Friday, 23 December 2011

Can music help the writing process?

Some writers work better with the sounds of a bustling cafe around them, others prefer the comfort of silence, but for some writers, the medium of music helps them to write better. There is something about the right background music that magically lights the creative touch paper.

Imagine watching a movie without any musical score. Would the emotional, dramatic or action scenes seem right? Would they have any impact? Imagine the opening scenes of Jaws without the clever cello build up of John Williams’ score. Without that creeping sound, the scene loses the sinister feel and it also loses any opportunity to create tension.

And what would the vast visual beauty of Lawrence of Arabia be without Maurice Jarre’s romantic swish of strings to rouse the audience? It would be somewhat empty.

Music and writing works the same way. The right music can create drama, it can affect the mood and it also stirs the imagination.

Of course, every writer is different and it may not work for everyone. But for those who have never really thought about it, the right music can do the following for writers:

  • It helps to create atmosphere
  • It helps to stimulate the senses
  • It fosters creativity
  • It helps you visualise scenes
  • It’s a way of infusing your narrative with heightened emotion and feeling
  • It can create impact

Again, think about how you feel when you hear music in a movie – it’s a perfect accompaniment to heighten atmosphere or tension, to draw our emotions, to rouse us with the action. Let it so the same for your writing.

It’s important to choose the right music for the right scene (although you might be one of those writers who can write sensual scenes to the decibel shattering sounds of Metallica) so perhaps non-distracting music may work better, so that it actually helps you focus on your narrative rather than detract from it. Whatever works for you.

Scene-appropriate music

Choosing the right music for the right scene is important if you want those creative juices to bubble. Light classical or movie soundtrack music is perfect for this because scores can provide the right amount of mood and atmosphere for a particular scene. For instance, slow thoughtful music for contemplative scenes, or upbeat, bristling, stirring music for action scenes, and sad, softer music for emotional scenes.

Instrumental music tends to be better simply because of its composition and melody structure, whereas songs could distract from the actual ‘sound’ of the music because you might have the urge to sing along or tap your fingers to the beat, when instead you should be writing!

It may be that writing with certain types of music can increase writing productivity because it helps the writer focus the tension, the atmosphere, emotions or conflict into the writing.

Also, try to focus on the piece of music you choose, listen to its rich layers and let your thoughts wander. It should stir your creativity and stretch your imagination, after all, these two art forms - music and literature - work in tandem. They are so ingrained in our psyche that the world would seem strange without them.

I write to well chosen movie scores – ranging from John Williams, James Newton Howard, James Horner, Thomas Newman and many others. Each one offers something different and I can tailor the music to suit my writing needs. Some of these come from CDs while others are from online playlists.

There are a number of free online resources for those interested putting together playlists.  Just follow the links: is a free streaming and radio service. offers some free music downloads for your MP3. is also a free streaming service, which I use. You’ll find many movie scores and classical composers here, and you can also create your own playlists.

Background music is just one of a number of tools that can support a writer and in some cases, boost the creative output, so If you haven’t already, why not give it a go? It might inspire you, who knows?


Next week: Passive voice

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Character separation disorder...moving on from your characters

You’ve created your novel, you’ve devoted months or perhaps years to writing it, but then the daunting task of sitting down and starting your next big creation begins, yet somehow you just can’t get into it.

Sometimes writers become so entwined with their characters when writing with them for such a prolonged period that it’s difficult to move on and think about new characters and new stories. Months or years spent sheltering in the skin of their protagonists and antagonists can force a wedge between the writer and their creativity.

But this isn’t unusual for writers.

We grow to understand and love our characters, and sometimes it’s hard to move on from them. Character separation disorder simply means that the bond we have with our well-drawn heroes and villains is sometimes hard to break. When we need to create new characters for new stories and themes, we first have to let go of our first set of characters in order to gain and understanding for the new set of characters.

Of course, this poses a one or two problems, because writers will start thinking things like ‘my new character won’t be like my old character, so how can I possibly write a new one?’ or ‘I miss writing with my old characters’ or ‘I loved the way my hero was in my first novel...’ etc. The moment these thoughts creep in, the creative process might stall.

And if there is an excuse, a writer will find it. 

Why do some writers find it difficult?  

Writers devote time and effort, planning, empathy and creativity within their characters, they have nurtured and watched their characters grow, they have lived through the fictional ups and downs, the highs and lows, and so all these elements are a psychological part of the writer. Those characters will have developed personalities, ways of talking and behaving. They are almost real, and finishing a novel - and therefore finishing with your characters - is rather like seeing children grow up and leave home.

When a writer needs new characters, he or she might make comparisons to the old ones, or simply disguise the same old characters but with new names, however, new stories and themes require new, fresh characters, not old ones masquerading as new. 

How does as writer overcome it?

The best way to overcome this is to allow enough time after completing the novel before sitting down to write the next novel. That time allows you to think afresh, sketch new characters, flesh out storylines for them and get to know them. 

If you don’t give yourself that time, you’ll spend far too much time making comparisons to your old, dearly loved characters and falling into the trap of trying to start a new novel with poorly planned ideas and badly drawn heroes and villains.

It’s also important that you get to the inner workings of your new story before you jump in with both feet – this allows you to form a writing bond with the elements of the story, and more importantly, it allows you to warm to your new characters.

Once you have sketched out new characters, try writing some practice scenes with them. This is a good way for you and them to become acquainted.

You will grow to love your new characters throughout the lifecycle of your new novel, you’ll get to nurture them and go through the emotional highs and lows. They will become an intrinsic part of you, just like the old set of characters, and you’ll enjoy writing with them just as much.

Characters are like family. They come to stay for a while, but eventually they have to leave and go home.


  • Allow time from finishing the first novel to starting the next.
  • Discover your new characters, develop them and get to really know them.
  • Plan and get to know the inner workings of your new story.
  • Don’t compare your old characters with your new ones.
  • Write some practice scenes with your new characters to get a sense of who they are.
  • The more time you spend with your new characters, the less likely you are to think of your old ones.

Next week: Can music help the writing process?

Saturday, 10 December 2011

How being subtle can improve your descriptions

The art of good description is sometimes about intentionally holding back from your reader.

Have you ever watched horror movies where the monster or creature is never revealed until the very end? You only get hints or shadows or brief glimpses. But if you compare them to movies where you see the monster from the outset, while they might be entertaining, you get two very different results.

The reason that not seeing the monster works so well is that, psychologically, it deprives the visual part of your brain from what is, so consequently, your brain has to fill in the gaps, it has to build up a picture of what the monster looks like. It also helps focus tension and atmosphere, precisely because you don’t know who or what it is.

Imagine the same technique in fiction. By not revealing too much to the reader, you not only create a sense of tension and atmosphere, but you also keep them guessing. And by doing that you keep them reading, because physiologically, they have to fill in the gaps.

It is true when they say less is more. Simply by hinting at something within your narrative will fire your reader’s imagination, rather than a reliance of revealing everything in one great chunk of text. Hold back a little; make the readers draw their own thoughts.

Subtlety can actually improve your descriptions, so try not to over-describe. Give the reader something to work with – it could be a word prompt, a colour or a hint of something.

This is a flash fiction piece, called Prelude, a good example of how description can hint at something without going into all the details:

The shape of deception toiled in the strained expression in the window.

The silence of the moment dragged across her nerves, tore a hole in her senses as the sticky residue of rationality dribbled from an overloaded mind. 

Behind her, a figure lay beneath the covers, untainted by such burdens.  

Emotions bubbled beneath the surface. They neither made sense nor soothed, but they forged a path through her resolve. She’d given in to temptation. 

Cold neon reflections flashed across her face. 

Her wedding ring glinted. Guilt clung to her reverie.  

And still the blade in her hand sang to her.

Here there is a build up to what will happen, but I wrote it in such a way that the descriptions speak for themselves without being overbearing and too full on. 

The key words in the first line are ‘deception toiled’. This tells the reader what is on the character’s mind, again without writing seven or eight sentences going into the finer details. A few well-chosen words do all the work for me.

The key words in the second sentence are ‘silence...dragged across her nerves.’ What does this convey? What can you hear in that? And ‘sticky residue of rationality’ prompts the reader to imagine the character’s thoughts and feelings.

What else do the descriptions tell you? What can you imagine from them? What colours might you see? What might you hear?

The closing line implies what might happen, what she will do, all without going into too much detail. There is just enough there to stir the reader’s imagination, to fill in the visual and sensory gaps for themselves.

What I did with Prelude is deprive the reader of many visual aspects – forcing them to imagine more of the story.

Every writer’s mantra is to ‘show, don’t tell’, and it works the same way to tease your reader. Show them, don’t tell them outright. Plant clues, foreshadow, drop hints through narrative or dialogue. Let them fill in the gaps and let their imagination do the work.

Here’s a simple example:

Josh walked slowly to the car, his mind heavy. He opened the door and climbed in, thought about what had happened. He started the car, clicked his seat belt in place, and wondered how he was going to tell his wife, Melissa, that he had been made redundant. He gripped the wheel and drove away with a heavy heart...

Compare that with:

Thoughts fizzled as Josh walked to the car. A cold realisation trickled into his veins. Redundant. Reduced to nothing. The serrated fear of what he would tell his wife troubled him and shame crept in as he drove away...

The reader doesn’t need to know every single movement Josh made, so the descriptions of getting into the car and starting it and putting the seat belt on are irrelevant. What are important are Josh’s feelings and thoughts. He feels as though he is nothing, he feels ashamed. It’s up to the reader to decipher what that means to Josh and his wife, because the hint has been planted.

This style of description also forms part of the ‘moving the story forward’ idea. In a few sentences we know what’s happened to him and the hint about what his wife will say when he returns home moves the story forward to that moment.

Subtle hints work well in dialogue, too, and will help you move the story forward. Read your favourite authors to see how they achieve it.

Remember the following in your descriptions:

· Prompts – visual, sound, colour, shapes,  etc
· Hints – Thoughts, feelings, emotions, events etc.
· Foreshadowing
· Deliberately deprive the reader

Achieving good description isn’t always about describing everything in minute detail. As a writer, you are playing a psychological game with your reader. How good you are with that will depend on how good your description is.

Next week: Character separation disorder...moving on from your characters.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Narrative Oppositions

Firstly, what are narrative oppositions? These are certain words – they can be nouns, adjectives etc - that crop up within descriptive passages, but are actually opposite it their meaning. In other words, the writer is trying to describe a scene and inadvertently ends up using pairs of words that mean opposite things.

This is not uncommon because many writers misunderstand the meaning of some words and therefore group them together. For instance, ‘foreboding’ and ‘forbidding’ mean different things but are often wrongly used together when trying to create tension and atmosphere within a scene. For instance:

The house had a cold, foreboding appearance, forbidding in the dark...’

Forbidding means ‘repellent, stern’. Foreboding means bad omen, an expectation’ of trouble or evil.’

Another often seen example is sob and wail.

‘She sobbed into her hands, wailed into the silence...’

To sob means to cry quietly. To wail means to cry very loudly or bitterly, therefore you can’t have a character sobbing and wailing at the same time, and yet writers mistakenly put these two together. These are narrative oppositions that look as though they belong together, but actually don’t.

Another two words which are commonly grouped together within narrative, but actually mean slightly different things, are moan and groan.

‘He moaned and groaned as the pain rippled through him...’

Because of the way English constantly changes, both moan and groan are now used in the context of meaning the same thing, however, to moan is to whinge about something. To groan is to cry out with pain, but where fiction is concerned, describing a character doing both is a sign of lazy writing, so don’t make the mistake of having your characters moaning and groaning. 

Clarity, simplicity and accuracy should always be at the forefront of every writer’s mind.

Another two descriptive words commonly linked together, is flail and thrash, for instance, ‘he flailed on the floor and thrashed about...

Flail means to swing or wave erratically or wildly. Thrash means to beat or strike with a stick or whip etc, as though to flail someone. They mean similar things in English, but when using them in your narrative, they can cause ambiguity and confusion.

The same could be said for writhed and thrashed. Or writhed and flailed. These are two distinct words of different meanings.

Another example often seen is narrative that has a character shuddering and then quivering.

He shuddered as he looked up, quivering in the cold.

Again, while these two words may indicate similarity, they actually describe different things. Quivering and shuddering are different movements, because quivering is like a tremble, from either fear or excitement, and the act of shuddering is a large convulsive movement, associated with extreme cold or terrible fear. Writers mistakenly group them together thinking they mean the same thing.

And two words that often crop up in romance fiction is husked and rasped, as though trying to evoke sensual allure. But husk and rasp mean different things. One is a deep throaty sound; the other is a serrated, sharp sound. You can’t have your hero doing both.

The beauty of the editing process, however, is that you can remove oppositions like from your manuscript and correct the narrative before it hits the agent or publisher’s desk.

When it comes to your descriptive passages and narrative, use your words wisely and only in context, think about what you want to convey, otherwise you risk losing the meaning of what you’re trying to say, or worse still, you’ll end up confusing your reader altogether.

Remember - clarity, simplicity and accuracy.

Next week: How subtlety can improve your narrative.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Action/Reaction & Dialogue sentence order

Continuing the theme of strengthening sentences, one of the things that I see a lot of in MSS is the order in which the characters do and say things. This may not seem too important, and it’s one of those things we don’t necessarily pay much attention to, however when it comes to clarity, being able to put the action or reaction or dialogue in the right order makes for tighter, polished and better sentences.

And they make more sense, of course.

The aim is to write actions and their reactions in chronological order. Not only does it create clarity but it also keeps the flow of the sentence, without interruption, and it reduces ambiguity. It makes life so much easier for your reader, and by putting the action before the dialogue, it increases the effectiveness of the sentence.

Here’s a simple example:

He grabbed the phone, startled by it.

Essentially this sentence isn’t actually grammatically incorrect, but it does read as though he grabbed the phone first, then he was startled by it, so the order is a little misleading for the reader.

To give it clarity, and inform the reader, it’s better like this:

The phone rang, startled him. He grabbed it.

This version is punchy and to the point and supplies the reader with a chronological order, i.e. that the phone startled the character and is this is followed by his action of grabbing it.

Here’s another example:

He sipped his coffee as he sat down, watched the assembled faces.

Again, while the sentence is okay, it can be much tighter. This tells us he sat down while drinking his coffee and looked at the people around him. There’s almost a hint of nonchalance about him, but if we change the sentence order, it takes on a slightly different feel.

He sat down, watched the assembled faces as he sipped his coffee.

The character’s action of sitting down and then looking at those around him infers that perhaps he is nervous or he’s carefully gauging those around him.

Here’s a typical example of what many writers tend to slip into their narrative, a reaction to action sentence:

She saw the shock on his face when she opened the door.

Here, the writer has opted to show the reaction first (the shock on his face), followed by the action (opening the door). If we think about it logically, it makes more sense to do the action first, and then show the reaction.

She opened the door; saw the shock on his face.

It’s now clear and concise, and it gets rid of the ‘when’ which is of no use whatsoever. More importantly, it sets the correct order of action to reaction.


On the whole, action is better before dialogue. Why? Often the sentence doesn’t read correctly when the person says something and then does the action afterward, like an afterthought. Sentences are tighter and better with action, then dialogue. Not only that, but the placement of action/dialogue can affect how a reader interprets the events/speech.

This is also a way of informing the reader of your character’s actions or thoughts prior to the action. For instance:

‘Hello?’ he said, grabbing the phone.

This sentence isn’t incorrect, but it’s not great either. The character says hello while grabbing the phone, so this causes inadvertent ambiguity. How many of us say hello before we’ve put the phone to our ears? By rearranging the sentence order, the sentence becomes clearer:

He grabbed the phone. ‘Hello?’

This sentence is now unambiguous. The action of the phone ringing is immediately followed by the response. 

The idea is to always make your writing as clear as possible for your reader. Take a look at these sentences and decide which you think work better.

1. ‘So, what happened?’ he said, getting out of the car.

He got out of the car. ‘So, what happened?’

2. ‘I don’t care what he thinks,’ she said, taking a cigarette from the packet and lighting it.

She took a cigarette from the packet, lit it. ‘I don’t care what he thinks.’

3.’I don’t have time for this nonsense,’ he said and stomped around the office.

He stomped around the office. ‘I don’t have time for this nonsense.’

There are no hard rules about sentence order, but having clear sentences that follow a simple chronological order with actions and reactions or dialogue makes for better writing and helps writers improve their writing skills.

Of course, not every single sentence in your story will be like this, but following these simple guidelines will help to improve the standard of your writing. It makes it much easier for your reader, and ultimately, more enjoyable for them to read.

Next week: Avoiding narrative oppositions

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Strengthening sentences with some weeding

The great thing about the editing process is that it’s a chance for writers to weed out the superfluous, the structural errors and all those grammatically incorrect words and sentences. 

A writer should always aim for better constructed sentences. That means weeding out things like adverbs and adjectives, passive sentences, gerunds and making sure the tenses are correct etc.

There are other constructions that creep into our writing without us noticing and that is the use of phrasal verbs or prepositional words.

We write these kind of phrases and words without thinking too much about them, which is why they can end up becoming prevalent in our work.  For the most part, if you want tightly constructed, concise and well thought out sentences, you take need to weed them out.

How many times have your characters decided to do something, or they have begun to or started to do something, or they are going to do something? If you read back through your work, I’m willing to bet a few of these have crept into your writing.

Begin to, decide to and going to. Too many of these phrasal anomalies weaken the sentence structure, unless they are absolutely integral to the sentence or form part of your character’s dialogue.

Begin to

How many times do you have characters "begin to" do things? For example:

He began to make the coffee
She began to cry into her handkerchief

While these sentences are not grammatically incorrect, it is better that the characters take direct action, especially if you have a story in based in past tense, so that it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the narrative.

He made the coffee
She cried into her handkerchief

This tidies up the sentences and makes them much tighter and the flow of action is much better.

Started to

This is very similar to begin to, in that you have your characters starting to do something when instead you can be direct and get them to just do the action.

He started to unravel to the rope
They started to run towards the trees

Again, by using direct action, you avoid slowing the narrative and the sentence structure becomes tighter.

He unravelled the rope.
They ran towards the trees.

Decide to

We can apply the same principle when we have characters ‘deciding to’ do something. Instead of the characters doing that, have them do the direct action.

He decided to look through the files
She decided to make lunch

Again, having them decide to do things creates an unintentional slowing of the sentence structure. Be direct.

He looked through the files.
She made lunch or she prepared lunch.

Instantly you have tighter sentences. The only time you would use decide to, is in dialogue between characters, where they would say these kinds of phrases.

‘I decided to go for it,’ he said.
‘He decided to look through the files,’ she said.

Going to be

‘Going to’ is future tense because it’s stating future events or actions that might take place, for instance, someone is going to be angry, sad, happy etc. Something is going to happen. These usually occur in dialogue. For example:

He is going to be angry
She is going to be unhappy with this
They are going to be so happy with our surprise
I think it is going to rain

Again, it’s about being direct within the narrative and what you want to express, and replacing ‘going to’ with ‘will’. 

He will be angry
She will be unhappy with this
They will be so happy with our surprise
I think it will rain.

Beginning to, starting to, deciding to and going to all create unnecessary pauses within the narrative and slow the pace, particularly so if you have a fast-paced action scene and your hero is right in the action, but then you have him deciding to do something, or starting to do something or going to do something, which creates a stumbling block.

Always remember to be direct wherever possible. Not all phrasal verbs are avoidable, but most are unnecessary and unconstructive within your narrative. Weeding them out will make for better writing and better sentences.

Next week: Creating better sentences: Action /reaction sentence order

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Creating Sibilance

Ever wondered how you can create poetic resonance within your narrative, or you’ve read what you have written and you’ve discovered it has strong characteristic sounds? The descriptive language somehow appeals to your senses to create an extra dimension to the narrative. This is known as sibilance.

Sibilance is a literary device which writers can use to create certain sounds within their narrative, usually a hissing sound with ‘s’ or ‘z’ or ‘sh’ and sometimes a soft ‘c,’ and it is most often found in poetry. These words resonate with the reader, it visualises sound and if done properly, it can bring the description to life.

Sibilance can either appear within narrative or you can use it in dialogue, but as with all writing, it’s about knowing how and it works and where the sibilance should be placed that counts. It’s an effective tool to create multi layers to what might be flat, uninspiring narrative. Besides, effective use of language is what writing is all about and writers should take advantage of all the tools in their writing toolbox.

Sibilance in narrative

Scenes of description can benefit from sibilance, it gives can help create atmosphere, it can draw tension, it can paint a more colourful picture for your reader. 

Of course, using sibilant words doesn’t mean littering a scene in such a way that it somehow weakens the narrative rather than strengthens it, for instance by using every word beginning with s, such as ‘he slowly sank in shifting shadows, senses starved...’

This is overkill and reads more like a shopping list. This is the wrong way to approach sibilance. Remember that sibilant words don’t have to begin with‘s’ to create sibilance.

Here’s an example of how it should be done within narrative.  I've highlighted the sibilant words:

Your deceitful sheen stretched tight across a burnished expression.

Nearly this entire sentence has sibilance. The soft ‘c’ in deceitful, the ‘sh’ sound in sheen and the ‘s’ in stretched is further bolstered by the ‘ss’ in across, ‘sh’ in burnished and finally ‘ss’ in expression.

Notice that not every word begins with‘s’, but that other words which express the softer ‘sh’ and ‘c’ sound and the harder ‘ss’ sound have been utilised.   

This is how effective sibilance works. It doesn’t have to be overt, most often it is subtle, and each word doesn’t have to begin with ‘s’, but the sentence is written in such a way that a reader will notice the sounds created within the sentence on a completely subconscious level.

Here are some more examples:

The sounds brushed against the ears like a soft soliloquy.

Here both the ‘s’ at the beginning and end of the word sounds, the ‘sh’ in brush, the ‘s’ in ears, the ‘s’ in soft and finally the ‘s’ in soliloquy are sibilant.

The light zapped across the sky, an intense forceful, flash.

Again, the ‘z’ in zapped, ‘ss’ in across, the‘s’ in sky, ‘s’ in intense, the soft ‘c’ in forceful and the ‘sh’ in flash all work together to create sibilance.

Sibilance in Dialogue

Sibilance in dialogue works slightly differently to narrative, because unlike narrative, dialogue isn’t describing anything except for the attributions, ‘she said, he said, she screamed, he scowled’ etc.

In dialogue, try not to go for these obvious attributions when instead you can show the reader the emotions of your characters and create the sibilance in the sounds for the reader to hear.

Instead of, ‘I despise you,’ she hissed, try this instead:

Something simmered on her tongue. ‘I despise you...’

Here, ‘something’ and ‘simmered’ is coupled with ‘despise’. All have the‘s’ sound. The reader will hear the slight hiss without you having to mention the word ‘hiss’ because ‘something simmered’ is enough to allow the reader to hear the anger in the character’s voice.

Instead of ‘Get out,’ he scowled, try this:

His face creased, anger slithering up his throat. ‘Get out!’

In this example, ‘his face creased,’ creates sibilance, which is coupled with ‘slithering’ and ‘his’ to create a complete sibilant sentence. The reader will know he is upset from the way the character’s face creases and the anger rising in his throat, so there is no need to say ‘scowled’.

Instead of, ‘Help!’ she screamed, try this:

Shadows closed in, stifling her. Fear seeped into her voice. ‘Help...!’

The sentence does away with the attribution ‘she screamed’ and makes use of sibilance to create atmosphere and show the tension by using the ‘s’ in shadows, ‘c’ in closed and ‘s’ in stifling. This is coupled with the‘s’ in seeped and soft ‘c’ in voice.

This works much better. It creates sounds for the reader and helps them visualise the scene and it also brings tension and atmosphere.

Remember, sibilance isn’t about making every word begin with ‘s’ to create the ‘sss’ sound, it’s about using different words together that hint at the sound. It is such a useful device for writers to play around with. It’s there, so make use of it.

Next week: Strengthening sentences with a little weeding.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Part 3 - Modifiers, Intensifiers and Qualifiers

Continuing on from Part 1 and Part 2 - modifiers and intensifiers - in this last part we’ll look at Qualifiers.

Writers should familiarise themselves with the different types of modifiers so that when it comes to editing, the process is easier.

Qualifiers are a type of modifier; they modify words in a sentence or phrase in a certain way, they qualify adjectives and verbs and provide readers with specific details. In other words, they change how absolute or generalised a sentence can be.

For instance, ‘this sum is very large’ or ‘this sum is a great deal bigger than I expected’, where the words ‘very’ and ‘great deal’ are the qualifiers. Or ‘he came across it almost by accident’ or ‘he came across it pretty much by accident’, where ‘almost’ and ‘pretty much’ are the qualifiers. To varying degrees, each of these has modified the sentence.

Often, qualifiers provide unnecessary padding to your narrative. We use qualifiers in our speech all the time, but when it comes to fiction writing, they should only appear in dialogue, because, like intensifiers and types of modifiers, they weaken the quality of writing.

Many writers mistakenly believe that their narrative needs this sort of ‘padding’, or that if they use lots of ‘rather’, ‘quite’ and ‘somewhat’, the writing sounds better than it is. It doesn’t.

Take out the qualifiers from the above examples and you have much better sentences.

The most commonly (overused) qualifiers are: rather, very, quite, usually, generally, somewhat, more, less, least, so, just, enough, indeed, still, almost, most, fairly, really, pretty much, even, a bit, a little, a good deal, a great deal, kind of, sort of.

Now you can see why, wherever possible, you should avoid these types of words that modify your sentences.

Take this example:

The rain was somewhat heavy as he opened the door.

Apart from sounding vague, the ‘somewhat’ is completely unnecessary and serves only to pad the sentence with extra verbiage. Leave out the ‘somewhat’ and just have ‘the rain was heavy as he opened the door’ and you’ll see that the sentence has immediately strengthened.

How many of these have crept into your writing without you even noticing? Here are some examples that crop up in writing all the time:-

Jane almost collapsed with shock.   (Almost? Either she did or she didn’t.)
It sort of just happened.   (Sort of or not quite, or just stuck in between?)
The house was just around the corner.   (Does that mean right there, half way, further down from the corner?)
Indeed, it was his first lesson.   (Indeed is pointless in this sentence.)

As you can see from these examples, these are the types of qualifiers we use all the time when chatting to other people in everyday life, however when it comes to narrative, avoid littering the story with them because they inevitably weaken the structure and make it look amateurish. They also make the writer appear lazy.

Be succinct and don’t be let sentences become inadvertently vague by using qualifiers.

Of course, as is the case with creative fiction, there are some qualifiers that you do need when writing – all, always, none, never. These are known as absolute qualifiers (a modifier that does not have matters of degree). They are absolute.

It’s impossible not to use qualifiers in the right circumstances, however their use in the wrong circumstances can cause problems, so for the most part, it’s wise to avoid most of them and keep a strict eye on where they end up in your narrative.

As you can see from the various examples, weeding out some qualifiers can make your sentences better and tighter, and now that you can recognise them, it will be easier to edit your work and eliminate as many as possible.

Remember, your narrative should always be concise, tight and sharp.

Next week: Creating sibilance

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Modifiers, Intensifiers and Qualifiers - Part 2

Unlike modifiers, which modify words or phrases, an Intensifier is a term for a modifier that amplifies the meaning of the word it modifies. An intensifier is used exclusively to modify adverbs and adjectives and is placed before the word it is meant to modify. 

In simple terms, the intensifier emphasises adverbs and adjectives - it makes them more intense. The word is derived from Latin, meaning to “intend or stretch”.

In grammatical terms, the intensifier lends no weight to the meaning of a sentence other than to give it an additional emotional nuance to the word it is modifying, however, since they modify adverbs and adjectives, they should be treated in the same way adverbs adjectives – used little and sparingly wherever possible within your writing.

This is where learning to spot them will benefit your quality of writing. Intensifiers are attributive and serve only to fill space, so unless there is a valid reason to intensify the meaning and emotion of sentences, such as in a character's dialogue, it’s in every writer’s interest to know how to spot them and get rid of as many as possible.

The kinds of words that ‘intensify’ adjectives are words such as ‘really’, ‘completely’, ‘absolutely’ and ‘totally,’ etc.

It was a really good show.
It totally took me by surprise
This is absolutely none of my business
They are completely over the moon
She was dead sexy

If we were to remove the intensifiers, the sentences would be better, like this:

It was a good show.
It took me by surprise
This is none of my business
They are over the moon
She was sexy

Now you can see why you really should limit intensifiers wherever possible, because they merely make the narrative clunky and some sentences are totally surplus to requirements.

Not only that, but some intensifiers are so overused in modern day English, it would be like sprinkling your story with dreaded clichés. ‘Totally’, ‘very’ and ‘absolutely’ are two of the most overused and misused words used as intensifiers. Avoid them.

Another important point to remember is that some words are now being used in place of others and so the actual meaning is incorrectly replaced. For instance, the word absolute means ‘complete, unconditional or perfect’, however it has been misused so often that it is now used to mean ‘yes.’ This is not the actual meaning of the word, so using the intensifier ‘absolutely’ degrades the meaning and intensity that you are trying to achieve and it is also grammatically incorrect.

Another one that I hate seeing in MSS is ‘real’, as in "real cute". Once again, its use on this occasion is not grammatically correct and when used other than in dialogue (where it is acceptable as part of a character’s nature), it degrades the quality of writing.

Of course, like everything in creative fiction, everything has its place and purpose, so sometimes the odd intensifier here or there isn’t a sin, but your writing should contain as few adverbs and adjectives as possible, and that also goes for the adverbs and adjectives that you’d intensified.

There are some considerations for intensifiers, too. Some intensifiers are known as adverbs of degree. These are adverbs which measure the intensity or degree of an action, an adjective or another adverb. In other words, the degree of intensity or strength is measured, for instance:

She sang really badly – this tells us how bad her voice was. 

He enjoyed the show tremendously – this tells us how much he enjoyed the show. He enjoyed it very much.

Now contrast the two sentences with other adverbs of degree:

She sang extremely badly - this tells us it wasn’t just bad, it was terrible. The degree of adverb is more intense.

He enjoyed the show greatly – the degree of adverb here isn’t as emotionally strong as tremendously, so as readers we understand the degree of intensity used.

This is how adverbs of degree work. The exceptions to this are that the words ‘moderately’, ‘slightly’, and ‘barely’ are all adverbs of degree, but they are not intensifiers.  

Once again, writers should avoid using degrees of adverbs because it makes the narrative sound as though it has been written by a ten year old.

Intensifier Examples


The overuse of intensifiers in fiction weakens the strength of the narrative, so use a few as possible. Also, remember that the grammatical meanings of some words have been misused as intensifiers, so make sure the meaning you want to convey is not only grammatically correct, but also correct within the narrative.

Next week: Qualifiers

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Modifiers, Intensifiers and Qualifiers

Most people won’t have heard about modifiers, intensifiers or qualifiers, but each one has a distinct meaning within writing and the use of each one affects the quality of writing in different ways.

In Part 1 we’ll look at Modifiers; while in Part 2, we we’ll look at Intensifiers and in Part 3 we’ll look at Qualifiers.

A modifier is self-explanatory; it modifies words or phrases and makes the meaning more specific within a sentence. If used carefully, well-placed modifiers will allow a writer to be a little more descriptive. Badly constructed modifiers, however, will make sentences ambiguous and unintentionally amusing and will also weaken sentence structures.

There two types of modifiers that writers need to understand - adjectives and adverbs.  Adjectives modify (or describe) nouns or pronouns, and adverbs modify (or describe) verbs, adjectives or other adverbs.

When constructing sentences, the general principle is that you should place modifiers as close as possible to the word or phrase it modifies.

For instance, the word spotty is the modifier in the phrase ‘the spotty dog’.
The word quickly is the modifier in the phrase ‘he quickly arrived’.
The word slowly is the modifier in the phrase ‘she slowly sat down.’

‘A cat’ is a simple enough sentence, but modified it can become a ‘black cat’ or a ‘fat cat’ or a ‘mangy cat’ etc. These are examples of adjectives modifying a noun i.e. ‘cat’.

Adverbs can modify verbs, so when constructing a sentence like ‘John ran down the stairs,’ you can modify the verb to: ‘John ran quickly down the stairs.’

Depending on the meaning you want to convey, modifiers can be useful, but they are subject to inadvertent misuse. Look at the construction of these two sentences - they mean different things:

He ate only fruit.
He only ate fruit.

In the first sentence, ‘He ate only fruit’. It means that the character ate nothing but fruit - no meat or vegetables or anything else for that matter.

In the second sentence, ‘He only ate fruit’, means that the character ate just fruit. He didn’t do anything like prepare, cut or cook the fruit. He merely ate the fruit.

Although the two sentences are very similar, they express different meanings.

Using modifiers correctly is easy when you keep them as close as possible to the thing they are modifying.

Here's another example of two similar sentences with very different meanings:

She almost failed every exam.
She failed almost every exam.

The first sentence ‘She almost failed every exam’ means that despite her reservations, she managed to pass all her exams.

The second sentence ‘She failed almost every exam’ means that she passed only a few exams and failed the rest.

The placement of modifiers is critical if you want to express the correct meaning.

Dangling Modifiers

As with dangling participles, writers should also avoid using dangling modifiers wherever possible because they can cause ambiguity and they can also make the sentence weak. For example:

Leaning on the balcony, the dogs barked loudly.

The way the sentence is written, it appears that the dogs are balancing on the balcony and barking. This is because they are the only subject present in the sentence and therefore it causes ambiguity if this is not the actual meaning you wanted to portray.

To avoid the dangling participle, the sentence should be clearer:

As John leaned on the balcony, the dogs barked loudly.

Now the subject, John, makes the sentence much better by removing the participle phrase ‘leaning on the balcony’ at the beginning of the sentence.

Here are some more examples of dangling modifiers:

The sandpaper is the best way to get results. Rubbing on the bottom, the stone produces a shine.

Rounding the corner, the moon glowed bright.

Rubbing stones on bottoms? And since when did the moon start taking a stroll around the corner? These unintended meanings can be amusing, but they are grammatically incorrect because the words ‘rubbing’ and ‘rounding’ dangle in the air without any meaning. This is a dangling participle.

They are better like this:

The sandpaper is the best way to get results. The stone produces a shine when rubbed on the bottom of the sandpaper.

As she rounded the corner, she noticed the moon glowed bright.

Now both sentences make sense, nothing dangles in mid air. In the first sentence, the reader understands what rubbing the sandpaper will do. In the second sentence, the reader knows that the subject sees the moon as she moves around the corner. There is no ambiguity and the both subjects are clear within the sentences.

Misplaced Modifiers

Misplaced modifiers happen when some words sometimes end up next to the wrong word and thus change the intended meaning. This causes yet more amusing ambiguity.

I saw the moon poking through the curtains.

‘Poking through the curtain’ is misplaced because the intended meaning of the narrator looking through the curtains and seeing the moon is changed by the placement of the modifier, which in turn makes it look as though the moon is poking the curtains.

The correct way is: ‘I looked through the curtains and saw the glow of the moon poking through.’

A famous example of this humorous effect comes from the 1930 film Animal Crackers, with Groucho Marx as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding:

‘One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas I'll never know.’

Remember that the intended meaning can be misinterpreted if the sentence isn’t clearly written.

Let’s take a typical simple sentence like ‘Tracy picked up the knife’ and modify it.

Dependable Tracy Evans picked up the knife gently because she was very careful about sharp implements, but then she quickly dropped it, coughing with fear when she saw the blood on the blade...

Modifiers used within the sentence:

Adjective: Dependable
Adverb phrase: picked up the knife gently.
Adverb in adjective phrase: very careful.
Adverb: quickly
Participle phrase: coughing with fear

This is an extreme example showing most modifiers in one sentence, but it gives you an idea where they should be placed. Used carefully, modifiers help to bolster the narrative, but it’s wise to consider their careful construction to avoid amusing ambiguity and sentence weakness. Not only that, but gaining a little more understanding of them will help weed out the obvious incorrectly placed modifiers or dangling modifiers in your writing.  And the general rule still applies: although not totally unavoidable, where possible, cut down on the adverbs and adjectives and limit them within your narrative.

Next week: Part 2 - Intensifiers

Monday, 3 October 2011

How to Make Description Sparkle

Firstly, there’s description, then there’s description.

Description is one of those wonderful writing elements that you can bend and shape and mould and make it what you want it to be. It’s not fixed and it’s not governed by absolute rules. If a story were a canvas, the description is the colour; layers and layers of it to make the picture a whole.

So how do you go about transforming dull, boring description into something a little more lavish or evocative? It all comes down to that old adage: show, don’t tell. Show the reader, involve them, but don’t tell them.

The descriptive element of any narrative is there to assist the reader, who cannot see the world your characters live in unless you paint it for them. The reader, in effect, is without any sensory detail, unless you provide it. It allows the reader to see this descriptive world, not just read about it.

That descriptive detail is the difference between someone reading your work and enjoying it or not reading it at all.

Descriptive writing is incredibly important to every writer. Description should convey more to the reader than just a setting or a bit of action; it also conveys the hidden nuances, the emotions, the colourful embellishments or the subtle hints of things to come. Description is so much more.

Of course, creating sparkling description isn’t all about making sure every paragraph is jammed with descriptive passages, because it’s easy to overdo it. On the whole, a writer should instinctively know when to add those extra elements and when to leave it fairly simple.

Whether description comes alive or remains turgid, it all rests on the one factor that all writers should pay attention: choice of words, the way they fit into the scene, the way they sound, the sibilance they create and the overall effect you want to achieve with them. And of course, always make the description pertinent to the scene and the characters. Don’t just plonk a bit of description in here and there to pretty things up a bit – it doesn’t work. Make it count and make it mean something.

The words you choose and the way you construct the sentences are what really makes description sparkle.

Here’s an example of one of my flash pieces, published in 2010 in the 6 Sentences anthology, The Mysterious Dr Ramsey, with the original descriptive elements removed.

Sounds drifted in, like vibrations, where the universe came back into view and my eyes opened to life. 

I turned my head to the brightness and reflections shone with a muted glow, while dust filtered through sunbeams, the particles glittering as you approached.

Now compare it to the original excerpt, complete with description:

Sounds drifted in, like water-muffled vibrations, where the universe came back into view and grey shapes dissipated as my eyes opened to the majesty of life like a slow, unfolding flower. 

I turned my head to the brightness as honey layered clouds and Midas reflections shone with a muted glow, stark against a cobalt blue sky while dust filtered through angled sunbeams, the particles glittering like traces of tinsel and dancing as you approached.

The choice of words above makes the entire scene feel very different. The right amount of description coupled with the right selection of words make a big difference when trying to transport the reader to the fictional world you’ve created. 

Think about the scene you are writing – is it tense, atmospheric, romantic, action packed? The words you choose should reflect the feel of the scene you’re trying to create.

There are a few types of scenes which could always benefit attention where description is concerned:

Key scenes (action, emotion, atmosphere etc)

Usually, key scenes - action scenes, emotional scenes, tense scenes and so on – all demand that little extra where description is concerned, otherwise you’d end up with dull, flat, uninspiring rubbish that fails to keep the reader interested. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of these types of scenes and exploit them to create more emotion, heighten conflict or atmosphere etc.

Location Scenes

Location scenes also demand something extra. It’s no use your character being in a great location – be it vibrant city, the countryside or the beach - when the reader can’t feel or sense the place because of a lack of detail.

Introduction scenes

Scenes where you introduce your characters are always ripe for a little more descriptive flourishes because they give the reader something more than the clichéd ‘he was tall and lean’ type of description.

Introducing new characters sometimes needs elaboration rather than a boring two-line mention which often happens.

Where you have quiet scenes, scenes of conflict or dialogue scenes, there is always room for some descriptive flourishes to make the writing stand out.

It’s all in the detail

Details – the ones we sometimes overlook – can make the writing better. This is where observation plays an important part of the writing process. How many writers might ignore the patterns on a floor made by the sun through the windows? How many would ignore the sound of rustling leaves on trees? How many would overlook the myriad colours of a sunset?

Sometimes it’s the simple things that catch our attention. Description is no different. A good writer is very observant; everything provokes interest – the way a stream meanders through woodland, the way mist clings to the ground, the way fog vapour swirls etc. Things you wouldn’t think twice about are the enticing little brushstrokes within description that sing from the page. 

For instance, your character is walking through an airport. This is where many writers go for the ‘John walked through the arrivals hall and went outside to get a taxi…’

John walked along the narrow beams of light created by the sunlight that filtered through the huge shuttered windows and he headed for the exit to get a taxi, his mind still whirling from what happened in London…’

A little flourish with the sunlight, a reference to what John is feeling, all make the scene pertinent. Remember, it doesn’t have to be pages and pages of description. Just a few sentences or words can dazzle, or even a couple of paragraphs. 

Another thing to consider is the sibilance of words within scenes. If there is an action scene, then short, punchy staccato descriptions push the pace along, however if you have a love scene, then the description should reflect that – it will be slower, and words like sensual, sweet, seductive or sexy add sibilance to the feel of the scene.

Consider this:

Lena drew back, tears brimming, unable to speak.

There’s nothing wrong with this, however, the power of the emotion in the scene can be exploited.

Lena’s lips stung with his kiss and she drew back into the shadows, eyes brimming, veiled, unable to speak above her latent fear.

Again, it’s about choice of words and this second example brings the scene alive with what she is feeling within her surroundings, and her reaction to a kiss, and it’s all done with a few extra words. That’s how you make description sparkle.

  • What is it you want to express?
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Observation – it’s all in the detail. Readers love those little nuances.
  • Add layers of colour.
  • Sensory details – explore the five senses
  • Choose the right descriptive words for the scene – action scenes, love scenes, emotional scenes etc
  • Create sibilance and rhythm.

I’m away for a well-earned break, so the next article, Modifiers, Qualifiers and Intensifiers, will return on the 22nd October.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Why Being Wordy Isn't a Sin

Firstly, the wordiness in question is not really about the long-winded round-about-way in which we write sometimes or the use of too much verbosity, but rather it’s about being wordy in a narrative/descriptive sense.

Being wordy can create awkward sentences, but when carefully crafted, some sentences actually leap from the page because being wordy is what is actually needed.

There is a lot of debate about the use of big, flowery words in literature and how appropriate they may be within the context of the piece, but many critics sometimes forget that writing is all about expression and the freedom of a writer to express him or herself in whichever way they want. That’s what makes every writer unique, after all.

There are no hard and fast rules that state that big or literary words can’t be used in fiction, because they can, as long as they’re not over used and they’re placed within the context of the story. For example, flowery words that most people have never heard of before wouldn’t really sit too well in a dark, gritty action thriller and likewise, the use of raw, street-style descriptive words wouldn’t fit with a romance novel. Words have their place.

They also have effects that have the right moment, too. Their effectiveness depends on what you want to express.

That aside, there is a lot of advice out there says writers shouldn’t use big or flowery words and that modern editors prefer plain English, but the proof of this is, for the most part, unpalatable and depressing - most books on the shelf are all pretty much the same and some contain some really dull, uninteresting description - there is nothing in the voice that resembles anything fresh or powerful. Nothing but sameness is evident because of this trend for simple, straightforward English.

Writers sometimes need those kind of words sprinkled into their narrative, and they need personal expression, because without being wordy to a certain degree, nothing would be written in the first place. Adding the odd big word or two isn’t bad, nor is bringing boring, stilted description alive with a few colourful strokes.

Choice of words is what counts, but it’s also about what you want to say and how you choose to say it that matters.

The idea is to create elegance and colour with descriptions, to wrap the reader in a visual kaleidoscope and let them enjoy all the shades you breathe into your story, instead of losing them in a flourish of fancy words. Fancy words mean nothing if you don’t understand why and how to use them. You can still be clear and concise with what you want to say, but you can do it with colour and flair.

I despair at some of the MSS I receive for critique because so many writers follow this ‘plain English’ mantra and produce lacklustre drivel. Why? Because they haven’t grasped how or when to use the right words, and they haven’t mastered the colours of description.

This is an excerpt from a flash fiction piece called Zero Hour:

A gentle breeze brushed past him, soft and delicate like a butterfly, and he felt invisible, wispy fingers of comfort against his greying skin. He gazed up at the sky; saw the strange, layered clouds, full with moisture and melancholy.

By keeping it plain and simple, you would you have the following:

A gentle breeze brushed past him and he felt invisible fingers of comfort against his greying skin. He gazed up at the sky; saw the strange clouds, full with moisture.

They are both fine, but one creates a deeper, richer picture, one doesn’t. One of these might be considered too wordy, the other is concise. One brings depth to its descriptive framework, one doesn’t. One tells the reader, the other shows.

You decide which one is better.

Here’s another example of how it’s done, with a 100-word flash fiction piece called ‘A Bad Colour’.

Amber slices projected through the trees, the haze of the fire began to swell. The hint of burnt sienna wafted close, scorched a path beneath their noses.

Rope fibres moaned as they became taut, to temper the weight.

Shadows appeared through the smoke, circled him. Milk coloured robes flapped in the breeze, bathed by the fire glow, their faces hidden by hoods.

Red over black; the colour of life slinked down his skin, snaked down the channels they had gouged through his flesh. Open viscera gleamed.

He swung from the tree as the cross burned; the price for being different.

If I had written A Bad Colour in a plain English kind of way, it would be about as interesting as rainwater in a bucket.

Of course, no entire novel is constructed this way, but it shows that being a bit wordy helps the narrative and description in certain places. As the writer, you have to know when it’s needed and what words to use. So, being wordy isn’t a sin. It’s a way of expression. 

  • Choose the right words
  • Ask yourself - what do I want to express?
  • Is it better to be dull and concise, or better to be a little wordy?
  • Is your description dull, or does it bloom with colour?
  • Is your description and narrative lost, or does it rise from the page with added dimension?
No one can argue that excessive long-winded or verbose narrative is good, because it isn’t, but occasionally there will be times when it’s just necessary because it falls into context of the story and it actually brings the narrative to life.

Being wordy isn’t bad, it just means that we can be rebellious every now and then in the face of the literature police and just express ourselves the way we want to, how we want to.

No one would tell Picasso or Rembrandt how to paint, and likewise we don’t tell writers how to write. We can only show them how, with advice, to be better.

Next week: How to make description sparkle.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Part 2 - How many rewrites is too many?

When it comes to rewriting, a writer can only do so much before it’s time to let go.

I mentioned in the previous article that five edits seemed to produce a happy medium – not too few that the work is not yet complete and things are missed, and not too many that the work is spoiled beyond repair and so I’ve used it as a working example.

Five stage editorial drafting process

First Draft – This is the raw material of any novel. This is the bare bones, the jumbled stream of thoughts and tangents that you’ve thrown into a messy mix in order to create your story. 

Second Draft – The read through and first edit helps you look at how the story flows and also pinpoints obvious mistakes like grammar, sentence structures and plot flaws and unnecessary scenes. 

You can start to ‘flesh out’ the story with more narrative, dialogue and description at this stage as well as forming those subplots and themes.

Third Draft – Another full read through to further tighten sentence structures, add more information, more narrative or dialogue and so on, and also fill any gaps with research so that the story isn’t left with gaping holes of made up nonsense and inaccurate information.

You might also cut some scenes or rewrite others to tidy the manuscript and make it tighter.

Fourth draft – You should, by now, have a tight, fluid story devoid of plot flaws and errors; it should read well and make sense and the narrative, dialogue and description should be balanced.

Overall it may only need a minor tweak here or there.

Fifth draft – almost perfection. I say almost because we all know, there is no such thing as perfection (unless you are a perfectionist, which is a completely different story). But this is the final draft, the one you will send to an agent or publisher. This is where THE END really does mean the end.

You have reached the ceiling – any more drafting could potentially spoil the novel, any less and you may not be satisfied with the finished product because some things might still be missing. 

Again, I would point out that we are all different, and because of that, we all need different levels of balance and that means finding our own ‘ceiling’.

The five-draft magic number is one I have used over the last 25 years because personally, I do suffer with perfectionism, that need to attain the highest standard in my eyes, and I fell into the trap of the infinite loop of writing, rewriting and more rewriting in the never ending cycle for perfection. I had to force myself to follow a formula that would stop me redrafting a novel from now until the end of time.

I soon realised that this type of rewriting exercise was counter-productive, and I would have never been published otherwise, because I would never have been satisfied that I had finished.

No one said writing was easy, because it certainly isn’t, but we can help ourselves as writers to lessen the pressure we heap on ourselves in the hunt for ‘perfection’ or ‘complete satisfaction’. We can make our lives easier by maintaining strategies and formulas that work for us rather than against us.

Your personal drafting process might be five edits; six, seven or eight edits etc, whatever feels right for you, but then you have to stick to the formula you’ve created. 

Know at each drafting stage what you need to do with your manuscript and what you want to achieve – just like the five stages above - and make sure you follow it. Setting yourself these targets will help you in the editing process and hopefully stop unwarranted editing that could, potentially, spoil the story.

The truth is, no story will ever be completely finished, because a year or ten years from now, you will look back on your story and figure that you can make it better. It’s the nature of writing, we’re writers, can’t help ourselves – everyone does it. 

Set a target of how many edits you realistically need, and stick to them. That way you edit with confidence, you will know it’s the best it will be and you can send it out into the world and get on with the next project.

Next week: Why being wordy is not a sin.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

How Many Rewrites is Too Many?

Anyone who has ever followed a recipe will know the importance of the measurement of ingredients when cooking. Get the balance of ingredients wrong and you could spoil the outcome. This is also true with rewriting.

The question is, how many edits is too many? Is there a golden number? Can a writer edit a novel
ad infinitum, or is there a danger it will eventually spoil the whole thing?

The answer is as individual as the writer, but it’s all about balance. Every writer knows the importance of redrafting and editing and many worry about how many drafts they should go through before a story is ready for the world, but it’s about finding a balance that works for the individual.

Let’s look at the main problems of re-writing.

Lack of rewrites

On the whole, a lack of novel edits underscores a writer’s inefficiency and lack of experience because not even established writers can write a perfect story in the first draft – they may take several edits, and first time writers certainly won’t achieve acceptable standards under three edits.

Many writers don’t invest time in rewriting and redrafting prior to sending their work to agents or publishers and they don’t always realise that there is still a lot of work needed on their novel. That is one of the many reasons some MSS are rejected immediately without a second glance.

It’s surprising how many writers believe they can write a fantastic, publishable novel in no time at all, and with hardly any re-writing. If they can, they are a genius. And I’ve not yet met one.

Without a doubt, the first two drafts of any novel are unpublishable.

Main problems with too few edits:
  • Potential problem areas – like plot flaws - haven’t been spotted.
  • The story isn’t yet strong enough to be considered completed.
  • The writer hasn’t noticed spelling and grammar errors.
  • The writer hasn’t paid enough attention to the art of novel writing.
  • The writer has rushed the whole thing.
  • Overall, there is a higher chance the novel may be rejected because of all the above. 

Too many rewrites
In complete contrast to too few edits, there is the problem of too many rewrites. Eventually, redrafting will just spoil the novel - there is a danger that the story you set out to write ends up so ‘surgically’ enhanced that it no longer resembles the original story – the intrinsic core of the story has been lost.
This is a particular problem with perfectionists, who draft and re-draft in a constant battle for a near perfect story and continue on an infinite, self-propagating cycle – novels will never be published because nothing will ever be sent out because the writer is never satisfied or not confident that it’s not perfect enough.
It’s not unusual to find these kind of writers on their 8th, 9th or even 10th draft - they’ve been working on the book for many years, decades in some extreme cases. They always say ‘one more draft and it will be complete', but that one more draft turns into another and another...and so on. It never truly ends.
Of course, not every writer is a perfectionist, but it’s worth remembering that re-writing a novel has the potential to become infinite with rewrites, and ultimately unfinished, and only you can break that cycle of rewriting and editing your work in a constant battle for satisfaction.
Another problem is that sometimes it’s easy to become so bogged down with the intricacies of the story – to become so close to it or completely immersed in it - that you no longer see blatant errors. Sometimes it’s hard to stand back from your work and see it in a different light.
The best way to counter this problem is to send your work out to agents for for critique, then you will get the kind of feedback you need in order to progress. It will help you understand where you might need to improve and it might also help you step back from the entire novel and look at it with a fresh perspective.
Main problems with too many edits:
  • Writing ad infinitum in the belief you can make it better – it ends up spoiling the story.
  • The writer loses sight of the importance of the novel because of too many drafts.
  • The novel loses strength after numerous re-writes and becomes weak.
  • The writer is never satisfied with the result, so the self-perpetuating cycle continues – the curse of perfectionism.
  • The writer become too close to the story to notice any errors.
  • The story becomes stagnant beyond repair. 
It’s a balancing act not to rewrite too much, because there is a limit to how much you can improve a story. Eventually, there comes a point when re-writing becomes counter-productive and writers have to learn to understand when that point is, where their own personal ‘ceiling’ lies.
If you have gone past five, six or seven edits or more, try to step back from the story and ask the following questions:
  1. Can I realistically improve the work further?
  2. Have I spoiled the story’s intrinsic core?
  3. Have I become too close to the whole thing that I can’t see the errors?
  4. Can I trust someone to give me thorough, positive feedback to help me establish points 1 and 2?
  5. Am I brave enough to send it out to publishers and agents?
  6. Can I make this the LAST draft? Do I really need to rewrite?
  7. Am I brave enough to accept defeat on this novel, learn from the process and move on?
  8. Can I work to a realistic threshold from now on?
The simple truth is that it’s just not practicable to rewrite for eons. There is a ceiling, a point where you have to stop, and in my experience over the years, I have found that the most productive number of edits is five.
infinitum and spoiled the whole work.
In Part 2, I’ll show how the five stage editorial drafting process works.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

How Character Development can Drive Conflict

A well-developed character is one that a reader can connect with on several levels and one that they will remember long after they’ve read your story.

If you’ve managed to build your character, developed him or her, made them overcome their flaws and weaknesses throughout the story and they have emerged a stronger, better character by the end of it, then you will have engaged the reader not only on an emotional level, but also on a metaphysical level.

All the fears, emotional difficulties, limitations, faults and obstacles the character endures is what your reader will feel, too. Not only are that, but all the conflicts the character has to undergo, are the same ones the reader will share.

How does it Work?

The character is always in a constant state of flux. From beginning to end, there is a constant cycle of conflict, decision making, actions, consequences and development.

There is a simple way to illustrate a character’s path:


The idea is to make your character face almost impossible situations and to test their mettle, to play on those weaknesses or flaws and make them overcome them. This is where tension comes into play, because inner conflicts – the emotional kind especially – drive the character’s development and forces them to change.

Their personal development depends on overcoming those conflicts. If they don’t develop, don’t overcome their flaws or weaknesses, then they will have gained nothing by their experiences and neither will the reader.

Facing their Fears

Another way is to make your main character face his or her deepest fears.

This is a two-fold strategy: the fear is the basis of their conflict – it could be anything, like an object, a person (external conflict) or it could be an emotional or psychological one (inner conflict) – and the development of the character, the strength to rise above and overcome, drives such conflict and therefore they will emerge a changed person at the end of this process.

For instance, I write dark, psychological fiction, I like to explore the human condition, and I’ve easily rendered horror-laden scenes, and yet there is one fear I’ve not yet fully faced – the fear of the dark. Even now, it causes conflict and tension whenever faced with this fear – especially if I don’t have a choice, i.e. a power cut.

One day I may find the strength to overcome it and in so doing it will change me. The same is true of your characters.

Your character’s development depends on your ability to be ruthless; stress them, hurt them through ongoing conflict – emotionally and physically, (remember, the reader is a pillion passenger on this rollercoaster ride) – throw everything you have at them so they grow stronger and better and they work to overcome your fictional onslaught. Remember, characters don’t always make the right decisions so this side of their development also creates conflict and tension, because whatever the choices they make, there will always be a consequence.

The main characters in your story – protagonist and antagonist – both have goals so they are in direct opposition to each other = conflict and tension = consequences. How they reach those goals is up to the writer, of course.

Force their Hand

Another way to drive conflict through characters is to make them do something they would never normally do, something that might conflict with their moral code or their sense of values and personal ethics.

When faced with something that might go against our beliefs, we are faced with a near impossible situation. How do we overcome it? Sometimes we are forced to do something that others might not expect of us.

What of the character had to kill someone in order to protect his or her family? Could they do it, even if it was against their beliefs?

Force them into a corner, force them to make near impossible decisions. This creates conflict and tension, and how the character resolves the situation forms part of his or her personal growth and development.


Some writers make their character fail some of their goals. Even if this happens, the character would have gone through the experience and changed as a person. If there is no change then there is little point to the story.

We’ve all experienced failure – it creates conflict - so how will your character cope? Will they be a stronger person because of it? Is it hard for them to fight back and win the day?

Everything our characters do, the decisions they make, all affect the story pathway and thus it continues to create conflict and tension at every turning point.

Give them problems to solve, make them do things they wouldn’t normally do, force them into corners, force them to make life changing decisions, hurt them, let them develop with these conflicts, but above all make sure their motivation is not lost so that they emerge a different person by the end.

Next week: How many re-writes is too many?

Sunday, 28 August 2011

How to Drive a Story Forward

Every story has to proceed to its logical end. How a writer reaches that end is an important process. 

When we refer to ‘driving the story forward’, we mean that the story must have momentum and structure to engage the reader right to the end, but it must also impart necessary information without everything stalling part way through.

It’s a constant within fiction writing – the story needs to move on without dawdling on unimportant, boring stuff. If that happens, your reader will either fall asleep or give up. As Elmore Leonard once advised, cut out the parts that readers skip. In other words, get rid of the boring stuff to allow the story to move on. Readers don’t want to know what your main character had for breakfast, whether he made tea or coffee and what he decided to do with his day while he watered the plants – they want to get right to the heart of the action.

There are several ways to drive a story forward – Use of dialogue, character motivation, conflict, plot twists and pacing all play a part in providing momentum.

To start with, dialogue is a great way of imparting information for the reader and moving the story forward. The way to do that is to make the dialogue count.

Take this example:

‘The restaurant looks busy tonight,’ John said, looking around. ‘Last time we came here it took ages for the food to arrive and it wasn’t all that good anyway, but now it’s under new management hopefully things have improved because I’m starving, I could eat a whole cow.’

‘I noticed they have your favourite wine on the drinks list, too,’ Jane said. ‘I know it’s expensive but we should treat ourselves, since you’ve now made Chief Executive.’

‘Yeah, why not?’ 

This conversation isn’t actually going anywhere nor doing anything other than filling up white space. It does nothing to move the story forward, a common flaw. Cut the unnecessary chitchat and get right to the point. For instance:

John eyed the restaurant, kept his thoughts to himself.

‘They do your favourite wine,’ Jane said. ‘Splash the cash. You’re Chief Exec, we can afford it.’

His expression darkened...

This reveals far more, and yet uses fewer lines. Why would John keep his thoughts to himself? Perhaps he doesn’t want to share them with his wife. And she seems more interested in spending his money than he does. This is characterisation through dialogue, but more importantly, it doesn’t hang about, it moves the story on.

Concise dialogue not only engages the reader, but it moves the story on in terms of what may happen next, or what might be expected.

Character motivations are often revealed through dialogue, too. In real life, some people let slip what they really think and feel when they are talking – the ‘real’ person behind the persona comes through. Our characters should be no different. What your characters really want and how they’re going to get it provides a catalyst – it moves the story forward.

Motivation drives the action, which in turn drives the story.

Conflict - the backbone of any story - also drives the story because readers will want to know what happens to conflicting characters at the end of the story. All the types of conflict you create act like fuel in an engine – it provides power and thrust. And of course, readers will be desperate to know if the good guy wins over the bad guy by the end of the story.

Plot twists are another strategy to use. A reader will not be expecting it – so a turning point or major revelation should leave the reader wondering what will happen next. You should be constantly revealing information in your scenes to keep the reader engaged – elements of the plot, bit by bit, pieces of a jigsaw that your reader will be mentally solving. This information revelation pushes the story forward.

Pacing is another way for a writer to move things forward. Vary the action and drama scenes with slower, reflective scenes where the characters, through their thoughts and actions and dialogue, can once again impart necessary information and move things along for the reader.

Each scene you write must advance story. Remember that it is a constant within writing – character motivation, internal and external conflicts, building and solving problems within the plot, revealing characters and above all, revealing necessary information all work together to move the story forward.

All these elements must have momentum...if they don’t then the whole thing could bore the reader. Make things move. Keep them moving. And the reader will enjoy what you write.

Next week: How character development can drive conflict.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Making the reader care about your characters and themes

The themes that run through your novel are the drivers that create the emotion behind the plot. 

Themes like love, hate, rebellion, revenge etc, are all emotive; they have the ability to move us on many different levels. This happens because we recognise and understand those themes – we’ve dealt with some of them first hand and we’ve experienced many of those emotions.

You can have many themes running through your story, not just one.

And of course, without the characters to drive those themes, a reader would have nothing to care about.

Getting the reader to care about your characters is important, and empathy is key. A reader needs to recognise qualities in your characters that are inherent within themselves. Without empathy, the characters won’t connect with the reader.

Writers need the reader to care what happens to their characters, to read to the very end of the novel, because doing that will help a reader care about the entire story.

What makes us care?

The situations and obstacles that your characters experience, together with emotive themes like those already mentioned, helps create immediacy with the reader, especially if they’ve gone through similar situations, because then they can empathise with your character, they have experience of it.

Realistic experiences become the foundations of the themes we choose. Things like the loss of a loved one, being bullied, becoming parents, landing in trouble with parents, peers or teachers, losing a job, or perhaps finding love, seeing the world, getting that dream job etc. Most people have felt many of these emotions at some point in their lives. 

Experiences play a significant part in making the reader care about your characters. They see these experiences and understand the difficulties your character faces. You’ve created empathy.

Likable Characters

The people we like are the kind of people just like us. By giving your characters realistic personalities you endear them to the reader - they will be looking for exactly the same qualities as they would choosing a friend.

Complex, emotional and often conflicting characteristics make for the most intriguing characters. Your reader might identify with the extrovert, or the shy and retiring, or the bold and brassy characters.

The likability factor goes a long way in making the reader care about your characters.

Opposites Attract

Of course, it’s not just likable main characters; readers love a good villain, too. The polar opposite of your struggling protagonist - the darker personality of your antagonist - will have the ability to stir the emotions of your reader in a slightly different way; they will dislike the villain by virtue of his or her actions, and by doing so you further bolster their bond with your protagonist.

Readers want to see the main character win the day, to triumph over the villain, or situation, to know that by the end of the novel the main character will have overcome all the troubles and obstacles the writer could throw at him or her. Readers want a satisfying resolution (a happy ending is a bonus), so this alone will keep their vested interest in your main character.

Inflicting the Worst

The one thing that does stir emotions is the theme of pain. This can take the form of emotional pain, physical pain, psychological pain or inferred pain. It’s the one emotion guaranteed to grab your reader’s heartstrings. 

With enough empathy created through a character that is easy to identify with, whose struggles the reader can understand, whose persona the reader likes, they can therefore feel the pain of whatever the writer throws at their characters, the reader becomes immersed in that emotion.

Emotions drive all of us. It’s part of our dynamic make up, so emotions should drive your characters too - their goals, their desires, their needs, their disappointments, their failures.

Give them terrible situations to deal with, almost impossible obstacles to overcome. Their struggle will become a theme in itself, and will hook the reader to find out what happens to your main character by the end of the novel.


  • Create empathy, create immediacy
  • Create characters that readers can identify with
  • Create sympathy for your character’s situation
  • Create emotive themes the reader will understand – the motivation that drives the story forward – love, hate, revenge, death etc.
  • Make characters believable and interesting
  • Create antagonists a reader would love to hate
  • Inflict pain upon your characters, make their lives hell, make the reader feel for them  

Think about the characters that you connected with in films and literature – characters you liked – did you root for them, did you cry for them, did they make you smile or laugh, or did they make you angry, sad or indifferent? 

Did they make you feel for them? Above all, did they make you care

If you can accomplish the same, then you can make the reader care about your characters and create a story they will thoroughly enjoy.

Next week: The importance of driving the story forward, and what this means.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Importance of the Opening Chapter

To continue the theme of the previous article about how to tease your reader, one of the most important devices for luring the reader is the opening chapter of your novel.

Why should you write a compelling opening chapter? Because it is your chance to first grab the editor’s attention, then hopefully it will grab your reader's attention.

Your potential reader is discerning. They take only a few seconds to read the first few lines before they decide to buy your book. Those first few lines will be the difference between getting the reader to carry on reading, or being left on the shelf with other unread novels.

Think of it like fishing. You have to hook the reader first with your bait – the opening chapter. Then you reel them in bit by bit with the rest of the story, until the final chapter, when you can finally let them go.

How can a writer do that?

There are many ways to do it, but you should aim to seize the reader’s attention and curiosity from the very first words. 

There are lots of things to get right in a first chapter. It’s very easy for writers to become carried away and forget about to tell the reader about the obvious things like the setting, the nature of the conflict or even the name of the main character.

Your reader needs to know where and when the story is taking place and who the main character is, right from the outset. Remember, writing is about subtlety, so you don’t necessarily have to overload the reader with details. Instead, hint at these and let the intrigue do the work for you by creating curiosity about your character and his or her situation.

Always start with your protagonist rather than minor characters; otherwise you could confuse your reader as to whose story you are telling. You need to have your character connect immediately with the reader.

Most novels quickly establish what’s going on by having the character active within in the scene, as opposed to writing a long block of description about what the character is doing, where they are going, who they are meeting, what they might have for dinner etc. In other words, open at a turning point in the character’s life; a moment of change, a crisis - get the character involved straight away.

Don’t spend four or five pages writing about the lead up to the turning point of your character’s life, the catalyst that propels the story – jump right in at that important moment. By getting the character involved, it means you also are also getting the reader involved. For example:

John left work just after five and made his way to the train station. He meandered onto his usual platform to wait for his train and thought about his stressful day. He hoped tomorrow would be better, but his thoughts were broken by a loud noise to his left, an explosion

This would bore your reader. Instead, try something like this:

The explosive flash snapped across the train station and ripped John from the platform…

That will instantly spark curiosity and a need to know what happens next.

Don’t make the opening complicated and don’t write pages of boring back story or the character’s life history either, because this will instantly kill any intrigue or curiosity you’ve established. Back story can come later by sprinkling information throughout the novel as it progresses.

You idea is that you need to create a sense of immediacy straight away.

As well as opening a chapter with action, you could start it with dialogue, particularly if it’s a strong, catchy opening line to whet the reader’s appetite. Dialogue helps establish your character’s personality, it will set the scene and it will inform the reader of what is happening at that precise moment in the character’s life and it will also establish POV.

Let the reader share the dilemma your character faces at every opportunity.

The opening chapter can be atmospheric, tense, puzzling, action packed…as long as it grabs the reader and keeps them enthralled as to ‘what happens next’ without giving too much away.

Remember to end your first chapter on a climax – and invite the reader to read on.

What not to do…

  • Don’t use clichéd openings, like the now famous, ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ This speaks for itself. 
  • Don’t spend three chapters setting the scene with no hint of your protagonist until page 4.
  • Don’t use boring dialogue to open your novel – be dynamic, get the reader’s attention and stir their curiosity.
  • Don’t start off with the weather. Bring the weather in later, but avoid wherever possible beginning your novel with it, otherwise you may fall into the cliché trap.
  • Don’t start with minor characters 
  • Don’t open your novel with the weather. 

Read the first chapter of famous novels or your favourite authors. What method has the author used to introduce the main character and the conflict of the story? How much description or action and dialogue are there? Is the setting and the tone established straight away?

Don’t worry too much about your opening chapter when you write your first draft because the tweaking and polishing comes from the editing process afterward. You’ll have the time to reflect and think about how you want the chapter to open, how you will hook your reader, entice them and tease them.

It’s not uncommon to move chapters around at the edit stage and replace your opening chapter with another one, or rewrite it completely. How you do it is up to you.

Mickey Spillane summed it up perfectly: “The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.”

Next week: Making the reader care about your characters and themes