Saturday, 28 April 2012

Author Intrusion

It’s one of those things that sometimes sneak into the narrative without the writer noticing and it’s not until an editor points them out that you realise you have a problem.

But what exactly is author intrusion?

Primarily, it is where the author personally intrudes the story, quite often unwittingly; they place a large proportion of themselves within the narrative, either through description, actions or through their characters and dialogue.  

Author intrusion is very common. In truth, there is always a tiny bit of us in our characters, but every character should be individual and different. And more importantly, they should be very different from the writer.

They key to spotting them is to understand what they are and how they affect your writing. There are several ways intrusion happens.

Firstly, writers very often use their own personal opinions, personal prejudices, their judgements or subconscious thoughts in their writing. Opinions, likes, dislikes, passions and pet peeves have no place in fictional writing. If, for instance, you are vehemently anti-smoking, you must not let your personal views on it pervade your characters by having them spout anti-smoking views, (unless you specifically have a character who, by his or her nature, is that way for a valid reason connected with the story – and only then their views should not invade the story). This is the most common type of intrusion.

Don’t like certain religions? That’s fine, but don’t let your personal view into your writing by having all your characters disliking religion. Can’t stand sport? Don’t let your dislike spill into your characters, their actions or the surrounding story.

Remember, you are not your characters, and they should certainly be nothing like you. That means having characters that are religious or spiritual, or they love sport, and that they do and think things very differently to what you do.

Never let your characters become your personal mouthpiece. If you have characters speaking your direct opinions and views, then you’ll find yourself moulding other characters to suit, because all of your characters are defined by actions and reactions. That means you’ll have characters responding to things that would, essentially, seem out of character for them. And the moment they start doing that, you start to lose the cohesion and integrity of your story.

The kind of things the writer really loves or is passionate about might also creep into the characters he or she has created. A passion for cars might manifest, or a love of animals etc, and then before the writer can control it, characters have turned into someone completely different – their creator.

Just because you might love different things, doesn’t mean your characters will. This kind of intrusion is indulgence.

Another sort of intrusion takes the form of knowledge and awareness; the kind of knowledge only the writer would possess, not the character. These kinds of intrusions allow characters to know preposterous things, such as a character having an intimate knowledge of computer technology, when she is merely an ordinary housewife bringing up baby. Or perhaps a lowly cab driver that knows all about hi tech weaponry by the time he turns reluctant hero in chapter 12.

If it sounds ridiculous and unbelievable, then it likely is, and the reader will spot this straight away, even if you don’t. If you step over the boundaries of what is normal and logical within a character’s experience – in relation to the story - then you risk writing something that is neither believable nor credible.

How do you identify and control author Intrusion?

Sometimes it is difficult to spot because we don’t really look for it when editing – we’re too busy looking at plot flaws, characterisation, grammar, dialogue etc, but this is where editing become an important and integral part of the writing process. You should look out for the following:-

Social views – views that you as the writer have in the real world find their way into the fictional world and have no bearing on the story or the characters. That means political, religious, strong social views etc. When they become prevalent, that’s author intrusion.

Knowledge and awareness – don’t have characters know amazing things (unless they actually work in a job that requires specialist knowledge) just because you are an expert in something. Avoid the same if you have period characters from a set era. People in 1911 won’t know about stuff that you do.

Dialogue - Using the kind of words and phrasing that you use in everyday life, rather than the character would use; how they would talk and react. Making them you won’t work.

Indulgence – Lavishing your knowledge of something into the narrative, even though it doesn’t fit the story or characters, like a love of art, or by endlessly going on and on about your love of trees for example, but done through your main character (who probably wouldn’t care much for ecosystems anyway).

False impressions – By having characters, usually the villain, that become grossly ignorant and especially foolish because of your own opinions – for instance a black character being made to seem stupid or criminal in contrast to the wonderfully angelic, God-like, white main character runs the risk of making them horrible, hideous caricatures that have no place in reality, let alone fiction.

Narration – you are telling a story, not preaching, not teaching, not converting.

Your personal opinions or your personal agendas should never find their way into your fiction.

Apart from damaging your credibility as a writer, such intrusions are quite distracting for readers. Some intrusions might seem distasteful, disrespectful, out of place, disproportionate, too much, and somewhat jarring.

The result will be that the editor won’t bother and you won’t be published. The golden rule of thumb: Narrate, keep it simple and tell the story.

Next week: Why titles matter.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Creating Immediacy

In order to create immediacy, a writer needs to understand what it means, how immediacy works and how it impacts not just the writing, but also the reader.

Immediacy is the delicate and intimate connection between the story and the reader – if a writer lacks immediacy within the writing, then the reader might not be able to emotionally connect with the characters or the narrative, and if that happens, the reader is unlikely to enjoy the story/novel.

It is one of those elements largely overlooked by many writers, but it’s an important element that shouldn’t be ignored.

How do I create immediacy?

Immediacy means closeness. In other words, it’s looking at the closeness of your characters and your story to your reader, and how to make the reader feel as though they are not just reading your story, but they are a part of it.

To create it, you have to understand that your reader wants to become totally absorbed by the fictional world you have created. They want to be able to love the hero, fall in love with the heroine and hate the villain. They want to be swept up by the emotion and action, they want to feel the tension and conflict, they want to enjoy the descriptions that bring places and scenes alive. The want the whole thing to leap off the page at them.

But in order to achieve all that, you have to accomplish a number of things:-

Characterisation – fully developed characters, complete with flaws and foibles and well researched backgrounds - the kind of characters the reader can identify with, to help the reader bond emotionally to them.

Water tight plot – A fully developed plot, with subplots, helps to create a complete and flawless story without the kind of plot holes that can jar the reader and put them off.

Conflict – There’s nothing like conflict to get the reader’s attention. Every story should have plenty of different conflicts, because that in turn creates our next item…

Emotion – No story is complete without this. Emotion is a very powerful force – everybody feels this, whether it’s love, hate, passion, sympathy, fun etc. Characters are no different, and they should elicit emotion with the reader through their own emotions. Your reader should feel what your characters feel.

Empathy – Tied in with all the above elements, this is what you want your readers to feel. Great rounded characters, tight plot and interesting sub plots, fantastic story with lots of conflict and emotion all mean that the reader will understand the character’s journey, they will empathise. This creates immediacy.

Viewpoint – 1st person, 3rd person etc. First person is a great way of creating immediacy more intimately than 3rd person, it speaks directly to the reader.  1st person, however, should only be attempted once a writer is experienced and confident enough to tackle a novel or long story because of the verb and tense confusions that arise.

How does immediacy work?

It creates a connection for the reader – emotionally and mentally. It’s the difference between them liking your characters or being completely uninterested and detached from them. If the reader becomes detached from the story and the characters, then there is no immediacy there. The reader will end up disliking your story.

In a nutshell, it keeps readers fully immersed in the story. Immediacy does the following:-

  • It creates emotional attachment to the story
  • It creates empathy between your reader and your characters
  • It allows the reader to engage with your characters on an intimate level
  • It creates a sense of ‘being there right in the thick of it’ for the reader

Writers don’t always think about things like immediacy, but it really is something that writers should pay attention to, it’s the difference between someone liking your story, or hating it, and more importantly, it’s the difference between acceptance and rejection.

It's worth remembering that if an editor or agent can’t connect with your characters and story, then the general reading public certainly won’t.

Next week: Author intrusion – how to avoid it.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Taking in writing advice will help you become a better writer

Everyone needs advice, especially when you are fairly new to something. It’s always good to know that there is support and experience available to you.

Those new to writing need lots of advice, support and encouragement, and there is plenty out there. The amount of resources now available to writers is nothing to what it was almost 30 years ago when I first started out. There was no such thing and instant access through the internet, since there was no internet. Everything I have learned has been through three decades of trial and error, reading countless novels, gaining the experience, dealing with editors and publishers and of course, dealing with that character-building thing called rejection.

Whether the advice you receive comes through writing magazines, through books, via teachers, or even through blog articles etc, it is worth taking note of that advice, integrating it and learning from it.

Of course, the strength of that advice is important, because not everyone who dispenses the advice knows what they’re talking about, and it’s vital that any advice is constructive and beneficial, rather than destructive or unhelpful.

Negative Impact

The one problem I noticed is that sometimes, writing advice is given by people who have no experience or technical knowledge to do so, therefore the advice given is actually inaccurate. This can lead to a negative impact on writing, because the writer will wrongly believe they are doing the right thing, so it becomes a falsehood.

Think about it – you wouldn’t listen to someone telling you how they would perform a heart bypass if they were not a qualified surgeon, would you? You want someone who has successful experience of doing so and has studied for it over many years.

So, when advised to tidy your narrative and cut down on adverbs, this nugget of advice is priceless. If you don’t, you will have awful, badly written and untidy narrative, however if you are told that’s all rubbish, and you should write what you want, however you want, then that’s fine – but it’s bad advice and you follow it at your own peril.

Do you think that adverbs aren’t that bad?
Do you think that agents and publishers aren’t bothered about lack of description?
Showing not telling is a load of rubbish, right?
Characterisation doesn’t matter, really.
Why do I need care whose point of view it is?
Who notices tenses anyway?

The reality of bad advice is that you might remain unpublished or unsuccessful for a very long time.

Bad advice breeds bad habits. It creates a falsehood.

Positive Impact

Advice is there because a generation of writers have been there and done it long before us, they have learned from their mistakes and they have passed on their wisdom to us. These are the kind of people who can help and support fellow writers in their journey, by imparting their vast wealth of knowledge and years of experience, particularly the technical side of writing, because the one thing that many writers don’t always understand is that writing is a constant learning process, which takes years (not minutes) of apprenticeship and hard work to understand and perfect the craft of writing.

Writers should learn to take constructive criticism and advice from experienced writers – people who have been there, done it and written about it. Their insight will help new writers avoid some of the pitfalls and mistakes that these experienced writers made when they first started out.

Positive impact for writing comes from the following:

  • Constructive critiques from editors or published writers can help pinpoint weak areas, improve your narrative output and help you master the technical aspects.
  • Writing groups help foster support and advice, as long as the advice is from experienced, published writers.
  • Writing magazines and books on writing are filled with lots of well sourced advice, written by fellow writers who know or have worked with the industry.
  • Writing courses help you learn the craft, taught by people who have an understanding of creative writing.

With the increasing popularity of self-publishing, there is a worrying trend of ‘instant’ writers pushing out the kind of work that would never pass an English exam, the kind of writers that unwittingly make a mockery of the craft of writing. Sadly, not all ‘writers’ can actually write.

There are also people that already think they know it all; they don’t actually think they need advice or support. I’ve come across plenty of new writers who dismiss advice, thinking they know better. That’s fine, but such arrogance will only hold them back. We all need advice and support, no matter how experienced we are.

Valuable guidance is such an integral part of any writer’s journey, because without it, we won’t grow or improve, and we certainly won’t understand how hard writing actually is.

Everybody can write – but how good you are depends on how much you are willing to learn, because it’s up to the individual to take advice on board, ignore it or dismiss it.

Ignore sound advice and it may just be the difference of you being accepted or rejected as a writer, but also whether you become a better writer.

If you are passionate about writing and want to write, then take the time to study it, gain experience from it and learn from those who’ve been there and done it. The right advice is invaluable.

Next week: Creating immediacy.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Use of Conjunctions

A conjunction refers to a word that connects or conjoins parts of sentences, phrases or clauses, and forms part of a relationship within the sentence. There are three basic types of conjunctions:

Coordinating conjunctions – These are used to connect words, phrases and clauses – And, So, Yet etc.

Subordinating conjunctions – These join a subordinate (dependent) clause to a main (independent) clause, e.g. Jane went walking over the fields, although it looked as though it would rain.

Correlative conjunctions – These come in pairs which link words, phrases or clauses within the sentence, i.e. ‘not only’, ‘but also’, ‘just as’, ‘either or’ etc. 

As with prepositions, and the ever shifting tastes of present day fiction, it is sometimes desirable to have conjunctions to begin a sentence, and just as with the correct use of prepositions, they can add a cumulative, overall effect to the narrative, depending how you use them.

Sometimes we use them for contrast, sometimes to make a statement, sometimes they can represent consequence and sometimes we use them to offer contrasting ideas or intent. They may only be two or three letter words, but their effect can be considerable.

But weren’t we taught not to use them at the beginning of sentences? 

Once again, it’s a case of pushing aside the dated advice given by your English teachers about starting sentences with conjunctions and prepositions, and instead using both of these tools to your advantage. Conjunctions have the ability to make the narrative a little more interesting, it prevents it from being flat.

The common ones used are:

  • And
  • For
  • But
  • Or
  • Yet
  • So
All of these, for example, might appear like this:

So, they had lied to her after all.

For the longest time, the sound of the planes hummed above them.

But now the tables had turned.

Or was she imagining it?

Yet, armed with the truth, he realised they couldn’t be trusted.

By far the most commonly used conjunction is ‘And’. Not only is it the most common, but one of the most powerful. But why should this unassuming little word be quite so influential?

When used at the beginning of a sentence, its effect is multiplied by how it’s used. As with prepositions, it’s not just about where it’s placed, but how it’s used and why. 

‘And’ is one of those words that brings brevity to a sentence, it can breathe a sense of atmosphere into the sentence, but it’s also a rather effective way of ending a chapter, too, because it makes an effective statement of intent, leading the reader into the next chapter.

Compare the effectiveness of these two sentences:

The lights went out.

And then the lights went out.

The first sentence is perfectly acceptable. It describes exactly what it needs to. The second sentence is also acceptable, but the only difference is that it adds a little bit of gravitas with the addition of ‘and’. This addition also changes the way the reader reads and interprets the sentence. It’s also quite effective joined with other words, like ‘And so’ or ‘And then’ or ‘And yet’.

The following excerpt is from a short story that takes the premise of ‘and’ to add something extra to the narrative; it repeats it throughout, giving the reader a sense of the passage of time, and it’s called ‘And Then’.

Legs moved, and arms and hands. His head felt so heavy.

The minutes evaporated.

And then that strange sensation rushed through him again when he tried to move – his head remained skewed. Something trickled into his stomach, flooded his abdomen and he winced against the sickly eddy, tried hard not to vomit...

...Then the minutes stopped. 

Amid the suffocating inner silence, his final moments vanished into the encroaching darkness and his vision instantly turned into an infinite blackness.

He slumped back against the cold tarmac.

And then...


Remember, it’s not how many times you use them that make the narrative better, but how they are used, so think carefully about the effect you want, the statement you’re making and the intent that you want to show. Used effectively, conjunctions add that little bit extra and help prevent flat, uninteresting narrative.

Next week: Why paying attention to advice will make you a better writer.