Saturday, 30 July 2011

Confidence in Fiction Writing

There will come a point when every writer’s confidence slips, or they hit a barrier (usually physiological) and in turn, it affects their writing and they find themselves trapped by self-doubt. 

Usually this is a short lived blip and writers pick themselves up and get back to writing, but on a more serious note, some writers cannot return to writing at all because their confidence has been shattered.

So what makes a writer lose confidence?

  • Negative feedback on a writing piece
  • Rejection
  • Family and friends
  • Ourselves
Firstly, you may have given your work to a peer, teacher, or fellow writer for feedback on your manuscript or story, but sometimes the comments are not very constructive.

Critiques, for instance, are designed to find flaws with your writing and help you improve to become a better writer. Good critiques should be constructive and helpful, however when they are overly negative without the support to correct the errors in your writing, this can severely knock your confidence.

Negative feedback instantly equates in the writer’s mind that the writing is rubbish.

If feedback or critique is what you want, give the story to several people to read rather than just one, because this means you’ll receive positive as well as negative feedback and therefore it’s balanced. That way you can see that your writing is essentially on the right track, it’s good; it just needs a bit of tweaking.

The most common cause of any writer’s lack of confidence with his or her own skills and talent is the rejection. Nothing kills confidence faster. 

You’ve spent months or even years working on your masterpiece only for it to be rejected out of hand. It feels like a punch in the guts and almost immediately, a writer will think they’re rubbish. 

In reality, rejection means that the story is not quite ready, or it’s wrong for the market, not what the editor is looking for, or isn’t quite strong enough etc. Leave the story for a while and then go back to it and work on it a little more – take on board any feedback from rejection and make the story even better.

What about family and friends? They don’t always help. They may not understand why you prefer the company of your computer, or how important writing is to you. You might receive negative comments from friends who put you down because of what you do, or they read your work and don’t provide constructive feedback.

The thing to remember here is that they are not the expert. You are. Go back to the story and make it stronger and better.

Of course, the worst offender when it comes to losing confidence is ourselves. 

A writer can spend months writing and editing and polishing, they’re ready to send to agents …then suddenly they think actually, it’s not that good…it may need tweaking…what if it’s complete rubbish? I’m a mediocre writer. I’m not as good as Stephen King or Lee Child or Dean Koontz (or whoever your favourite writer may be)…

The self doubting spiral is the most destructive. We often question our skills and ability as writers, because often we tend to compare our own writing with other writers who we think are good and that just makes us feel inadequate.

The feeling of being not good enough is when confidence is at its lowest point, we stop cultivating our self belief and this can easily turn into writer’s block.

Remember that with writer’s block, the problem is not the story, but rather the writer.

You have to constantly remind yourself that have the raw talent; otherwise you wouldn’t have started writing in the first place. Everyone starts at the beginning and writing is a constant learning curve.

You can turn self-doubt into a positive aspect, rather than let it stifle your creativity and thought processes. There are ways to get out of the vicious circle of self doubt and lack of confidence in your writing:

  • Revisit old stories or unpublished work and see if you can improve them.
  • Join a writer’s group – positive feedback is a great way to spark ideas and get you writing again.
  • Spend time away from your writing projects and do other things. You don’t have to feel guilty doing that because when you return to your project you’ll have renewed enthusiasm to write.
  • Write regularly – try poetry, short stories, flash fiction, articles. Writing regularly encourages growth in the craft and helps a writer improve.
  • Practice, practice, practice.
 
Keeping confidence while writing is all down to how to apply yourself. Take on board constructive criticism, ignore the negativity, turn it around to your advantage and let it spur you to work harder at creating a great piece.
 
The more you write, the better you become and the better you become, the more confident you’ll be with everything you produce. The more confident you are, the less likely you are to slip into self doubt.
 
No writer is born with the mastery of the craft. It takes years of learning and understanding it, and, as the cliché says, practice does make perfect.
 
Above all, be proud of your work.
 
Next week: How to tease your reader.
 

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Part 3 - The Importance of the Read Through

Continuing on from last week, we’ll look in more detail at the most common flaws found during the read through of a novel/short story and ways in which a writer can correct them. 

Pace

Pacing is one of those things where it is sometimes hard to find a balance. The story shouldn’t race along without pausing for breath, but at the same time, it shouldn’t plod to the point of boring your readers. It needs to fluctuate steadily, slowly building up to a crescendo – the ultimate tease for your reader.

Pacing problems often occur because there is little description to slow the narrative down or there is too little dialogue to support it. This sometimes occurs in the first draft and is easily corrected at the read through stage by making notes to add more description to bolster the narrative or to add more dialogue where necessary in order to break the pace and achieve that balance. 

Impossible situations

Sometimes a situation created by a writer might look like a really good idea, but a closer look might reveal some fundamental errors in its plausibility and sense of realism.

It’s easy to create these kinds of situations - we’re too busy writing to worry too much about glaring errors, not until we read what we’ve written find those mistakes. 

Here’s a simple example:

You’ve created an action scene within an airport, with people chasing the hero. There’s mayhem and guards/police with guns, but our hero manages to give the security guards the slip and escapes...because it always happens in the movies that way, right?

Well, no, not in real life. Airports are fastidious with security. CCTV cameras watch your every move. Armed security is around every corner. Plain clothed police patrol airport areas, so if the hero did try to escape, you would need to find a plausible way of making that happen, considering his chances would be extremely slim. How will he dodge the CCTV? How will he escape armed police or security patrols? How will he move through the crowds without causing a panic and giving his position away?

All these things can cause plot headaches; anything can happen in fiction, but the situations must to be plausible in order to engage the reader and convince them.

Fiction is just that, it enables writers to make readers suspend a certain amount of disbelief; but remember, writing isn’t like the movies. A writer always has to show a reader why and how things happen. The implausible must become plausible.

If you spot impossible situations within your story, make notes to research thoroughly your subject so that you can come up with ways your hero might be able to get out of and around a tight situation. There are always ways, but the writer must find something credible and tangible if he wants to keep the story within the realms of reality.

Continuity

This is where you have to pay attention when reading your story. Whether you commit a character, a place or situation to a story, make sure you stick to it. Know your characters thoroughly – don’t inadvertently change their eye colour half way through the story, or they take up smoking by chapter 28 without a preceding hint of doing so. Consistency makes perfect continuity.

Places sometimes change – a small town mentioned early in the novel might have changed name by towards the end of it, or moved location without you even realising.

Objects mysteriously change too - a knife used in chapter 5 might suddenly change to a gun in chapter 18. The name of a yacht, say, shouldn’t mysteriously change to something else halfway through the story.

The read through will weed out these minor inaccuracies. Make notes on each chapter, list the changes to you want or use the margins if you’ve printed out your MS, do whatever is best for you to keep track of the errors and ways to amend them.

Places

As with your characters, you should thoroughly know your background setting, because the more you know, the less likely you are to make a continuity mistake. Know beforehand the places your story will take place; do your research, even if the places are only minor mentions.

Don’t set a novel in New York and inadvertently place the Statue of Liberty in the wrong location, or use London as a backdrop and get road names wrong.

Writers should aim for accuracy within their work, no matter how insignificant something might seem. That means spelling the place name correctly throughout.

If you don’t spot these errors, your reader certainly will.

How you go about rooting these problems out is up you as a writer. Many writers simply make a numbered list of the errors they come across while doing a read through. They can then go back and tackle each problem once the read through is complete.

Some make notes in the margins on the manuscript, which I like to do – useful for immediate thoughts and ideas. When I go back to the problem area to correct it, I can refer back to the notes I made and incorporate those ideas.

Others writers do a full chapter-by-chapter checklist, making notes and ideas on each one – what needs to change, or be corrected, what needs to be cut etc.

Each writer is different. The important thing is that the errors are spotted, noted and corrected ready for editing.


Next week: Confidence in writing – or lack of it

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Part 2 - The Importance of the Read Through

Continuing on from last week, we’ll look in more detail at the most common flaws found during the read through of your novel/short story. These are typical errors rather than case specific, the kind that every writer should be aware of, and more attuned to, when reading through work.

Pathetic Plotting

Stories need a lot of thought where plots, subplots and subtle twists and turns are concerned. That’s because they all need resolving satisfactorily by the end of the story. 

In simple terms, this means providing the reader with something believable and tangible rather than something that is contrived, forced, ridiculous or highly unbelievable. Any first draft story will have numerous weaknesses where plot is concerned. The read through will flag these for you to address. Weak plots will instantly show up, as will gaping errors within the narrative.

If you don’t resolve them correctly, then you’ve created a plot flaw and your reader will spot this. All issues in your novel/story must be addressed. 

Also, a plot demands that you don’t create something you can’t plausibly unravel without creating a huge headache trying to resolve it. Don’t make impossible situations with in a plot (more on this in part 3). 

It’s advisable to outline how the story will take shape – use it as a rough guideline, a skeletal framework from which to work. Preparation and planning helps you focus your ideas, design subplots and possible twists, and it keeps a writer from straying too far from the story.

If holes open up within your plot, examine why this is so, then go back and attempt to fix them (plausibly).

Logic First

Every story must be easy to follow and it must occur logically. If the story doesn’t make sense in certain parts, you must go back and examine why and then fix it. The whole story must make sense, not just bits of it, otherwise you will weaken the story.

Every story is borne from preceding events. Logic demands that for every situation within the plot, a resolution must follow. For this reason, new writers should try not to make the plot too complicated, otherwise you could end up confusing your reader, plus it will just cause more headaches in the writing process trying to resolve them. 

There is a tendency with some writers to resort to deux ex machina when they run into plot trouble. This particular ‘get out clause’ means, roughly, "God out of the machine", and refers to a writer acting in a God like manner when a seemingly complicated problem or situation is suddenly solved in contrived, unexpected and often unbelievable way.

For example, the hero is imprisoned by the villain, and the hero’s love interest is thrown into the ocean for shark bait…but suddenly the police swoop in to rescue her (having made no mention of police or implied their intervention in preceding events), thus leaving the hero to fight the villain and win the day…everyone lives happily ever after. This is classic deux ex machina.

Every event in the story has a timeline to follow – chronologically – so an event happens, an obstacle for the protagonist is created, and then the situation is resolved by said protagonist in a satisfactory manner. Everything occurs logically.

Terrible Characters

Another problem that arises during a read through is the lack of depth from your characters. Often they don’t feel right, or you feel that something is missing from them. This is invariably because they lack emotional depth; there is little personality that comes through for a reader to empathise with, there is no substance to who your characters are. 

Thinly drawn or vague characters will weaken any story because without a clearly visible personality, emotions, imperfections and faults etc, there will be no descriptions attributed to them within the narrative, hence the problem of shallow characters that don’t feel right or are missing something.

Make sure your characters have a fully formed background, a range of emotions,full personality traits and character flaws. They need to be as complex and as fragile as real people.

A writer will instinctively know during a read through if something doesn't feel right, or something doesn't work, or the characters just aren't interesting enough.  It's imperative that these common errors are found before the manuscript finds its way onto the editor's desk.  Finding them and fixing them is all part of the writing process - it shouldn't be left to an editor to do the work for you.

We'll look at how they can be fixed next week, and ways in which you can improve the process.


Next Week: Part 3 – Pacing problems, implausible twists, continuity and places.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Problem solving - spotting plot flaws and mistakes

The importance of the read through.

A writer can breathe a sigh of relief when the first draft of a story or novel is complete. Months of blood, sweat and maybe a tear or two, have gone into creating your masterpiece, and any writer knows that the editing process is the most important part of writing a story. 

Reading through your narrative from start to finish means you get to digest the story as a whole, because while writing the story, you rarely focus on the intricate goings on. You might move from one scene to another or one chapter to another during the process. Some writers don’t write in chronological order – some write the ending before the beginning, so it’s hard to gauge how the story will actually read.

The purpose of a full read through is that you can read the whole thing in its entirety. This is where large problem areas - not just grammar and punctuation – things like plot holes and glaring continuity mistakes, pacing and characterisation should be addressed. 

What are the common problems?

Whenever I do critiques, I come across an array of common flaws and problems during the initial read through, which I’ve listed here. We’ll look at each one in closer detail later.

Plots - One of the main problems a writer encounters is the plot flaw, a structural weakness in the story when you read it back, for example, if a murder happens in chapter 4, don’t get carried away with the story and forget to tell reader who did it when the story concludes. They will spot this error even if you don’t.

Here’s another example: you have a character on the run from the police. He is able to use his mobile telephone and his bank account to help him, but during the read through you realise that the police will have the technology to track the cell phone, and the numbers he dialled, and they can also trace his whereabouts through the use of any ATMs. This in turn will affect the story outcome, and you end up changing it. 

These kinds of flaws are often overlooked because we become so engrossed in writing the story that we forget the smaller details. Those small details can be very important.

Making sense - There might be sections of the story that just don’t make much sense, or the story trails off on a tangent before returning to its path again. Often the narrative takes a strange turn from the actual theme of the novel or story, thus becoming something else. Plots should unravel logically, they should stick to the theme and they should conclude satisfactorily.   

Characters - Your characters don’t leap off the page, they seem flat and unappealing. That’s because they need emotional depth and personality and a fully formed background. They need individuality that gives different behaviours, qualities and traits. That means character continuity – don’t have Joe Bloggs with black hair in chapter 7, then suddenly change to brown hair and glasses in chapter 19.

Pace – You seem to read the story in no time, it feels a little rushed. That means there is not enough description within the narrative to balance the pace. If the story seems to plod, then it is likely lacking in some action and description to bolster the story. Narrative is flat without description.

Impossible situations - Another common flaw, and by far the easiest to make, is that writers often find that they’ve created impossible situations within the story. For example, the protagonist must infiltrate a tightly secured facility full of dozens of armed security guards…how does he accomplish this, single handed, in a believable manner?

Situations have to be believable – your protagonist is mortal and flawed, not a God or a superhero.

Continuity - We’re all guilty of this one. The rug in your protagonist’s front room is brown in chapter 2 and mysteriously turns white in chapter 6. Or the age of your characters change halfway through the story. The significance of an item that forms a murder clue in chapter 7 vanishes from then on, leaving your reader clueless...all these are common continuity errors. You should pick up on these during your read through and correct them.

Places - Place names, building names, countries and so on often cause problems particularly if there is significance attached to them. So many writers lose track of the names of places in their story that they are often overlooked, misspelled, or the name changes. For instance don’t have a character with properties in Spain on page 100 refer to the same properties in Bulgaria on page 170 during a conversation with another character. Watch out for spelling of certain place names too.  Make sure you get them right.

All these problems are easy done, but the read through is designed to weed these errors from your MS. Next time we'll look at these problems in more detail and the ways writers go about solving them.

Next week: Part 2 – looking at these problems in detail.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

How Writing Flash Fiction Can Help You Become a Better Writer

Flash fiction is a bit of an art form. It squeezes a very short story into a very tight space, which could be anything from 50 to 500 words. It’s concise and to the point – it has to be.

Its very nature means that every word counts. Unlike short stories and novels, where you have room to explore things like characterisation, setting and plot etc, flash fiction affords no such luxuries. This means being economical with words and sentences, yet bringing forth the right exposition, narrative and description. It also means, to a certain degree, that it must have a rudimentary beginning, middle and end.

Like short stories, flash fiction should observe the Greek Unities:
  • Flash fiction covers the bare minimum time frame.
  • It should take place in one location only.
  • The action should remain from POV, two at most.
Telling a story in as few words as possible but with as much narrative as you can allow, requires discipline and thought to the craft of writing. If you have 200 words in which to tell your story, you have to begin and end the story in those 200 words, and where possible, to include some description, dialogue and narrative (though not necessarily all three, depending on what you write).
 
It all sounds very easy, but it isn’t. It’s about making a sentence from four words instead of ten, it’s about relating your theme in a few simple words, it’s about creating expression from little more than a few sentences, it’s about creating a whole thing from very little.
 
How does this improve your writing?
 
The very tight, concise nature of flash fiction demands the best of a writer. It makes you strip writing down to its bare minimum and focus on the important elements. When you come to write full-bloodied short stories and novels, you can build upward from these stripped down elements.
 
This kind of writing also forces a writer to find a great closing line, because sometimes that closing line makes the entire flash fiction story; it leaves a lasting impression with the reader. Doing this kind of exercise can help you find those little teasing closing lines at the end of your chapters.
 
Writing flash helps a writer focus on the best words to use and the most effective words to use. It makes a writer examine the very worth and meaning of words.
 
It makes a writer understand the balance of narrative, dialogue and description in writing.
 
It makes a writer appreciate exposition. Showing rather than telling, in so few words, will help you improve how you write exposition.
 
It forces a writer to examine every paragraph, every sentence and every word in much closer detail and eliminate unnecessary words.
 
It makes a writer appreciate which words work and which ones don’t – it makes the writer appreciate the structure of prose.
 
It makes a writer pinpoint their character – the reader must resonant with him or her with only a few words of dialogue or description to work with, so a writer must make the character count.
 
I recommend writers to go and try writing flash fiction because it’s one of the best disciplines around for writing. After a few practices, you will find your writing will have improved instantly, because it will make you focus on what is most important in writing.
 
Here’s an example of one of my flash fictions, a story of 100 words:
 
Slowburn
 
Her stomach churned like an acidic tide, washed against her insides. Her ribs shrank in the deluge of adrenaline, squeezed her.
 
A sulphurous hue freckled her skin. She leaned over the rail, waited for the bilious torrent, yet it stayed in her stomach, coaching the swell into a thick sickness.
 
Ocean froth hissed in her ear. She heard the excited Irish horde behind her.
 
She peered up; saw Liberty’s golden flame poking through the mist. 
 
Amber tinted fear pooled in her eyes. Her father’s semen remained warm between her legs, but his blood was cold on her fingers. 
 
Cold.
 
© A J Humpage 2011
 
You will find plenty of flash fiction sites on the internet, like 6 Sentences, where you have to write a story in six sentences. They have competitions too, the best ones making it into publication. If people like your story, they will offer feedback.
 
Another one you could try is the weekly flash fiction challenge found at Lily Childs Feardom, where you’re given three key words to write a flash fiction story around, and it can be anything you like as long as it contains those three key words. Not only that, but other writers will offer valuable feedback on your entry and Lily will also do a summary of your piece as part of the judging process. 
 
This really is a great way to get a feel for your writing, but to get feedback from other writers too, some new to writing, some a little more established, and some that have been published and have years of experience to offer.
 
Get disciplined and give flash fiction a try!
 
 
Next week: Problem solving – spotting mistakes and flaws.