Monday, 27 December 2010

What Makes a Good Writer?

There is no definitive answer to this question, but we can say that many elements work together to make a good writer.

Writing isn’t just about knowing how to spell and put words in order, or how to tell a good tale. It isn’t about how many creative writing degrees you have either, because if you don’t have the raw talent to begin with, then your writing will just remain average.

If anything, a good writer has the ability to entertain us, to bring out our emotions, to make us empathise, to make us understand and to take us on a journey. That’s because writing is an art form; it takes a great deal of creativity and passion, as well as practical application, to achieve this. I must point out that having a creative writing degree of some sort does not qualify you to automatic publication. The truth is, and this will sound harsh, while it helps you understand the techniques of creative writing, it doesn’t teach you the talent of writing. Rather like painting and drawing, the ability to write is a talent that is garnered in us from an early age. You are either born with it or you are not.

Remember, some of the greatest writers from the last 150 years didn’t have a degree in anything. What they did have, and do have, is an amazing talent to express themselves via the written word.

Those people who suddenly wake up one day and decide they want to be a writer are on a road to nowhere. It doesn’t work like that. It takes years of learning the craft and honing one’s skill and talent to be a writer. You instinctively know and understand words. Every writer should have an understanding of linguistics and language. Having the skill to succinctly and eloquently express your story is important and I think this is something you either have or don’t have. This ability will mark an average writer from a good one. The love of words and the yearning to tell a good story is paramount, because without these elements, good writing is beyond your reach.

In addition to that, there is the knowledge of how to construct sentences, how to use grammar correctly, how to form ideas and bring them to life. These are also the kind of factors that determine whether someone is a good writer. Writers must have basic skills and knowledge of grammar. Don’t think that agents and publishers will happily correct your grammar mistakes when you send your MS to them, because they won’t. If you don’t have the right grammar skills in place, then you seriously need to learn them. A manuscript littered with mistakes won’t get a second glance.

Good writing is also about learning how to give your writing a personality and style, to get your reader involved with your story on a personal and emotional level. It’s about understanding your potential audience and understanding who you are as a writer.

As mentioned in a previous article, reading is important to a writer on many levels because it fosters an understanding of how things should be done, but also how to construct prose. It also helps your vocabulary and helps develop your writing style.

Of course, not everyone is born to write. If you can’t sing, then it means you shouldn’t be a singer. If you can’t draw and paint, it means you’re not an artist. If you’re not very good at writing, then...well, you get the picture. Unfortunately, the shops are full of ‘actor turned writer’ novels, or ‘singer turned writer’ novels and so on. Apart from novels which have been ghostwritten, for those ‘celebs’ who have managed to write their own novels, the end results are quite dire. And that’s because they were not actually born with the raw talent in the first place. I can’t emphasis enough that the ability to write well doesn’t materialise at the click of your fingers.

It isn’t just about having the talent, the knowledge, skills, vocabulary or a sense of expression; you also need a fertile imagination. The mind is your creative nerve centre and the greatest tool a writer has. If you don’t have a strong imagination, this isn’t going to help the creative process of writing. A good writer will involve his or her readers by drawing them into an imaginary world that actually seems very real. They must feel the emotions of the characters and they must empathise and understand them. Good writers can achieve this, bad writers won’t.

A good writer is also observant. Writing is, essentially, probing how and why we do what we do; it’s about human nature, so whether it’s about love, jealousy, hate, revenge, tyranny, greed, lust...they all invoke the emotions of human beings. All writers are social commentators; all have something to say about the people that inhabit our world. This is why we write.

Above all, a good writer will always remain objective to his or own opinions. So many writers fall into the trap of expressing their own views within their writing. This is a sign of a bad writer, and you can tell they are ‘preaching’ their views because they have a tendency to reiterate these views constantly throughout a story. Writing should be subjective and it should remain so.

So, what makes a good writer? So many things, of course. Storytelling is a craft that captures the beauty of expression through language. Choosing the right words, understanding their meaning and affecting a response. It’s not an easy job. Not everyone can do it well. A good writer might take years to become that good, decades even. They take the time to nurture their writing; they will take their time over writing a story. That’s because quality counts, not quantity. They instinctively know when something is good and works well and when it doesn’t.

For me, the measure of a good writer is not how many pieces of work they have published, but rather the value and excellence of each piece.

Don’t aspire to be a good writer, but instead aspire to be a great writer.

Next time: Overcoming writer’s block.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Why is Reading Important for Writing?

So, you have to like reading in order to like writing...

Well, no, that’s not always the case. Some people hate reading, but love writing, while others read as much as they can and love writing.  But why is reading important to any writer? What difference would it make, if any? 

Reading novels can make quite a difference, in fact.  Although reading novels isn’t a necessity, it certainly helps if you’re a committed writer with the aim to publish your novels/stories. Even if you dislike reading, by reading a wide range of fiction novels, not just the genre you plan to write, or what you are used to writing, really does widen your skills as a writer. Reading different genres gives you an appreciation of styles and voices and the unique ways that writers approach their work.

Whether you choose the classics or contemporary authors to read, there is a lot you can learn from them. Consider them as teachers; they can show us everything we need to know about the basics of fiction writing, so it is worth studying them.

Questions to Ask

As writers we don’t just read a novel for enjoyment, we’re asking several important questions as we reflect on the story, such as:

• Did you enjoy it? Why did you like it so much?
• Who were your favourite characters and why?
• How did you feel about the pace, setting and tone?
• Did it make you turn the page and you couldn’t put it down until you’d read it?
• Is there any event you would change, and could you improve it?
• What did you think of the ending – was it satisfactory, did it tie up the loose ends?

By analysing how writers have written their stories, it helps you as a writer to understand your own writing and how to make it better.

What are the benefits of reading novels if you are a writer?

There are several benefits to reading a whole gamut of different stories, novels, poetry and genres:

• Perhaps the greatest benefit of reading novels is that it gives writers a sense of how it should be done. They show us how to create effective dialogue, narrative and characters, as well as how to place flashbacks, insert tension and atmosphere and how to maintain tone and pitch to sentences. By analysing how they have set out the story, you can learn from this and adapt your own writing.

• The second most important benefit is that reading novels offers us inspiration. Sometimes our writing comes to a stop, we hit a wall and our creativity dries up – what we might call ‘writer’s block’. The best way to overcome this is to pick up a book and read one of your favourite authors. This usually kick starts that creative fire in your belly, simply because of your aspirations. You can see what this author has achieved and how they’ve done it – you can too.

• Another great benefit is that it improves your vocabulary. Most novels will act as a kind of dictionary, so when you see words that you don’t understand, you can look them up and find out what they mean and use them for future use in your own stories.

• They also help fire up your imaginations. Reading a cross section of genres helps writers to formulate and put together new ideas for their writing,

• Reading helps with research. Reading genre-specific novels about certain historical incidents, or places, or people or even cultures will also help you form new ideas with your own stories.

• Reading novels will improve your creativity. As already mentioned, it works in the same way as inspiration, and it tends to make you want to get writing once that inspiration kicks in and this sparks our creativity.

• Reading novels increases your understanding of the fundamental building block of writing: the need to explore and understand the human condition - behaviour of human beings. This is at the heart of every single book out there.

In the days before the instant information presented by the internet, new writers relied heavily on published writers for ideas, inspiration, guidance and creativity and how to go about writing. The best way to learn is to read. My advice is simple: if you want to be a great writer, read as much as you can.

Some of my favourite writers include classic writers like Charles Dickens, Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy, as well as modern writers like Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Lee Child, Robert Ludlum and Matt Hilton, as well as authors I’ve liked, such as H G Wells, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and James Joyce.

All of these writers have inspired and taught me in many ways.

There are countless resources at hand for writers. The internet is our biggest pool of information, so it’s worth looking up the best books to read and learn from. Some of the best novels ever written are not necessarily the classics. Some are modern day classics, written in the last 100 years or so.

I want to thank Tim Handorf for contacting me with a recently published list of '20 Essential Works of Utopian Fiction, which is an amazing list of some of the greatest authors, some of whom I’ve had the pleasure to read and learn from.

Please see the link below to take a look at this list.  There is some excellent reading material in this list and it is well worth a visit.

There are also plenty of novels available to read online, such as Project Gutenberg. It’s a great resource centre and one of the largest collections of free, online books.

Useful links:

Next time: What makes a good writer?

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Creating Four Dimensional Characters

Four-dimensional characters? Is that possible?

When we talk about four-dimensional characters, we are talking not in terms of physics and mathematics, but rather metaphysics. Rather than science, we are dealing with personalities and emotions, their being in the world you’ve created for them.

We tend to think of our fictional characters as real people, and more often than not, our characters are drawn from, or based on, real people. Our job is to make our characters seem real to those who read our stories.

We’ve all heard that characters should be three dimensional – that the three dimensions should encompass length, width and depth. This means they would have height, weight and a personality, but the fourth dimension brings something else entirely.

First and Second Dimensions

Width and depth - These dimensions encompass the physical aspects of your characters, how tall or short they are, what weight they are, what they look like generally, what their skin colour is and so on. These are the basic physical attributes to your characters, and although they may seem insignificant, you should always pat attention to the finer details.

Imagine if you sketched your main character. You would have general facial features, eye colour, hair colour, skin tone. They might wear glasses, they might have a beard, they might have a scar or birthmark, or a mole, or some other physical mark. They might look dark and brooding, or they might look light and happy. They might appear with slouched shoulders, or maybe they stand bolt upright. They may stand in a particular way and dress in a particular way.

You have the beginnings of a two dimensional character.

Third Dimension

Depth – this is where your character’s personality comes into play. The depth of your character means his or her emotional being and the attributes they make up their entire individuality and character. This encompasses everything – how he or she would react in certain situations, or with other characters, all the things he or she likes and dislikes, what he or she thinks about the events around them. With whom do they have emotional attachments? Do they friends and enemies? If so, why?

Not only that, but are they religious or spiritual? Do they hate such higher thoughts? What makes them believe, or not? Do they have deep seated fears or phobias? If you think how complicated our own personalities are, then creating one for your characters is a complicated process too.

And just like real people, your characters will have flaws. We’re not perfect, and neither are your characters.

We all act and react in certain ways to certain people and certain situations. We also tackle daily life differently. So should your characters.

Fourth Dimension

The fourth dimension concerns time. Every character you create has a present, the story of now, but that means they also have a past, and because of these two elements they will have a future (however short or long that may be).

A character with a past is fascinating. We all have a past, and this is what shapes who we are now, in the present. What happens in the present will shape what happens in the future.

Each main character has a timeline. Whether the history you construct for them becomes part of your novel or story or not, by developing them this way, so thoroughly, it will enable you to write the characters with ease because you know so much about them. Their background, their childhood, growing up, their experiences...all should be part of the character make-up and timeline. Give them a past to make them who they are in the present.

As your novel or story progresses and reaches a conclusion, your characters need to have a future. What will happen to them after the final page? Have some of them died, have they survived the story, and if so, how will this impact their future? How will the story change them now for the future yet to come?

Many beginners miss out this fundamental background for their characters, wrongly assuming that by giving them a name, hair and eye colour and a sense of style, that it’s all that’s needed.

It’s not. Fully rounded characters require length, width, depth and a sense of time.

My advice to writers is to try to create as much of a background as you can for your characters. This isn’t set in stone – it’s simply a template for you to refer to as you write, because you will find, just as a child grows and develops, your characters will also grow and develop as you write your story. They will mature in every sense before you. Allow that to happen, they may surprise you!


• First and second dimensional qualities – Physical and external features.
• Third dimension qualities – Emotions, thoughts, attitudes and spirituality.
• Fourth dimension qualities – Time. Their past history, the present and the future.

Next time: How reading helps you become a better writer.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Using the Senses

How often do you use the senses when writing? Probably not enough. The senses are the most amazing tool available to a writer, yet the most underused. This is probably down to simple forgetfulness. We tend to overlook some of the senses when we describe scenes, but by including them, we can enrich our writing.

The most important tool in creative writing is observation. When you want to convey any scene, you highlight the colours, the people, situations and everything else around you by bringing the narrative to life. More importantly, you will be using the five senses to convey to the reader a sense of belonging to your writing.

Observation brings in the five senses:

• What can you hear?
• What can you taste?
• What can you touch?
• What can you smell?
• What can you see?

Using these senses is important when constructing your prose. Your reader will want to see and feel the scene – that means the background, the people, the actual setting. They will want to smell the scene – what odours are there? Can you describe the hint of flowers, or cooking...or maybe trash bins? Can your reader hear the scene – the traffic, the people, the noise, the chatter or music drifting in from somewhere? Do your characters speak in their individual voices and tones?

Can your reader taste the scene? For instance, if your character is walking along the beach, can they taste the salt in the air, or if your character is in a coffee shop, can they taste freshly made coffee?

Lastly, can they feel the various elements within the scene? This is the element of touch. Touch can convey emotions and say do much without the aid of dialogue. What about the softness of a petal, or someone’s skin or maybe the prickle of nettles? Touch heightens emotions within a scene and adds extra dimension to the narrative.

Sense of Sight

You normally see the scene within your mind’s eye when you write and observation is perhaps the most used of the five senses. Of course, you will need to realise what you imagine, and be able to translate that to the page. There are so many questions to ask within a scene that you should elicit as much information as possible by encouraging the use of observation in order to place your reader within that scene.

Remember, what your character sees is what your reader sees, and if you fail to describe very much, your reader won’t fully appreciate what it is you are trying to describe. What does the character see? What’s in the background? What’s in the foreground? What surrounds them?

Bring the scene to life with what the character sees because this will enrich your narrative.

Sense of Smell

The sense of smell invokes powerful memories; a certain perfume may remind you of someone, or a hint of tobacco, freshly cut grass, or the hint pine. By allowing the sense of smell to creep into your writing, you create a subtle sense of atmosphere and you add another layer to the overall descriptive passages for the reader to enjoy. This is an often overlooked sense, but it provides background colour to an otherwise mundane narrative.

If you have a character that is walking through the narrow market streets of Marrakech, and you fail to let you reader in on the scene by not mentioning the hint of spices lingering in the air, the sweet scent of fresh fruit, the juicy, tantalising meats cooked while you wait, then you’ve let your reader down. The idea if to try to bring them into the scene so they can fully imagine it.

Sense of Hearing

Most of what the reader will hear will come from your dialogue. The fundamental aspect of dialogue is to move the story forward, and in doing so, each of your characters should be able to speak with their own unique voice. That means your reader should be able to recognize the characters from the way they speak, their tone of voice.

Of course, this is just one aspect of the hearing sense. What your character hears is also important. How many other sounds can you hear within your scene? What sounds can you conjure? Is there a distance foghorn? Perhaps a cacophony of car horns represents a busy, bustling city. Does the character hear the lapping of water against a boat? What about the call of a bird, a barking dog? All these limitless sounds bring a sense of realism into the scene.

Whether it’s characters or background noise, remember to add a sense of sound to the narrative to help your reader feel the scene.

Sense of Taste

Perhaps this is the most neglected sense in writing. Eating can be a shared, sensual pastime, therefore your reader will want to be involved if your characters are eating, and they’ll want their taste buds aroused. Simple details count. Description is the cement that binds your story, and if you don’t enhance it enough for your reader, they will quickly become bored.

Next time you have a scene with characters eating; hint at what they taste, and how it might affect them. What does that wine taste of on the tongue? Or that steak? How does the dessert taste?

There are also certain elements in the air which can define taste. What about salt in the air, or perhaps the acidity of burning rubber on the tongue? What about a passionate kiss? What does your character’s lips taste like? Are they sweet, bitter...fruity? Never neglect this sense, especially in romantic scenes.

Try to let your reader experience as much as possible.

Sense of Touch

Touch is another neglected sense. Unless you can describe the feel of something within a scene, you will not be involving all the readers’ senses, and like hearing, the sense of touch has a broad spectrum.

Can you describe the feel of material of a character’s dress, the feel of a baby’s skin, the roughness of sand, the sting of salt against the skin? Or what about the feel of water around your ankles as you walk through the surf? What does it feel like? If a character is touching something, don’t be afraid to describe it. Let your reader in on the action too.

By incorporating a sense of touch and feeling, aromas, observation and taste into your writing, you will add depth to your narrative and you will therefore draw your reader into an enjoyable, fully rounded read.

Remember, it’s all in the detail.

The best way to remind yourself of these senses is to have a little note on your desk or computer which asks:

What can I see?
What can I hear?
What can I taste?
What can I touch?
What can I smell?

This will act as a prompt.  You don't have to overload your narrative with ALL the senses, but every now and then, let the reader in and let them enjoy key scenes; let them see it, feel it, touch it, taste it, smell it.  Poor description gives nothing, great description gives everything.

Next time: creating 4 dimensional characters.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Too much use of the word 'was'

How many of us have used ‘was’ far too much in our narrative? Look back through your stories and you will see that it occurs more often than is necessary, which seems crazy because it seems such an innocuous, inoffensive word, but too much use of it can be detrimental to your narrative. This is because it has a tendency to slow overall sentence rhythm and stutter the flow of writing, making it appear clunky and contrived.

Of course, it must be said, we all do it. It’s a matter of habit, but bad habits can be just as bad as using bad grammar.

So why does this word limit narrative, and why?

To begin with, it acts like a barrier between you and your reader by limiting how you apply yourself descriptively. Your role as writer is to transport the reader into the story through description, dialogue and narrative. How effective these are together is down to you as a writer. Sentence structure plays an important role in linking these three elements. Even more important are the words to choose for each sentence and some of the words we like using the most are ‘was’ and ‘there’.

Rather than it being a case of lazy writing, it is more like the writer doesn’t know an alternative way of communicating something without resorting to writing ‘this was here’ or that was there’ or ‘she was at the door’ or ‘he was standing in the hallway’.

We write sentences like this without even thinking about it. It’s a matter of habit. But why write any differently? Well, the drawback with too much use of ‘was’ is that it tends to lead to a reliance on too much telling and not enough showing, and as all writers know, ‘telling’ can kill any story by making it just too clunky to read.

So how do you know when you use ‘was’ excessively? That’s down to practice, practice, practice. It’s a matter of being thorough when you read through and edit your work. Don’t be afraid to be judicious when it comes to throwing out words, sentences, paragraphs or even whole scenes or chapters that don’t make the story work.

Take a look at these sentences:

1. Jane walked into her office. There was a note on her desk, inviting her curiosity. In the corner, there was a bunch of flowers on the chair. It made her smile.

2. The temperature was cold and it made him shudder. He licked his lips. There was a bitter taste in the air. This was the coldest he’d known.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with these simple sentences, the placement of ‘was’ makes it hard to expand on the action. The word ‘was’ tells us either something happened, or something occupies a place or position and therefore there isn’t much room to go into detail.

Let’s look at one of them in more detail:

Jane walked into the office.

There is nothing actually wrong with this sentence. This is simply informing the reader of a character’s action and doesn’t need adding to because it sets us up for the next sentence.

There was a note on her desk, inviting her curiosity.

This sentence tells us something, but doesn’t actually show us. ‘There’ and ‘was’ act as inhibitors to the sentence to stop further description. If you do expand on it you may end up saying ‘there’ and ‘was’ again.

In the corner, there was a bunch of flowers on the chair. It made her smile.

Again, this sentence is simply telling us there are flowers on the chair and that it makes her smile. There is no expansion in the description.

Overall, these paragraphs lack enough description, interest and sentence structure. They tell us, but they don’t show us.

Now what if you did it like this:

1. Jane walked into her office, spotted a note on her desk. It immediately sparked her curiosity, but then a hint of colour caught her waning attention and she turned to see the bunch of flowers on the chair in the corner. They made her smile.

This second paragraph gives more for the reader to work with. Instead of telling the reader there was a note and a bunch of flowers, it allows to reader to share the curiosity, by showing it instead. Each instance of ‘was’ has been eliminated.

2. The temperature dropped, made him shudder. He licked his lips, tasted the bitter air. This was the coldest he’d known.
Notice that this second set of paragraphs is tighter and reads better. They offer the reader some interest by showing or hinting something more, all by removing the word ‘was’.

You’ll notice that example 2 still contains a necessary ‘was’: This was the coldest he’d known. In this instance, the sentence needs it to convey the character’s inner thoughts.

Let’s look at the re-written first example in more detail so see how it has improved:

Jane walked into her office, spotted a note on her desk.

By removing the words ‘there’ and ‘was’ we can set up a neat following sentence by making the character spot the note rather than simply telling the reader it’s there. This leads into the next sentences:

It immediately sparked her curiosity, but then a hint of colour caught her waning attention and she turned to see the bunch of flowers on the chair in the corner. They made her smile.

We’re informing the reader that the character is curious, and we’re showing how the flowers catch her attention, rather than telling the reader. Now our curiosity is sparked, we’re interested to know who they’re from, and it’s all done without a single ‘there’ or ‘was’.

Of course, knowing which ones to take out and which to keep are down to practice, but by using fewer of them in your narrative you keep your sentences tight and rhythmic. It also allows you to show rather than tell. This is fundamental in your narrative.

Just like most fiction writing, you need to find balance. Using ‘was’ is still important as long as it is used in the right places, it’s a word you simply can’t write without, but because it is a verb used in the past tense, writers rely on it too much, and just like adjectives and adverbs, you should use them sparingly.

‘There’ works in the same way. We still need it, but there are better ways to describe than always referring to ‘There was this’ or ‘there was something’. For example:

There was a light in the doorway.

This description is boring because it tells us, but doesn’t show us. The sentence could be much better, like this:

A faint orange glow flickered from the doorway...

See how different this sentence is?  It shows us there is a light; it adds a little atmosphere and allows the reader to want to know more, all by removing ‘there’ and also ‘was.’

Just remember to take a little time over your sentence structure. Just ask yourself, ‘Am I using ‘was’ and ‘there’ too much? If so, start removing them. You will end up with much tighter sentences, better constructed paragraphs and better choice of words to engage your reader.

Next time: Using the senses.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Finding 'Voice' in Creative Writing

First, what exactly is ‘voice’?

Novice writers sometimes worry about ‘voice’ and what it means. Voice is the word we use to describe a style of writing that is distinct and individual from everyone else. It describes how you write, the descriptions you use, the words you choose to express yourself, the structure and pattern of your sentences and paragraphs, the characterisations and how your characters express themselves, and the overall style of your story that defines your voice.

Think about how you talk. Your voice has pitch, emotion, subtlety, variation, accent, tone and so on. Your writing voice isn’t that different to these elements.

New writers also have a tendency to become frustrated by not having that voice to begin with. They can be impatient, little realising that voice doesn’t appear overnight. That is because they have not yet developed their own style. Writing is like any new skill that we learn. The more you write, the more your style and voice becomes apparent. If you are a new writer, you have to be patient and let your voice come through naturally. Don’t be tempted to force it – the end result could end up resembling something a primary school student would come up with – in other words, you won’t have any voice to speak of.

Also, many writers worry they won’t be ‘original’. There is a preconception that writers have to be original to be successful, mostly because agents and publishers demand ‘originality’, but can you actually define originality? No. They can’t either. The fact that you have a writing style makes you original because what you produce will be unlike any other writer. Every writer is different and therefore naturally original. It’s that simple.

Also, don’t make the mistake of giving your characters your personality – this only starves the style process. In-depth characterisation is what makes your characters distinct, not your ego. Your characters are not you.

Don’t try to write like famous writers either, thinking that by copying them that you’ll be snapped up by an agent or publisher in no time, because you won’t. Writing like someone else means you’re not writing as YOU and you’ll never succeed by doing this.

Your style and voice is what counts and that is what makes your writing distinct.

How do I to develop my writing voice?

When I started writing in my teens I worried about finding voice, how my writing wouldn’t sound the same as any other writers and how I could be distinguished from thousands of others, but I gradually realised as I worked on my stories that a style started to emerge. That didn’t happen until my late twenties, so you can see how long the process took. The key is to be patient.

To start with, write as much as possible. With each story you write, you gain a little more experience of the writing process, you learn about characterisation, building plot, raising obstacles, creating conflict and tension and giving the reader a satisfactory ending. The more writing you do, the more proficient you will become and from this ongoing process, your style of writing will emerge naturally.

Read your drafts. Read several times to understand the depth of what you have written. Also, read them aloud to get an idea how your writing actually ‘sounds.’ You will start to notice the subtle nuances of your writing, the ‘sound’ of your writing. This is the emergence of your writing ‘voice’. It might be you have a flowery or lavish style, or poetic style. You might find that your writing is abrupt and to the point. Whichever it is, this is who you are as a writer and you continue to develop it.

How will I know when I have a writing voice?

Every writer has pondered this. Finding your writing voice or style isn’t a quick process. It can take many years before it starts to emerge. It doesn’t pop out at an opportune moment, but rather develops with you as you write. The way to recognise your style is to always read what you have written, improve your writing and write as much as you can – short stories, flash fiction, poems, novels – the more you do, the more you learn. With each story you write, your style and voice will become more apparent.

What will also become apparent over time is that when you write something that seems such a comfortable process (instead of a torturous slog), then you know your style has bloomed, thus allowing you to write seamlessly and with such passion that you just have to keep going. Your style and voice have matured and you’ve gelled with who you are as a writer. This will happen. Just be patient.

When your writing style or voice does emerge, capitalise on it, affirm it and strengthen your writing with more writing, after all, your writing voice and your style defines who you are as a writer, and in a sense it’s an important aspect of writing. As already stated, don’t worry about trying to be original or different, because your style will do that for you. Just concentrate on as much writing as you can.

I know one up and coming young writer who is only sixteen. She is already published (short stories), and is working on a novel. In a year or two, she will have found a distinct voice and style of her own to tackle such projects with confidence.

So, to summarise:

• Be patient
• Write as much as you can
• Read all your work
• Read it aloud to ‘hear’ how your writing sounds
• Improve and develop your writing
• Never copy other writing styles
• Don’t transplant your personality into your characters. Each one should be individual and different from one another.

Above all, remember that writers are individual, and so is their writing. Finding voice is like learning to ride a bike – it will come to you eventually.

Next time: How to avoid too much use of the word ‘was’ in narrative.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Contemporary fiction v Literary

Which one are you?

Well, first you have to define the genres. Literary is almost always character driven and relies on characters to tell the story rather than the plot doing all the work. Literary is another way of describing ‘high end writing’, the literati. The prose tends to be either archaic, overly beautiful or a mix between the two. Nevertheless, literary stories can be a joy to read. They can be exquisite, poetic, powerfully descriptive, alluring and seductive in their very fabric.

Contemporary novels are mostly plot driven and concentrate on modern day dilemmas. They are usually action-packed and fast paced and have a broad base appeal to almost everyone, coupled with compelling stories to tell. These include many genres like thriller, crime, mystery, science fiction, adventure, westerns and so on. Contemporary novels (or commercial to be more precise) are about how many sales it can generate.  Commercial fictions sells.

Literary fiction could be classed as a genre in its own right. Sometimes people refer to it as style over substance, but while they do have style, they also ask pertinent questions and explore the human condition. Many literary books are very thought provoking. They are beautifully written and very often stop to make us think.

Are you contemporary or literary?

As mentioned in previous posts, writing is as individual as fingerprints. Your style, your voice and how you write is what distinguishes you from other writers. For new writers, finding that style and the voice takes a while, so don’t panic that you feel bereft of any writing individuality. Your style and your voice will come when you have gained experience by writing lots of stories.  (More on that next week).

During this process – which could take years – you start to realise how your style works. You may find it’s fast paced and abrupt, which would fit into commercial fiction, or you may find your style is relaxed and poetic, which may indicate you have a literary tendency towards your writing.

Knowing how you write is very important in recognising the various styles in writing, because this will dictate where you send your finished novels or stories – literary agents or commercial fiction agents/publishers. It’s no good sending a fast-paced action thriller to a publishing house or agent that deals with solely with literary books or stories and vice versa.

A writer knows pretty much what style they want to write. Most of the time this is usually dictated by the work we read. Writers who enjoy reading thrillers tend to write thrillers, those who enjoy reading romance tend to write romantic style stories, those who love horror tend to write horror and so on.

Writers like to write what makes them feel comfortable.

I like to write dark, psychological tales or thrillers because my style has evolved that way and because that’s what I also love to read. I can’t write happy stories, or romance or chick-lit style novels. Why? Because that just isn’t my style and I don’t feel comfortable writing them. I know which genres I am comfortable with, and as a writer, you should know which styles you are comfortable with because any writing you try that is not within your comfort zone will end up convoluted and stilted and not worth reading.

Am I at a disadvantage if I’m literary?

Any well-crafted story which moves the reader, entertains them and makes them believe in the story has neither an advantage nor disadvantage. Commercial fiction has a huge following compared to literary fiction, simply because publishers are prepared to invest money in contemporary novels.

Literary novels suffer from the ‘elitist’ tag – that only clever academics might enjoy - and it may put some people off reading it or may make publishers think twice about promoting it, but that’s not to say commercial or contemporary fiction is better. (There is a lot of commercial fiction on the bookshelves which is woefully dire).

On the whole, literary works are published knowing that they won’t make a lot of money, and therefore they’re often in small print runs.

Compare this with commercial fiction, which is what most people read, which ‘sells’ and can make the publisher some money. If very successful, there may be several print runs and maybe a modicum of success.

But one thing is important, regardless of genre. Good fiction is good fiction. It’s as simple as that, and isn’t it surprising that most ‘literary’ novels tend to take the prizes for fiction? This is because, despite the snobbish view of literary work, publishers and critics still place merit upon it when it comes to doling out the prizes.

So, in essence, you’re not thoroughly disadvantaged if you choose literary style. If that is your style and voice as a writer, don’t change it, because more often than not it won’t work. Develop that voice, because as already stated, agents and publishers are looking for a great story, regardless of being literary or commercial in style. Who knows, you may become the next Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth or Ian McEwen.

And as Salman Rushdie once said, "Literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope to find not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart."

Whatever your style, stick with it, develop it, make it individual.

Next time: Finding voice and style.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Blog Plot v Character driven stories

Writers often ask me which type they should attempt to write, however, I always answer that the approach to writing is always subjective. In other words, it really is up to the writer, but on the whole, it depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell because there is a distinction between the two. One kind may be more suited to the type of genre you are writing for.

New writers may not be aware of such distinctions, and may not know the differences between the two forms.

The most important thing to remember is that neither of these elements is right or wrong. Not all novels are 100% plot driven or 100% character driven. For the most part, they have a mix of both character and plot driven elements. How they balance is entirely up to the writer.

What is a Plot driven story?

A plot driven story concentrates almost entirely on the events or situations within the story and it focuses on how the characters influence those events or situations, usually through action. The story is not solely centered on its characters, but often relies on the unfolding events within its context to drive the story forward and bring it to its conclusion.

In plot driven stories (more suited to crime novels or various thriller/adventure genres), the focus remains on the events within the story, usually a single main event such as a death, a battle, an accident, a kidnap etc. The story, the characters and subplots revolve around this single event to being the story to life.

The characters in a plot-driven novels don’t tend to be as deeply drawn as those in character driven novels (for obvious reasons), since the fast pace of most plot driven novels means there isn’t much time to delve too deeply on an emotional level with your protagonist and antagonist and other characters, but that’s not to say that characters in these types of novels are not three dimensional and believable and make us empathise with them, because they are and they do, however most plot driven stories don’t really have time for deep character reflection. The emphasis is on pace and action.

Novels such as The Da Vinci Code, The Bourne Identity, Jurassic Park, The Hunt for Red October and Golden Compass are examples of plot driven novels.

What is a character driven story?

This really is a case of something doing exactly what it says on the tin. These stories are all about the characters. The emphasis is on character reflection, emotions, desires, motives, and subsequent actions. The story tends to be a secondary element, the plot tends to be somewhere in the background and is not strictly enforced like a plot driven novel. This type of novel also tends to be more reflective and slower in pace. This means that the writer can concentrate solely on characterisation.

You’ll find that most - not all - literary novels tend to be character driven. This is because they focus on the character’s emotions, their desires and their reflections and that means that the development and growth of the characters outweighs the development and growth and the movement of the plot. These stories tend to focus on why characters do what they do, and how they react in certain ways through their actions.

Novels such as Catcher in the Rye, War and Peace, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Shawshank Redemption and The Hours are just some examples of character driven stories.

Can you have both?

The simple answer to that is yes. There are no hard and fast rules that state you must have one or the other. A good writer can incorporate both elements into their work, as in the example above with King’s The Shawshank Redemption, so in theory you can have a fast paced thriller that does have emotional, reflective character driven scenes, and literary-style character driven stories that can have moments of action which propel the plot forward.

The ideal would be to have a balance of both, and this is quite possible as longs as you maintain that balance.  If you do have a plot driven story, don't forget good characterisation, because this is still extremely important in any story.  A great plot is nothing without great characters, and great characters still need a plot to work from.

Most stories do follow a pattern that we all know, and the genre generally dictates the type of novel: thrillers, crime, sci-fi and adventure books tend to be plot driven, while romantic genres, coming of age novels or semi-autobiographical novels tend to be character driven, and as you write your novel it will become apparent where your story fits when it comes to plot driven, character driven or a mix of both.

One thing will be apparent as you begin your writing journey – you need to be clear on the type of novel you want to write. You need to find your ‘voice’, your writing fingerprint that makes you stand out from other writers. Once you have those, then you’ll know the kind of fiction you’ll want to write.

Next time: Contemporary v literary.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Excuses Not to Write...

All writers do it – we come up with all sorts of excuses not to write. For every reason you can’t there’s also another reason why you should. How else will you accomplish anything?

Why we do this depends on many factors. Sometimes it’s because we lose flair and give up, perhaps it’s because we can’t find inspiration and then stagnation sets in, or it’s simply that we’ve grown bored with writing completely and we can’t be bothered to write anything worthwhile.

We make excuses because it’s easy. Sometimes we allow them to fester until our lack of writing becomes a long-term problem – in the end, nothing gets done.

The most often used excuses not to write are:

• Procrastination
• Lack of motivation
• Writers Block
• Writing laziness
• Boredom
• Fear of rejection
• Life
• Indifference

Procrastination is a way of canny avoidance. That novel needs finishing but the goings on in EastEnders or CSI diverts your waning attention. You need to write a story, but instead you decide to take the dog for a walk, or you go out for lunch...which takes most of the afternoon. Another short story has been stagnating in a pile of papers since last year, but no matter how much you want to, you can’t be bothered to tackle it. Even Facebook is far more interesting than your book.

Procrastinators allow too much time to pass since their last creative spurt and seem content to carry on with life as it has become, therefore bypassing any writing or productivity. This isn’t unusual, it happens to a lot of writers – sometimes life just gets in the way, if you allow it. Of course, writers love to talk about all the reasons why they aren’t writing instead of actually sitting down and writing. Writers are master procrastinators.

As Epictetus famously wrote, “If you wish to be a writer; write!”

Lack of motivation is another excuse that writers use. But the very thing that drives a writer is everywhere around them and present in everything they do. Motivation comes from the Latin word movere (to move) and is the driving force behind the desire to write, but why is it so often used as an excuse?

Inspiration is the answer, or lack of it. Inspiration and motivation are inextricably linked, they work together to feed a writer, but lack of inspiration can lead to lack of motivation, and lack of motivation can in turn stifle the amount of inspiration. It’s an endless cycle.

Of course, in reality, inspiration surrounds us, it’s in everything we see and hear, touch, taste and smell. There should be no excuse for not writing - there are always new people, new experiences and new places to stimulate the creative process. It’s whether we choose to pay attention to any of these that matters.

Something inspires us – a word, a phrase, something we see, or hear or touch or smell or taste, it motivates us and we write and we create. This should be your endless cycle of productivity.

I find one of the best motivators to get back to writing is to read your favourite authors. This has an inspiring effect; reading what they have written, and how they have done so, is a great motivator, because they have accomplished something. Never neglect aspiration.

Another widely used excuse is writer’s block. While this affliction can have real underlying psychological causes, too many writers take advantage of it and often complain ‘I can’t write a thing, I must have writer’s block’. More often than not, it has nothing to do with an actual writing blockage, but rather suggests that apathy has set in. Writer’s block is always about the writer, not the project you’re working on. By feigning writer’s block, you’re denying yourself the opportunity to write and create. In truth, you’re being lazy...

We all become a bit lazy with our writing from time to time. We’d rather watch the TV, go out with friends, spend hours surfing the internet or we end up blaming writer’s block. It’s a fact that sometimes writing can become a chore and you just don’t want to tackle it. Perhaps you’re writing something you don’t particularly like or have no real interest in or perhaps you’re writing in a genre you’re not used to. This naturally leads us to avoid doing it.

In reality, writers become lazy because they allow themselves to, but then they’ll blame their lack of writing on just about anything, but the only person they should blame is the person in the mirror.

Perhaps the worst excuse for laziness is the internet - why work on something when you can surf, look for holidays, chat in forums or play online bingo and poker? The internet sometimes affords even the most diligent writers the attention span of a fly. It distracts and allows writers to switch off and forget that they have to write. We all like time to have fun and chill, but in order to avoid becoming apathetic and lazy towards writing, a writer needs to balance leisure time (like the internet) with actual writing and not be too distracted.

Another excuse is boredom with writing. On the surface, this appears a shallow excuse, but it probably means there’s an underlying cause. Maybe you’re working on a project that is out of your comfort zone and you’re not used to writing a different genre, or perhaps you’re trying to force a story from an idea that simply doesn’t work, maybe it isn’t strong enough or doesn’t have the right characters. It doesn’t feel right, so invariably it isn’t. The story doesn’t hold your attention so you become bored with it.

To tackle boredom, switch to something else to gain some inspiration - drum up some ideas for short story competitions, do some research for the next novel idea, sort through all those old notebooks and files and bits of paper to see if there are any ideas for flash fiction pieces, short stories, or even a novel. As already pointed out, everything around you is a source of inspiration. How you exploit that is up to you.

The art of writing is a long creative process which involves planning, making notes, research, actual writing and editing, so there should be no excuse to become bored.

Another problem for writers is fear – the dread of what others will think of their work, the prospect of receiving criticism, or the fear of rejection. Writers equate rejection with failure and turn that fear into an excuse not to write. This fear then takes the form of self-doubt. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle which every writer can fall into and is sometimes hard to get out of.

As Sylvia Plath once wrote, “...everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt”.

Fear can stop any writer from writing, but in actuality, over time it stops becoming a fear and turns into an excuse. It’s wise to remember that winners never give up, losers do.

But what about the biggest excuse of all?

Well, life in general. The biggest and most often used excuse. There is no doubt that it can and does get in the way the creative process. Writers have to devote a large part of their time looking after family and a home, as well as a career, and writing can sometimes become a forgotten pastime, a lost hobby or even a missed opportunity. Life becomes one huge excuse not to write.

All these life factors demand our time and can sometimes suck the creativity from us. Writers often complain about the lack of time to write because of their busy lives, and yet miraculously, they find time to watch TV, read a book, surf the internet or go out for a drink. If you can do any of those, then an hour of writing is not impossible. You can make the time to write because not every minute of your day is filled by being busy.

Life only gets in the way if you let it.

But what if it’s not a lack of motivation, a busy life, or boredom or laziness that you can blame on your lack of writing? Well, I’ve saved the most unusual one for last.

Indifference. It’s not strictly an excuse, but writers fall back on it too often. Indifference is the complete lack of interest in writing. The spark has gone; the creative light has fizzled out, your muse has grown weary and left you for someone else.

This is reminiscent of a writer who has struggled for years to be published, but without success, and eventually he or she gives up without ever returning to it. This happens to a high proportion of would-be writers who start out but eventually give up.

Don’t let this be you. Ask most writers why they write, and invariably most will say they do it because they love to write, published or not. It’s that simple, there is no magic formula.

The reality is, there should be no excuse not to write, but it’s so easy to make excuses and put off writing when so many other things require attention or distract us. Ignorance can be bliss, except it doesn’t get you anywhere, so we should remember that inspiration surrounds us, motivation lies within us and creativity is always present, ready for the next big idea. It’s up to you as a writer how effectively you use these tools and when you use them.

I’ll leave the last word to Benjamin Franklin. “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing”.

Next time: Plot v. Character driven stories

Friday, 22 October 2010

Self-Doubt - Why It Stifles Success

I’m rubbish; I’ll never be a writer.’  Not if you don’t do something about it.

We’ve all had these negative thoughts, thinking we’re simply not good enough to reach the glorious echelons of the Literati. Most writers have suffered this at some point and it usually manifests when fear of rejection overrides logic because it’s easy to doubt your own abilities when comparing themselves to others and thereby decline their own talent in the process.

When you begin to doubt everything that you write, it becomes a problem.

So you’ve written your novel, or your short story or article, but you're not going to send it to an agent/publisher/magazine because you think it's not quite good enough, despite the time and effort you’ve put into it, regardless of how good or bad it might actually be. You’ll spend another week or so editing, and still it won’t be good enough. You ask yourself: Is it any good? Who will want to read it? Will anyone be interested in what I have to say?

Let’s be realistic: not everything you write will be a masterpiece, nor will it be terrible, but it’s very important to understand this idea. Writers suffer from tunnel vision when it comes to their work, their talents and their limitations. They spend too much time wondering what others might think about their work rather than concentrating on the quality of their writing. It’s the fear that it’s simply not good enough, not up to standard, but it’s a perceived standard which is so elevated that it’s simply unattainable and it allows doubt to creep in to starve any ambition.

Where does self-doubt come from?

Psychologists believe self-doubt is borne from our childhood, usually from parents, teachers and peers telling kids that they aren’t good enough, they’ll amount to nothing. Eventually the child will start to believe it, causing them to doubt their abilities. These doubts are then carried through to adulthood. Most of our cognitive development and reasoning about our abilities is laid down through childhood.

In adulthood, rejection will cause self-doubt and continual rejections can shake any writer’s resolve. Praise from others quickly builds resolve, but all it takes is one rejection and that resolve crumbles and all that positivity is gone. Regardless of talent, writers can quickly lose confidence in their abilities after a series of rejections.

Second only to rejection is criticism. The key to handling criticism and rejection is to turn them into something positive. If you don’t then you end up holding yourself back, with little room to develop as a writer.

Self-doubt is a coping mechanism for fear of rejection and criticism. It’s a self-perpetuating syndrome of ‘it’s not good enough; it will be rejected, so why bother?’

If you don’t bother, then you won’t know how good a writer you are. Ignore the negative sting of criticism because critique is an important writing process in understanding your level of skill, your writing limitations and the need for development in weak areas such as grammar and spelling.

Another part of the problem is that sometimes we aspire too much. We want to the new Stephen King, Dean Koontz or Lee Child, but what we need to understand that we won’t ever be anything like them, because we’re not them. What we achieve is only through what we do, as writers, but predictably, when our work doesn’t measure up to famous authors, we become disappointed in ourselves and we start to doubt our abilities.

Always remember that each writer has a unique voice and style, each is different. Don’t compare your work to others, because your style will be vastly different. Aspire to be like others, but not to be them.

Overcoming self-doubt

The most damaging thing about self-doubt is that it makes you irrational about your abilities. This can cause a loss of writing opportunities because you’re afraid to send anything out into the big bad world, you’ll never let go. You need to take control of your approach to writing otherwise you’ll never be published.

Success only comes if you pursue it. Positivity is the key to that success. Sometimes positivity can be hard to foster, but through either your success or lack of it, positivity helps the mind focus and keeps that determination in place.

So how do writers find positivity and banish self-doubt? The most important thing is to understand that you are as capable as any other writer. If you believe in yourself then your ability will help you create your own success.

• Find a support system – That could be friends, family or teachers. Find people who can offer constructive feedback rather than pure negative criticism, people who will help bolster confidence in your work.

• Join online forums or a writers group where you can showcase your work and receive the benefit of knowledge, experience and encouragement from others.

• If you can afford to, sign up for writing courses or perhaps take on a creative writing degree.

• Look out for writing events in your area. Share your work with others and gain inspiration and ideas from them.

• List your goals, and what you need in order to achieve those goals. Don’t focus on personal failings or rejections, but concentrate on positivity, relish even the smallest success. This will build your confidence and help you recover quickly from setbacks.

• Take on board constructive criticism. As a writer, you need it. We all fear having our writing flaws exposed, but that’s how we learn. Criticism is a building block to becoming a better writer, so embrace it.

• None of us are perfect – no writer or work of fiction is.

Positive Reinforcement

Not in its true sense, but it’s a way of rewarding yourself for positive behaviour.

For instance, not sending out your work for fear of criticism and rejection or not being good as JK Rowling et al = negative reinforcement.

Posting your novel/short story or article, regardless = positive reinforcement. It may come back rejected, but you don’t let self-doubt stifle your creativity. Instead, you get back to work, improve your story, novel or article and send it out again. By doing this you gain a stronger sense of commitment to your work, and with it you’ll also find satisfaction and improvement and you give yourself positive reinforcement.

The more work you send out, the better the understanding you gain from feedback. It helps you develop your skills, improve your writing and gain experience.

Most of all enjoy the whole writing process. You don’t have to be great all of the time because in reality, you can’t. Confidence breeds assurance, so keep sending, keep learning, keep developing and become a better writer.

Next time:  Excuses why we don't write

Sunday, 17 October 2010


The Dreaded Rejection

Every writer can vouch for rejection. Every writer will experience this.

Rejection is emotive, it produces feelings of hurt. Writers take it personally, but you have to understand that it’s the piece of writing that was rejected, not you as a writer. There could be dozens of reasons for rejection. It doesn’t mean you’re rubbish and should instantly give up.

Writers do what comes naturally: they equate rejection with failure. It’s hard not to. Weeks, months or even years of hard work has been arbitrarily dismissed, leaving you with questions such as ‘Am I a bad writer?’, ‘Was my story that bad?’ and ‘Why am I a failure?’

The simple answer to those questions is, not necessarily. If you were lucky enough to get feedback with your rejection, that means you may have to tweak it and make changes in order to improve. If you don’t get any feedback with a rejection then don’t feel obliged to take your masterpiece and rip it to shreds in the belief that it’s rubbish and needs a complete overhaul. Leave it a while and go back when you’ve digested your disappointment and had time to think about it. Go through your work objectively and see where you can make improvements.

Don’t make the mistake of internalising your rejection. This just serves to make your thoughts fester and convince your mind that you’re a complete failure. Externalise that rejection into determination. Desensitise yourself from rejection. After all, it follows that the more rejections you receive, the less they will hurt. After you digest your rejection, look at your work carefully, tweak where necessary and re-submit.

Many writers don’t understand that rejection actually helps them develop and improve their work. Rejection isn’t a personal thing; it’s an encouraging way of aiding the learning process and yet many writers turn that fear of rejection into an excuse not to write. That fear takes the form of self-doubt. (More about this next week).

Continual rejections can shake any writer’s resolve. Praise from others quickly shores up your writing defences, but all it takes is one rejection or a critical review and those defences start to crumble and all that positivity is gone. Despite their underlying talent, writers can quickly lose confidence in their abilities after a gamut of rejections. It’s a typical, natural reaction because your self-confidence has taken a battering.

Remember though - most, if not all great authors have received rejections. Stephen King and JK Rowling, among others, received dozens of rejections for their work. Rudyard Kipling was told, “You don’t know how to use the English language” by the editor of San Francisco’s Examiner. The Diary of Anne Frank was rejected on the grounds that Anne didn’t have a “special perception of feeling”. Ironic, considering the trauma her family suffered.

William Faulkner’s Lord of the Flies was rejected because it was deemed an uninteresting fantasy, but he became a prize winning author, and even George Orwell’s allegoric tale Animal Farm was rejected until it eventually found a publisher and gained success.  Both the Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm are now studied worldwide by English students.

All these authors had one thing in common: they did what you should do - grit your teeth and persevere. Perseverance is the building block of success. If you want to succeed, you must persevere. Read up on successful authors and how they were rejected repeatedly – it will make you feel better.

Sylvester Stallone once said, “I take rejection as someone blowing a bugle in my ear to wake me up and get going, rather than retreat.”

So don’t stand still, keep writing, move forward and keep learning. We all deal with rejection in our own way and it until you become desensitised, it will always hurt.

Handling Rejection in a nutshell

1. Don’t take it personally. Acknowledge that everyone is rejected during his or her writing career. Quickly get it out your system and resolve to keep to a writing plan.

2. After a while, go back and look at the rejected piece objectively. Tweak and improve and follow any constructive feedback.

3. Remember why you write in the first place. Don’t be disheartened.

4. Boost your confidence by reading about how famous writers handled rejection.

5. Externalise rejection, turn it into determination and perseverance. You are not a failure.

6. Keep going, don’t give up. Rejection is part of the challenge. Are you up for it?

I’ll leave the last word to George E Woodberry: "Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure."

Next week: Self doubt.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

How to tackle editing...Part 2

Part 2 - The Remaining Drafts

You’ve done the first draft and filtered out the grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes. Now you have to look out for the less obvious things, the more detailed and technical factors. This is the primary work.

Again, it’s wise to put aside your story or MS for a while, then return to it with fresh eyes for the second or third, fourth or even tenth draft. This time, not only should you be on the lookout for the grammar and spelling/punctuation errors you may have missed first time around, but also you should be looking deeper into your story for less obvious errors.

Does your story start at the right moment? It should start at the heart of the action, or a defining moment in your protagonist’s life. Does it have a hook to keep the reader interested? Does it have a great opening line or paragraph? If it doesn’t, then you need to address that. A story should grab the reader's attention from the very first paragraph. Once hooked, you need to keep that momentum going through the entire story. The story should have some forward momentum, moving the reader through the tale to find out what happens next. Better still, can you keep them guessing?

You have to have a clear, believable main plot that sustains the entire story, and you won’t find that out until you’ve read it several times. This is where plot flaws emerge and where you might find gaping holes in the narrative. Everything should knit together seamlessly. If it doesn’t then you have to redress the balance.

Do you think the plot twists and turns are acceptable? Do they work well or have you spotted fault with them? Do they appear contrived or forced? How can you change that? You should be looking for a natural flow to your story - it should progress naturally, while not forced, and the plot should unfold gradually, allowing the reader to become immersed in the story. If it doesn’t, then you need to correct it.

Another thing to look out for is conflict. Does your story have the right amount of conflict? I’ve touched upon this in previous posts, but without conflict, there is no story. And to understand the kind of conflict your story needs you need to understand what conflict is required and by whom. The protagonist will have conflict with one or more antagonists. Remember conflict can be man against man, man against himself or man against his environment. Too little conflict and the story will fail, too much and you could confuse your reader. You have to find the right balance.

Is there more telling rather than showing in your story? If so, then again you need redress the balance. Important scenes need showing rather than telling, so make sure your story does this.

Another thing some writers tend to neglect is characterisation. Are the characters real enough? Are the characters consistent and strong enough to hold the story? They need to be multidimensional or believable for the reader, not one-dimensional clichés. Your story won’t be as effective if you don’t have the characterisation right because your reader won’t be able to empathise with the characters and their situations.

Do any of your subplots advance the story? They should tie in with the main plot, but should never wander off at a tangent. They’re a useful, effective tool for enhancing your story. If they don’t support the main thrust of the story, then you need to get rid of them or construct new ones. Used effectively they should reach their own individual conclusions (as well as the main plot reaching a conclusion) and should never leave the reader to wondering what happened.

Another thing to look take note of is the main character’s journey through the life cycle of the novel. Does your protagonist undergo some sort of change as a result of their experience? If not, then what is the purpose of the story? The actual change doesn’t have to be a major thing, but you do have to show how the character came out of the conflict a better/changed/happier or even sadder person. Life experiences always changes us. The same should be true of your characters.

Have you peppered the story with background information? Just as important as foreground information, the background of your characters, the story and the places you describe and where action takes place need a sense of cohesion. Lack of background information might leave the whole story deficient, and your reader will notice this.

Don't be afraid to cut whole sections out of your work when editing. If there are any redundant scenes, dialogue or descriptions, take them out, or perhaps rephrase them with stronger writing. Anything you cut can always be recycled and put to good use in another story at a later date. A good writer never wastes anything!

Do you have all the facts? Getting your information wrong can be embarrassing so always be mindful when describing real places, organisations, institutions and history/historical figures. Thorough research makes the entire story all the more interesting.

When will I know the editing is complete?

Some writers go through the process several times, drafting and re-drafting until all these elements make sense and provide a smooth, believable, enjoyable story. Never rush through the editing process – it’s vitally important you get it right. If that means doing it seven, eight or fifteen times, it will enable you as a writer to learn and understand the process better.

As for knowing when it’s ready – that is down to the writer. There is no defining moment. Think like a reader. If everything falls into place and it leaves you satisfied and entertained, then you’ve constructed a well-written story.

A writer will always keep going back to tweak their work. Always. It’s a natural in-built urge to achieve perfection, but since perfection is not actually achievable, aim for making it the best you can possibly make it.


• Re-read it
• Check spelling, punctuation, grammar and repetition.
• Check sentences – do they make sense, have rhythm and vary in length?
• Does it start in the right place?
• Does it have a clear, believable plot?
• Dialogue – does it feel real, make sense and move the story forward?
• Description – too much? Too little? Too dull? Too flowery?
• Does the story flow smoothly, does it have clear transitions and does it make sense?
• Characterisation – aim for real, believable characters. How has your character changed throughout the story?
• Is there enough conflict in the story?
• Balance of action and non-action.
• POV – make sure you don’t switch POV’s halfway through scenes. Make sure you are telling the story through your protagonist’s eyes.
• Subplots – do they tie in with the main plot? Do they have a satisfying conclusion?
• Balance of showing v. telling.
• Background information – make sure it’s correct
• Present all the facts
• Don’t be afraid to take out scenes or even chapters that evidently don’t work or just simply slow the story.

Next time: The dreaded rejection.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

How to tackle editing...

How to Edit – Part 1

Knowing how to edit your work is an essential part of writing. Not only do you need an editor’s eye to evaluate what you’ve written, you also need to be objective with yourself. Not easy, especially when you’ve spent so long writing your masterpiece and you’re emotionally attached, but unfortunately it’s a necessity in order to reach that level for an editor to accept your work. You do have to be hard on yourself sometimes so that you can take your story from ordinary to extraordinary.

Actual physical writing is a small proportion of what a writer does. The hard work comes afterward, during editing, which is all about making your work much better. This is where true investment and a willingness to re-write mark an amateur from a professional.

The best preparation for the editing process is to leave the finished work for a while, let your mind relax from creativity and writing. The idea of this is to detach yourself from the story you’ve worked on for so long and to allow yourself to become objective. Leave it a couple of weeks and then return when you’re refreshed for editing.

Editing onscreen v. paper

All writers are different and therefore work differently to each other, but for editing, I would advocate the printed manuscript rather than on a computer screen. The reason I say this is that after spending weeks, months, and sometimes years on a project, staring at the screen, it is incredibly easy to skim read the text and miss errors and flaws because your eyes are so used to the screen.

Having printed sheets in front of you has a couple of advantages: the first is that you have a fresh perspective of the story because it’s a physical presence on paper and it forces you to look more carefully at the text. Secondly, it allows you to write on the MS, make notes in the margins, add ideas, or interjections. Thirdly, it comes down to the old-fashioned act of writing with pen or pencil.

There is no doubt a lot of editing can be achieved onscreen, and instantly too. It’s preferable for some writers, but with printed sheets you get to understand if you need to reduce or increase wordage, whether the chapter lengths look right or need adjusting. This is because you can instantly see this. You can’t always perceive that onscreen. Also, with a printed MS you can take it anywhere and edit while you’re on the move.

The disadvantage to this is that it’s not terribly kind to the environment. Since it’s only a first draft, re-use paper, or print on both sides of the paper, and when finished, make sure it goes back for recycling.

Why is editing so important?

Some writers enjoy editing, as I do, others hate it, but the one thing you should do is edit your own work as much as possible. This allows you to learn more about the process and it helps you become your own toughest critic.

This makes you understand more about your own writing, it enables you to learn about your writing habits and common mistakes you tend to make, and it teaches you ways to avoid them. Just as the practice of writing more and more makes you a better writer, the same is true of editing. The more you do, the more you learn and the better you become.

Being a self-critic means doing away with self-indulgences and self-importance. You are only as good as the work you send out.

Better editing makes better finished work.

The First Draft – Basic work

If you’ve never edited before, or you’re new to writing, you won’t be entirely sure what it is you’re looking for when it comes to the editing process. So what should you be looking for?

Firstly, never be hasty with editing. Don’t rush through it thinking that after the first draft you’ll be ready to send it out, because it won’t be ready. Editing can be time consuming, but it’s also the most important aspect of the writing process and it demands your full attention. Secondly, you’re looking for improvement.

The aim of the first draft is to weed out the glaring errors. This means correcting all the basic mistakes that everyone, even novice editors, should be able to pick up easily. This is the fundamental basics. The second draft (and drafts thereafter) is primary work, the technical, deeper aspects of editing.

For the basic work, read your story or manuscript carefully and look for obvious errors such as spelling, grammar and punctuation. Commas and apostrophes should be in their rightful place, adverbs and adjectives should be culled to the bare minimum. A common error in first drafts is repetition. That means words, sentences, phrases or snippets of description that keep cropping up. Repeated words can be especially easy to miss, so be thorough.

Read the sentences, not just the words. You should be looking for good sentence structure and rhythm and whether these sentences make sense and move the story forward. Do the sentences vary in length; is there enough pace in them or do they stutter or stop? Have you put in overly long, complicated sentences that could confuse your reader? If so, you need to cut them. Clarity and simplicity is what counts.

You should also know from the start whose story it is and why. If you don’t and it’s unclear, then you need to address this. Is should also be clear within the first three chapters exactly what your story is about – the overall theme. Again, if it’s not clear, make sure this you correct this.

Beware clumsy phraseology. Are you trying to be too clever with your words? Sometimes trying to be philosophical, highbrow or overly literary can backfire. Again, it’s worth saying - keep it simple and don’t over complicate your work.

Do you have a balanced mix of dialogue, narrative, and action? Large, unbroken chucks of description could bore your reader. Conversely, large chunks of dialogue could too, so vary each element for a smoother, more palatable read. Is the dialogue necessary to the story or should it be replaced with narrative? Remember to do away with unnecessary chitchat or mundane waffling.

Is your narrative and dialogue moving the plot along? If it isn’t and you find that you suddenly come to a stop while reading, or the story goes off at a strange tangent, then cut that bit out. Don’t be afraid to cut what isn’t necessary, especially when you really like a passage/scene/paragraph. Be judicious. You can always reuse it in something else. A good writer never throws away any writing because in truth, we can always use it somewhere else and make it better.

You may also spot where some sections need more description, or ‘padding’.

You should also look out for inconsistencies and plot flaws within your story. This should become apparent as you read through. Some things may not make sense, or might confuse. Does the order of events remain consistent, does it read correctly? If not, there’s a problem which you will need to address.

The ending should reach a natural and satisfying conclusion. If it doesn’t then it could spoil the entire story. Is there a satisfying resolution? Have all the questions been answered? If not, you have to re-write to make sure they are.

Summary checklist for first draft:

• Re-read and don’t rush
• Grammar
• Spelling mistakes
• Punctuation – is it correct, is the dialogue correctly punctuated? Any repetition?
• Sentences
• Whose story is it?
• Correct choice of words – using the right phraseology
• Good balance of narrative, dialogue and action?
• Does narrative and dialogue move the plot forward? Is there too much chitchat, is it boring?
• Inconsistencies with plot
• Satisfying ending?

Next week: Part 2 – Primary editing work, including a detailed look at of conflict, sensory/imagery, exposition, characters, subplots and more.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Revealing Characters through Dialogue

When we speak we reveal a little something of ourselves. Your characters should do the same. Dialogue is an effective way of demonstrating who your character is by revealing their personality through what they say and how they say it, but fictional dialogue is different from everyday real life.

Think of real life dialogue. It’s full of interruptions, breaks, repetition and superfluous and irrelevant information. Lots of ums and ahs and a bucket full of different slang words. Most everyday conversations are, in reality, pretty dull and mundane, but the difference with real life dialogue and fictional dialogue is that with fictional dialogue you have to cut out the mundane, the waffle and the boring bits and get to the very essence of your characters and story. Readers are not interested in what your character had for dinner last Thursday, or that the garden needs doing, or the car needs washing…

Readers want information, immediacy and action.

Dialogue changes the flow of the narrative; it increases pace and gives the narrative a sense of immediacy. It provides texture and depth and provides a deeper insight into the character. The reader is able to interpret the kind of people your characters are through their dialogue and therefore determine what sort of personalities they have. This in turn helps them empathise with your characters.

There are three important functions of dialogue:

• Move the story forward.
• Reveal the character.
• Impart important information.

Readers want to know about the traits and behaviour of characters. They want to know how your characters tick. Revealing character through dialogue and action are two important literary techniques that you can use to enhance the narrative. This means letting the reader know your characters’ personalities and how they act and interact with other characters and their environment. This means active and reactive conversations.

Dialogue is also a good way of showing mood and emotion, tone and accent. A character who is calm and collected will naturally speak in the same manner, perhaps even when faced with a dramatic, pressurized situation. Angry or agitated characters will shout or stumble over words, speak in staccato, sometimes high-pitched sentences. Impatient characters have a tendency to interrupt, or change the conversation mid-flow. There is no hard or fast rule on this, but it is based more on observation of real people’s behaviour.

Dialogue is also engineered to impart information about the plot and to provide necessary information to your reader. It’s an important way to show, not tell your reader what’s happening, or might happen – perhaps a big event in the story, a turning point in the plot or a significant event that you want to hint towards to tease the reader.

Hinting of what might happen further in the story is known as subtext. Good use of dialogue should never blatantly spell out what a scene is about, it should be through use of suggestion. This is how subtext works. It’s something that becomes understood by the reader in a subconscious way.

Subtext can refer to the thoughts and motives of characters, as well as their actions and dialogue. There are always subtle meanings brewing behind what your characters do, say and think.

Here’s an example, an excerpt taken from my novel. It’s a dialogue between the protagonist Alex, and one of the other characters, DCI Roscoe, the man determined to pin the murder of her husband and son on her:

Roscoe eased back in his chair; watched her staring back at him. ‘Other than your arguments about the money your husband made, did you ever resent his success?’

‘No I didn’t. What do you take me for?’

‘Did you resent him being away from the home so much?’

A terrible noise began to fill her head, tumbling and turning like a drum full of metal, but it was a while before she realised it was her own silence. She eyed him, shrank back.

‘Well, did you?’ Roscoe asked, coming forward, his shadow threatening.

Alex expelled a short breath. ‘No, now you’re just wasting my time. Why don’t we both get to the point?’ The resonance in her voice was surly now; she was allowing the agitation to creep in. ‘You want to know whether I killed my husband, right?’

They were playing seesaw; it was Roscoe’s turn to sit back again. ‘Sure, I’d like to know. Who did you pay to do it?’

Something florid bristled in her eyes; a dark rancour shrouded her skin like a malignant shadow. Her eyes became wide. ‘I had no reason to kill my husband, or my child. Not for money, not for gain, not for anything this world could ever offer me...’

The above extract does three things:

It reveals character – from the implied tone of voice it’s easy for the reader to see that Alex is becoming agitated with the questioning, added to that some elements of description to underscore these feelings. It reveals Alex to be a no nonsense kind of person. Roscoe, on the other hand, is impatient and gruff.

The scene also imparts information about who may have killed Alex’s husband and son. Was she responsible, or someone else?

The third element is the scene as a whole - it moves the story forward. How? There is ample opportunity within the scene to let both characters waffle on and become boring, however, with a tight scene it has to be pruned right back to pertinent information, just enough to keep the momentum. There is a hint of revelation, just enough to stir curiosity.

Lastly there is subtext. During the scene both characters’ movements are shown to be like a seesaw, back and forth, each moving forward as though to dominate, then sitting back as though momentarily defeated. This shows how the conversation is evolving. It’s very subtle and the reader should be able pick up on these nuances.

Writing dialogue isn’t always easy, especially if you have to be prudent to keep everything tight. Always pay attention to dialogue to ensure it follows the three basic elements above. Be strict – cut out unnecessary waffle.

Introducing action into key scenes is another way writers use to move the narrative forward and provides underlying meaning to a story in a slightly different way to dialogue. Every story needs action and conflict, because without it you have no story, and by writing about the behaviour of your characters you give the reader the chance to form opinions about them, and find out about their personalities. How your characters conduct themselves is another way of revealing character through action. Again, it’s all about active and reactive.

Problems to overcome with dialogue

Everything in fiction is about balance. When you read back what you’ve written, sometimes you might find the dialogue sounds unnatural or stilted. The best thing to do is to read your dialogue out loud. This will show you where the problems lie, by listening to how it actually sounds and you can re-write where needed to improve the dialogue and make it sound more realistic.

Another problem is dialogue which reflects the mundane. This means the conversations are boring and slowing down the story. This usually happens when your characters are talking about unimportant, irrelevant stuff. It’s like listening to two people on the bus talking about what to have for dinner. Cut out the waffle and the mundane and get to the heart of what your character’s need to say - their conversations should move the plot forward, or reveal something important about the characters and the situation yet to come.

Remember not to have huge chunks of speech for the reader to wade through. Vary speech lengths; keep it interesting for the reader. It’s easy to get carried away with dialogue, but it you need to keep it in check.

Make sure your dialogue is consistent – keep in character when constructing dialogue between different people. The protagonist’s personality and speech will be vastly different from the antagonist and other characters. You must keep in character throughout the story, because the moment you slip out of character or do something uncharacteristic the reader notice immediately.

The best rule of thumb when reading through what you’ve written? If it doesn’t sound right, it invariably isn’t.

Next week: How to edit effectively

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Metaphor and Symbolism in Fiction

Metaphor v Simile

Why use metaphor, similes or symbolism in fiction? Because they are just some of the useful tools available to a writer to add extra dimension to their work, to make it interesting, more palpable and more entertaining.

A metaphor is an analogy, a figure of speech, to convey an idea or object. It compares dissimilar things without using ‘as’ or ‘like’

This shouldn’t be confused with similes, which are used to convey something that is very much like, whereas metaphors state that something is.

With metaphors, you don’t have to write ‘like’ or ‘as’.

For example:

‘His eyes were fireflies’. (Metaphor)

‘His eyes were like fireflies’. (Simile)

Both examples tell us the character’s eyes glittered or glowed like fireflies in the dusk, because the fireflies are used as an analogy.

‘John was a tank’. (Metaphor)

‘John was like a tank’. (Simile)

Both of these tell us that John is very strong and stocky. Used correctly they can add a bit of flair to the narrative, but if used poorly, and too often, they can spoil the piece entirely.

How do metaphors help?

Metaphors and similes have the ability to create mental pictures and imagery with a limited number of words. They can enhance your novel or story by adding depth, colour and powerful imagery to your narrative, and it’s a useful way of drawing in your reader and keeping them hooked.

As with most fiction writing, however, you need to find a balance when using metaphors and similes. Misuse or too may will bore or confuse your reader and may ultimately weaken your writing. Use them sparingly.

While there are advantages to sprinkling your narrative with them, there are some disadvantages of using metaphors, too. Be careful you don’t make them into clichés. For instance:

He was a brick wall.

Her face was thunder.

These are well-worn metaphors way past their sell-by date. The idea is to think of new ones, something fresh the reader hasn’t read before. The other thing to avoid is mixed metaphor. A mixed metaphor combines incompatible metaphors, creating an illogical comparison. Here are a couple of examples:

Stick that in your pipe and chew it.’  You can’t chew what’s in your pipe, but you can smoke it...

Or what about this famous one...‘Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

The inflated use of similes and metaphors might also lead to hyperbole, which is an obvious form of exaggeration. They are similar to similes and metaphors but are overly exaggerated for effect and sound too much like clichés.

The bag weighed a ton.’ This is not only exaggerated, but also cliché.  Or what about this overused hyperbole, ‘I laughed so hard I nearly split my sides...

Try to avoid hyperbole and mixed metaphors. Think clearly and carefully before choosing a metaphor or simile to help enhance your narrative. Remember to remain new and fresh in the way you want to enhance your writing.


The use of symbolism is an important tool in fiction. It’s a way of creating depth and meaning to your narrative, and it takes the story beyond simple plot or character development. It illuminates the narrative, gives the reader something extra to think about as you sprinkle the story with symbols. Used correctly, they act as clues and hints of what may happen further in the story.

But how do you find the right symbols? That depends on the theme of your story and how you want them to work in relation to the story. A romance story may want to use colours, or flowers. A thriller might use certain people, or repeated objects or words.

Symbols can be anything from words, colours, sounds, objects and similes.

Symbolism is about the relationship between the symbol and the character and/or plot and how this shores up the story as a whole, if properly used. You should introduce a symbol in a way that delicately underscores the story's emotional core and enhances the story.

Shakespeare uses symbolism to good effect in Macbeth. He uses blood as a code to the reader; as a representation of the deep guilt felt by Macbeth. He also uses a raven, which usually represents foreboding and ill fortune, to inform the reader of what is to come.

In my own novel, I use the ocean and the tide as symbols by equating tidal movement to thoughts and dreams and life rushing in and out and crashing over rocks. I planted them sparingly throughout the story, so each time they appear, the reader understands the hidden meaning of the main character’s true emotional state.

Symbols don’t have to be complicated in construction, because even simple ideas work. My favourite symbolism is the gathering of dark clouds to foretell something awful and ominous is about to happen. It’s simple, concise and effective.

The colour red is very evocative. It can symbolise love and romance, sex and death. Black is a dark brooding colour which could be used effectively in the surroundings, or as part of character’s description to represent fear.

There are limitless options. You have to know how the symbols will affect the plot and the character and how it will trigger a response in your reader to know which one to use. Generally, have the symbol appear early in the story, then perhaps at key points in the novel, and maybe towards the end to emphasise the theme.

Always try to be inventive and avoid cliché. Symbols are a way of association and hidden communication with your reader. They say so much in so few words.

Next time: Revealing character through dialogue