Saturday, 25 February 2012

Getting the Pace Right

Pace is like the heartbeat of your story - sometimes it’s steady and relaxed, sometimes it races at breakneck speed.

Pace dictates the speed at which your reader moves through your story. Skilfully done, it can speed things up and slow them down with equal measure, all without the reader really noticing, so getting the pacing right really is a fine art. Do it correctly and it could heighten your reader’s experience, but if you get it wrong, your reader won’t want to read any further.

Pace isn’t just about the rate at which your story is told, but it’s also a clever way of blending action, emotion and tension. And the way to achieve that is to choose the right words for the right scene.

Pace is all about momentum – whether fast, slow or steady. Whichever way, your reader wants to feel that rate, to feel swept along or to feel a gentle lull. The idea is to vary that momentum, to move along steadily, then ramp up the action and pace, then slow things down to allow the reader to reflect, and so on. Without this pacing, a story might fall into the trap of becoming the clapped out old banger chugging along a barren road at a steady 35mph until the very end. There is a risk that the monotony will send your reader to sleep.

The Elastic Band method

The best way to get to grips with pace is by thinking of your story as an elastic band. If you stretch an elastic band, it becomes taut and tense, but if you slacken it, it becomes relaxed and soft. This is exactly how your narrative should be.

The important elements of your story – crisis points, action scenes and conflict scenes – should be tautened, and the pace altered to reflect that. This means the writing accelerates.

Softer, reflective scenes or gentle emotional or romantic scenes etc, represent a slower pace (and a slackened elastic band). This means the writing is more descriptive and full with flourishes, which decelerates the speed of the narrative.

By alternating the faster scenes with slower ones, your reader will enjoy the excitement and thrills of the action, but they will also get much needed respite in softer moments and therefore they are able to share those moments with the characters through the use of empathy.

Milk the Potential

Never miss the opportunity to kick the pace into another gear where it presents itself, otherwise, you will have missed the opportunity to milk the reader’s attention and interest at key moments, but don’t force the pace if you think your narrative is lagging, otherwise you will end up with something contrived and stilted. Let the action develop and grow naturally.

If the narrative is lagging, go back and find out why – it might be in need of some brutal editing.

Choice of words

Choice of words also affects the pace of the narrative. Where action is concerned, be brisk and to the point. If you have a fight scene, don’t spend seven paragraphs beautifully describing the nuances of each character’s movements. Instead, get into the thick of it and use sharp, staccato or abrupt words, like punch, hit, shock, thrust, whack etc. Brevity is the key to action scenes.

Longer descriptive words slow the pace; words like stroll, amble, meander etc, or softer words. The narrative will immediately reflect that mood.

Remember the elastic band – so just when the action scenes reach a crescendo, bring the reader back down and slow the narrative. This is the most effective method of varying pace and tension. And just as the reader gets comfortable, yank that rug away and bring in the action again. 

A story should be like riding a rollercoaster. It can be deceptive, it may seem gentle, then it rushes you over the edge, sweeps you down, races along, then lulls momentarily before rushing you up and over once again...

Remember that both conflict and emotion play an important part with pacing. Wherever there is conflict there will always be a slight increase in pace. Wherever there is emotion, the narrative becomes softer and slower.

The key is to vary the pace. Take your reader on that rollercoaster, and don't forget that elastic band...

Next week: Turning points – critical moments in a novel explained.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Writing by numbers

Not unlike painting by numbers, writing by numbers - writing to special creative writing programs – is just one of the ways to help writers pen their bestselling blockbusters, but therein lies a problem, because many of these software programs often claim it’s a sure fire way to publication and success.

The reality, however, can be quite different. Writing experience, and the quality of that writing gets you published, not a computer program. 

It’s better to do the work yourself because you’ll feel much better about your accomplishments, and you’ll learn so much more about the writing processes.

But does creative writing software actually work? 

It can be useful to a degree – they provide an overview of novel writing methods and they help writers understand some of the writing processes. Their selling point is that they offer the framework for which to create your novel; however, not one of them will tell you how you apply some of the most important aspects when it comes to writing - sheer hard work, determination and the ability to write.

None of them will tell you how to actually write a novel.

That’s because there is no correct way, no right or wrong. You approach writing in the way you want to. Writing really is that unique.

And the ironic thing is that the resources and formats that some of these programs offer are already on your computer. You don’t need any fancy interfaces or pretty screens to organise yourself or write your work, you don’t need special indexes or a hundred ways to organise your scenes. In fact, by the time you’ve messed about inputting names of characters and clicking on various buttons and so on, you could have hand-written a full character analysis and moved on to the next character.

Take a close look at the majority of programs and you’ll find they are about organising – organising chapters, indexing characters, creating scene and chapters lists etc. Some programs have name and title generators, so they even remove that creative process from the writer.

One famous writing software program even has a menu so you can list all your scenes. But you don’t need that. The scenes are already there, in your story. You are only creating more work for yourself in an already long writing process.

If you have something that does most of the work for you, is there any point in trying to be a writer when you are not actually learning anything in the process?

Just write. Read and edit, then re-write etc. That’s it. The true heart of novel writing is nothing more than that.

Because so few of these programs actually get to the technical graft of writing, novel writing software is a bit of a misnomer. Realistically, ‘novel organising software’ is more accurate. And in the time you’ve spent organising all the menus and lists and indexes and screens, you could have written 10 chapters of your novel.

Despite the drawbacks, people do use these software packages, and are happy with them and that’s fine – it’s what works for the writer. Writing is a personal, individual activity, as personal as the writing itself.

For the most part, buying a good fiction writing guide is a much better idea (and costs less), and will help writers establish a familiarity with writing, with relevant advice on what matters. They can offer writers ways to improve, they can offer guides on the kind of technical aspects writers should know about when structuring their writing. More importantly, they show writers how to write.

Do you really need novel writing software to help you write by numbers?

Well, in truth, no. Sometimes, the best way to find your own success is to tread your own path and not rely on the one someone has paved for you. 

Fiction guides and websites are much better because many are written by writers with the experience and the success to know what they’re talking about.

Primarily, writing is about writing, not organising.

Have you ever painted by numbers? The result is a bit forced and flat, but in the end, it doesn’t teach you how to paint. It’s the same writing by numbers.

Of course, you should gain as much guidance and information about writing wherever possible, by what means you feel comfortable with, but the best way to find out your own writing worth is to work hard and do it yourself.

Next week: Pacing – getting it right

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Part 2 - Positive ways to emulate your favourite authors

As previously mentioned, our favourite authors play an important part in our development as writers, especially for those who are just starting out.

Everyone is different; everyone has something different to offer. By reading different authors and genres, you will get a feel for the kind of writing that is established and successful, so by reflect on differing styles of writing helps us to nurture our own style of writing. 

We’ve previously touched on the reasons why we shouldn’t copy other authors, but we can learn a great deal from them by finding and developing our own inspiration and creativity.

Studying other writers allows us to see how they develop the structure of their stories. In other words, they show us how a balance of description, narrative and dialogue is used, how they bring in conflict and resolution, how they quicken and shorten the pace, how they draw out our emotions.

It also allows us to see the voice of different writers – it could be soft and literary, urban and gritty, laid back, laconic...etc. And they also teach us about the different viewpoints and how they’re used to best effect.

Established authors can show us how they have developed plot and themes throughout their stories, as well as subplots, and we can see how these different strands all come together cohesively in such a way that it produces a seamless tale.

We can study how authors create mood and atmosphere within their stories and how they create tension around the story and their characters. We can see how well developed the characters are, how they make us feel, whether they create empathy and emotion. If they did, how did they accomplish that? If not, why not?

The unique thing about different authors is their take on how they use language to communicate their stories to their readers. This relates directly to that unique sense of voice and style, but the way in which a writer expresses him or herself is vitally important – the use of language is perhaps the most exclusive aspect of a writer. 

By studying the way they use language effectively, writers can learn how to better express themselves.

The one thing writers always worry about is beginnings and endings, so by looking at the way your favourite authors do it might also help you formulate how you begin and end your stories.  There are no specific rules, but look at how they achieve this.

More importantly, reading your favourite authors acts as a motivational catalyst – it creates a desire to write; it motivates creativity and inspires us to be the best we can be.

They teach us so many things and it’s how we put that knowledge to good use that matters. Writers should take positive aspects from their favourite authors and use it to bolster the creative framework for writing.

Summary - What can we learn from other authors?
  • Writing Structure
  • Writing Style
  • Writing voice
  • Viewpoints
  • Creation of mood and atmosphere
  • Creation of tension and conflicts
  • Development of characters
  • Use of language
  • Development of plot and theme
  • Beginning and Ending

Becoming influenced by other writers is inescapable, but rather than copy how they write, and cheating on your own limitations, instead expand on your own style of writing and you’ll find yourself becoming a better writer who discovers their own style and voice and sense of language in the process.

By all means, learn from other writers, be motivated and let them inspire you to be the best writer you can be, but don’t copy them.

Next week: Writing by numbers – does it work?

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Emulate but don’t copy – Part 1

We all have favourite authors and poets. We all enjoy the way they create and weave their literary magic. They inspire us, motivate us and help us grow as writers; however, that’s where writers should draw a line because it’s easy when you start out fresh to writing to want to be just like your favourite authors, and that can lead to all sorts of problems. 

The main drawback is that many writers tend to copy favourite authors thinking that this will bring published success. But is copying them such a bad thing?

There are several problems with copying, or trying to be too much like the authors we admire. Here are some of the pitfalls:

  • Lack of voice
  • Lack of style
  • Nothing is learned
  • Their mistakes become your mistakes
  • Bad writing habits

Many new writers read the likes of Stephen King or JK Rowling or David Baldacci et al, and are immediately predisposed to that style of writing, they want to be like those writers, but they forget that for years, these authors have developed their own unique ‘voice’ and style and literary nuance, but this is something that all writers must find while developing their own way of writing. 

Lack of voice

Borrowing someone else’s ‘voice’ just doesn’t work. Established authors have their own distinct tone and style; they’ve spent years perfecting their craft, to hone that unique ‘sound’ in their work. So when someone tries to write like that, it becomes forced and contrived. Also, there can be a distinct lack of creativity within the work, simply because the writer hasn’t taken the time to grow and develop his or her own voice.

The ‘voice’ is like a fingerprint. It’s exclusive to the writer and should, once developed, distinguish you from other writers. It’s a powerful device - people will get to know your writing because of your writing voice alone.

Lack of style

This brings us to style, or lack of it. Trying to write the way a famous writer does may mean you can’t develop your own style.

Like ‘voice’, writers must also develop their own style. This could be lush and descriptive, it could be sparse, it could be gritty, it could be literary etc. Whatever the style, it should speak to the reader it its own way; one that the writer has cultivated and developed themselves through practice.

If you are writing too much like other authors, taking their tone and technique and approach, you will find that you don’t actually learn anything as a writer. Writing is always a learning process. The more we write, the better we become. 

Trying too hard to write in a style that isn’t really you will come across as false and dull. Your style is yours alone, no one else’s.

Nothing is learned

As previously mentioned, writing is all about learning. Being published doesn’t mean a writer stops learning. Writing development never stops. Relying too much on the way your favourite writer does it means that you bypass that learning process – nothing is learned. 

Writing the way we do, with our own voice, our own style, means we learn about the craft, we learn about ourselves as writers – what we’re good at, what we’re not so good at, and through that process, we create our own path to improvement.

Be inspired by others, practice, learn, but don’t copy.

Their mistakes become your mistakes

Established authors make mistakes, some famous ones are not beyond dropping a few howlers too, so when new writers find themselves copying the way their favourite authors write, they also assimilate the kind of mistakes that all writers should avoid, things like tenses, poor sentence structuring, telling but no showing etc.

Make your own mistakes and learn from them, but don’t copy others’ mistakes because ultimately you will become ignorant to becoming a better writer.

Bad writing habits

That brings us to bad habits. Ever had driving lessons from your parents, then when you get a driving instructor, you’re given contrary advice and told how to do things properly? That’s because you’ve picked up your parents’ bad habits. The same is true of writers. No writer is immune; we all have bad habits. 

The problem here is that beginners become so focused on trying to be a writer that they absorb everything from their favourite author, and that includes bad writing habits (things like hanging participles, fragmented sentences, alternating tenses, lack of observation etc) and they use them in their own work, thinking it will immediately get them published.

By all means let other writers influence the way you might like to write, but don’t copy them, otherwise you end up ambushing the legitimacy of your own work.

There is nothing wrong is emulating other writers, their influences are hugely important to fellow writers, but don’t be a poor imitation. Be your own writer.

Next week in Part 2, we’ll look at positive ways to emulate your favourite others without the need to copy them.