by toxic black clouds that blocked out the sun, tip-toed from broken doorways, as though afraid of the silence. The blackened remnants of buildings lay scattered like strewn fossils ripped open by explosions.
The smoke parted; another survivor, they assumed, to join the sickly sack of bones that cowered in the shade; people who remained muzzled by the shrill hiss of bombs and the stutter of gunfire...
This example shows the reader what is happening within the scene, the description allows them to picture it in their mind; it gives them the imagery to work from to do so. That’s what showing is all about.
Adjectives and Adverbs
Wherever possible, cut down on the use of adjectives. These are descriptive words that are often unnecessary, but are added in volume by writers on the assumption that they will beef up their descriptions. The odd adjective here and there is useful, but too many make the narrative clunky, especially double adjectives, for example:
She stood against the beautiful and exquisite, gold ornamental gate, looked at the time on her diamond-encrusted watch which matched her emerald sheer satin dress...
You can see that this example exudes adjectives, and while it may sound descriptive, too many spoil the effect. Notice that double adjectives are not constructive – the second adjective invariably weakens the first. Best to avoid them wherever possible.
The same thing applies to adverbs. Adverbs are those annoying words that end with ‘- ly’. Words like ‘suddenly’, ‘adoringly’, ‘angrily’ and ‘furiously’. Writers make the mistake of using these in order to create an effect, but in fact, verbs will do that quite well. Verbs are much stronger than adverbs, so use verbs instead.
Consider these two examples. Which one is better?
She looked at him furiously, replaying the moment in her mind and letting the rage bubble momentarily before turning away angrily.
She stared at him, furious, and replayed the moment in her mind. The anger bubbled for a moment before she turned and walked away in a cloud of silence.
The second example is better - it reads better, it keeps the structure active, it’s stronger and there’s not an adverb in sight. For better writing, stick to verbs and nouns.
Avoid Clichés
The reason we advise against using clichés is because writing is, without a doubt, better without them. They have a tendency to make writing look awkward and outdated. Things like ‘All of a sudden’, ‘it was pitch black’, ‘eyes as round as saucers’, and ‘as if by magic’ really don’t help the quality of writing. There are better ways of describing something – writers have to use their imaginations. And that’s the point of writing.
Only use a cliché in dialogue, if it is something your character might say. Otherwise, avoid them.
Don’t Info Dump
A cursory glance at many self published books on Amazon is full with info-dumps. That’s because writers make the mistake of thinking the reader has to know absolutely everything about the story in the first chapter or so. Huge pages of narrative – however insightful – are never a good thing, especially when all they do is explain a heap of stuff to the reader that can’t already be woven into the story anyway.
Info dumps slow the story and they can bore the reader. If you have to impart necessary information, do so in small, subtle amounts so that it is hardly noticeable for the reader.
Summary of the Essential Fiction Writing Checklist Part 2:

  1. Show, don’t tell
  2. Cut out Adjectives and Adverbs
  3. Cut out clichés
  4. Don’t info dump
It’s easy to forget some of these elements when we’re in the throes of writing, since there are so many things to consider, so a simple checklist like this is a useful reminder when you come to edit your work. It will help you make your writing that much better.

Next week: The truth and myths about Purple Prose

Saturday, 19 December 2015

The Essential Fiction Writing Checklist - Part 1


As 2015 draws to a close, what better way to round off the year than with something that every writer should keep close at hand as a reminder for their writing?
The Essential Fiction Writing Checklist is a list of useful prompts and reminders that even experienced writers sometimes forget. That’s because we become so wrapped up with our writing that we are all capable of forgetting the simplest things from time to time.
This list covers those essential elements that sometimes slip through the net. It will help you when you come to revise your drafts and edit your work, and hopefully make everyone better writers.
In Part 1 we’ll kick off the list and Part 2 will appear in January 2016.
The Checklist:
Begin to/Decide to/Going to
Here’s one of those peculiar instances in fiction of what seems right, but isn’t. Don't have characters ‘begin to’ do things. In real life, we don’t actually begin to do anything, we just do it. Fiction is no different, so have your characters take direct action. For example:
They began to speak, she began to run, he began to dig…
We’re all guilty of this at times, so go through your story and take them out. Ensure the characters take direct action, for instance:
They spoke, she ran, he dug…

The same principle applies when characters ‘decide to’. Don't have people ‘decide to’ do things. Whist people in real life do decide things; in fiction we can’t really show this process. We can tell the reader that a character is thinking or contemplating what to do, but where action is concerned, characters don’t decide to do anything. For example:
After the meeting, he decided to leave for home.
Deciding to do something stalls the active part of the narrative. Just have them do it, for instance: 
After the meeting he left for home.
Yet another of the ‘begin to/decide to’ constructions is ‘going to’. While this is not exactly incorrect, many writers still use it, especially when showing character’s thoughts, or in dialogue, for example:
She was going to be angry.
‘He is going to be upset,’ he said.
Always aim to make sentence constructions better, so instead of ‘going to’, it is better to use ‘will’, for instance:
She will be angry.
‘He will be upset,’ he said.
Tight Dialogue
Always aim for dialogue that flows naturally and relates to the story. Don’t prattle and don’t have characters talk about stuff that has nothing to do with the story. Vary the dialogue, but try to keep it brief, and don’t overuse character names, for example:
‘Listen, Jane, I’m glad you’re here. I really need your help. I need all the files on this case; I need you to help me go through them with a fine tooth comb. I know it’s a pain in the backside, Jane, what with all the overtime you’ve put in, and I know how much you’re saving for that holiday in Bali, but you know how important this is to me, right, Jane?’
Dialogue like this can be much better by keeping it brief and to the point and removing the repetition of Jane, for instance:
‘Jane, I need all the files on this case; we need to go through all of them. It’s important.’
The second example is straight to the point and cuts out the waffle. Less prattle here means more description and narrative elsewhere.
Gerunds/Participles
Gerunds are the nouns that end with ‘ing’. For example: smoke = smoking, run = running, read = reading. They are fine when used in the right context, but in narrative they have a tendency to creep in when the sentence structures are ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, for instance:
He grabbed the rope, pulling it as hard as he could, heaving the dead weight up and over the edge, relying on his upper body strength to do it…
Every writer does this – it’s natural to do it, however, sentences are stronger without them. That’s not to say that they aren’t useful, because they are, in the right places, but in a sentence like the example above, they tend to weaken the writing. It’s better written like this:
He grabbed the rope, pulled it as hard as he could and heaved the dead weight up and over the edge. He relied on his upper body strength to do it…
Not one gerund appears in this second example, because the sentence structure makes it hard to fall into the habit of using them.
One way to make writing better and tighter is to avoid overuse of participial phrases. They have their uses in the right places within narrative, but it is often much better without them. Writers have a really bad habit of using these; especially beginners, for example:
Lifting the heavy bags of shopping, she made her way to the front door.
Running for the elevator, he caught Jane’s attention.
Both these examples would be much better if reconstructed without the participle, for instance:
She lifted the heavy bags and made her way to the front door.
He ran for the elevator and caught Jane’s attention.
Intensifiers & Qualifiers
These are words that are placed before adjectives and adverbs to intensify or create an effect, for instance, ‘She was really tired’. Here, ‘really’ is the intensifier, when ‘she’s tired’ is sufficient. The sentence doesn’t need anything else.
Watch out for other intensifiers such as very, so, quite, extremely and absolutely. Removing them almost always improves the sentence, so don’t rely on them.
Qualifiers are similar to intensifiers – they are words or phrases that are placed before adjectives and adverbs to attribute a quality to another word, for example:
He was somewhat busy.
She was slightly wary.
While they might look okay, they’re unnecessary. The narrative is much better without them, for example:
He was busy.
She was wary.
Intensifiers and Qualifiers enhance or limit the meaning of words, and not always for the best effect. Find them and rid your narrative of these.
Was
Overuse of this word will lead to ‘telling’ rather than showing, which is just fine if you want to write like an 8 year old. If you’re more concerned about the quality of your writing, avoid too much use of ‘was’, for instance:
She was sitting on the park bench on the hill. It was a cold day and moisture was in the air.
Recognise this kind of writing? Three instances of ‘was’ render the narrative as ‘telling’. Without them, the sentence becomes stronger and ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells’.
She sat on the park bench on the hill. She felt the cold against her skin and moisture on her tongue…
‘Was’ is necessary in the correct places within the narrative, but when it comes to descriptions, try to avoid overusing it.
Overwriting
We’re all guilty of this at some point. Remove superfluous details. This keeps the narrative tight and concise. Overwriting isn’t to be confused with flowery writing or purple prose.
If you want a character to get in his car to drive away, don't have him insert the key into the lock, twist it, then lift the door handle, open the door, get in the car, then start the car.
Just have the character start the car and drive away!
Passive Writing
Many writers accidentally use passive verbs. They have their place – they occur in essay and academic writing – but for creative fiction, they shouldn’t appear, so if you spot passive verbs within your writing, get rid of them. They weaken the narrative and tend to slow it down, for example:
The carrots were sliced by the chef.
The plant was watered by John.
Always keep verbs active, which keeps the narrative strong, for instance:
The chef sliced the carrots.
John watered the plant.
It’s that easy. Look at your sentence structures, check for passive verbs and create more active sentences.
Repetition
Repetition occurs naturally when we’re in the throes of writing. We don't notice repeated words until we read through and edit the work. Repetition can be words, sentences or phrases, for example:
She was shocked by his reaction. She thought he would be okay with her staying out with her friends a little longer than usual, but she felt shocked when he raised his voice.
Here, ‘shocked’ is repeated twice. In this case, it’s a matter of finding a synonym to replace one of them, such as ‘shaken’ or ‘stunned’.  
Repetition can be used deliberately – to create the right effect – but readers will spot when it’s an effect and when the writer has simply not paid attention.
Seemed/Seem To
This is another of the words that creep into our writing without us noticing, simply because it looks right and doesn’t appear out of place, for example:
The boat seemed to roll and roil in the water.
While it doesn’t appear too awkward, the construction is weakened and the aim for any writer is to make the writing strong and tight, for instance:
The boat rolled and roiled in the water.
Speaker Attributions
Writers have a habit of using the wrong speaker attributions in the attempt to affect action within the narrative, but it almost always it leads the use of gerunds, the ‘ing’ or the use of adverb constructions, for example:
‘I don’t care what you think,’ Jane said, pushing him aside.
‘You’re pretty when you’re angry,’ John said, laughing.
‘Go to hell,’ she said angrily.
For a stronger, clearer narrative, use as few attributions as possible, for instance:
‘I don’t care what you think,’ Jane said. She pushed him aside.
John laughed. ‘You’re pretty when you’re angry.’
Her voice became tense. ‘Go to hell.’
Here the rewritten examples don’t have any gerunds or adverbs and it shows who is speaking, through character action. This avoids too many he said/she said attributions.
Summary of the Essential Fiction Writing Checklist Part 1:

1. Don’t have characters begin to/decide to/going to
2. Create tight dialogue
3. Cut out gerunds and participial phrases.
4. Cut out Intensifiers & Qualifiers
5. Cut down on the use of ‘Was’.
6. Don’t over overwrite.
7. Remove any passive writing
8. Cut down on repetition
9. Avoid the use of ‘seemed’ or ‘seem to’.
10. Use correct speaker attributions


I would like to thank you for your support in 2015, and wish you all Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year.  AllWrite will return 9th January 2016, with Part 2 of the Essential Fiction Writing Checklist.