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.