Saturday, 26 May 2012

Quantity over Quality?

Are you one of those writers who can produce a copious amount of stories, rather like an unstoppable conveyor belt?  Or are you the type of writer whose output is a little less frenetic and rather more sedate?

We all fall into different types of writers, because we are all different.  Some of us work at a pace where we might only produce a story every few months or so, or perhaps a new novel every 12- 18 months.  Other writers seem to be able to upload a novel onto Amazon Kindle every couple of months, or be able to churn out a short story every other week.
But as writers, one question to ask yourself is this - are you a quality over quantity kind of writer?  Or is the quantity more important? 

Can you have both?
You might well be able to produce a high turnover of work, but is it to the highest standard?  Writers can push out as many stories as they want in the space of a month, but are they really good enough for conventional publication?  By conventional, I don’t mean Amazon Kindle (where editorial high standards are frequently ignored by writers who shouldn’t call themselves writers), but rather agents and publishers, the kind of people who will look through your story or MSS and rip it to shreds before they decide whether it’s good enough for publication.

Would your work pass their expectations?

Quality Counts

If there is one thing I actively teach any writer, it is to produce the best quality work that is possible.  Never be a mundane writer, be a marvellous one.  Aspire to be the best you possibly can be.  Why?  Because quality can be the difference between an acceptance and a rejection.
Quality speaks volumes to an editor.  They can spot whether the writer has taken the time and detail to read, proof and edit their work to a publishable standard, or whether the writer has rushed through it in an attempt to simply get the work ‘out there’.

There is an undeniable logical to more haste, less speed.  In other words, the faster you try to do something, the more likely you are to make silly errors.
Some writers assume they have to push out as much work as possible in order to be noticed – and to a certain degree that’s true, because we all need exposure – but not to the detriment of the quality of that work, which commonly happens.

I know a writer who is writing novel number seven, as well as several short stories.  But on reading the work produced, it is patently obvious that the writer has paid scant attention to the art of creative writing.  This writer has only self published on Amazon Kindle, and has never been conventionally published.  She has, therefore, never been scrupulously vetted by an editor of a publication house.
Anyone can write, but not everyone can be a creative writer.

But does it really matter?
If you are serious about writing, then yes, it should matter.

If you rush your writing in a bid to get your work out there or earn as much as possible from Kindle, several things are guaranteed to happen:
  • The story/MSS will contain silly mistakes.
  • The story/MSS will contain flaws and contradictions.
  • The story/MSS might be deficient in plot/characterisation/structure etc.
  • The story/MSS might not have the right balance of crucial elements.
  • It will show how ill prepared and unprofessional you are.

If you really want agents and editors to notice your work, you should observe the following:
  • Take the time to write – don’t rush your writing.
  • Take the time to thoroughly read through and edit your work in order to clear those mistakes, plot flaws and contradictions etc.
  • Take the time to balance your story/MSS.
  • Put in the effort – agents and editors will notice this.

Don’t ever doubt that writing is easy, because it’s not.  Writing is hard work.
Remember that quantity over quality tends to produce one substantial difference: substance, or lack of.   As a writer, I could produce a story every day, but I know the quality and the substance would suffer through such a high output.  That’s because I couldn’t possibly take the time to check, edit, redraft, balance it and be happy with it.

The stark reality of being a writer is hard – to crack agents and publishers is extremely difficult.  The standards are high, the competition is fierce and the likelihood of publication is minimal.  It’s like trying to run through treacle.
Amazon Kindle is proving quite a lure for would be authors; however, with the prospect of such wide blanket coverage, so many writers are sacrificing quality over quantity.

Of course, if there are genius writers who can produce quality stories every other week, or novels every couple of months, all without breaking a sweat, shedding a frustrating tear or tearing their hair out, then I’d like to meet them.  But in almost 25 years of writing, I’ve not met one yet.

 Next week: Tricks of the trade – handy writing hints

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Finding Balance

Many of the questions asked about fiction writing – such as how do I know how many chapters to have, how much description should I write, is there enough dialogue or enough conflict? – can all be answered with just one word: balance. 
Story writing is all about balance and finding stability within the writing.  It’s what keeps everything in check, so that writers don’t go overboard with one element over another, thus leading to an imbalance. 

Why have balance?
Balance allows the writer to keep control of many writing elements – like those mentioned above.  There are no set rules where fiction is concerned, but it is purely a guide for writers to help them write better. 

Whether it’s dialogue, description, the amount of scenes or chapters, the amount of tension and conflict that is balanced against the relief and emotion, whether there is enough background balanced with foreground, or whether you have action and inaction within the story, there should be some definitive balance of all these elements to make up a well structured, enjoyable and cohesive story.
I’ve touched on this in previous articles, but balance of dialogue, narrative and description is quite important, especially for those new to writing.  Too much of either of these elements threatens the overall effect of the story, and unless the writer is very experienced, the result – too much of one and not enough of the other – will look badly written and unprofessional.  More importantly, your reader won’t enjoy the story either.

Balance should also exist for scenes and chapters – having the right amount of chapters to tell the story, balanced against the right amount of key scenes.  This is a good way of keeping in check a writer’s penchant for ‘waffling’, i.e. writing scenes that are unnecessary and irrelevant to the story (and pose a danger of boring the reader).
Know what story you are telling, and how long it is likely to be, then you can plan your chapters (not having too many or too few), along with the amount of major, important scenes that you will eventually write.

Balance also keeps in check any inadvertent ‘padding’ that sometimes creeps into the narrative.  When writers find themselves in a situation where a story falls short of their intended target length, they tend to ‘pad’ the narrative with inconsequential scenes, which means that the balanced ratio of dialogue, narrative and description is ignored and the story becomes completely disproportionate. 
Aim to have a good balance of all three.

Conflict and emotion – these sound difficult to balance, but in truth, it’s not that hard.  For every moment of conflict, tension and atmosphere, there should also be some light relief, some happier, more relaxed moments. Don’t let the entire story become full with tension. That has to be lighter moments, so balance conflict and tense scenes with lighter scenes.
Background and foreground should have equilibrium, too. But what exactly does that mean? 

The stuff that happens in the foreground – the key scenes, like action scenes, emotional scenes etc, should always lend themselves to the background.  In other words, don’t forget to involve the reader within your scenes wherever you can; impart details of the setting, the backdrop, the environment etc.  However small these details might seem, they help the reader visualise the whole thing, they draw in the reader.

It’s surprising how many writers forget this completely and simply launch into key/action scenes without letting the reader in.  For instance, picture Constable’s portrait, ‘The Hay Wain’, but imagine it without the river, the lush greenery and trees, the cosy cottage or the dog on the riverside.  There is just the hay wain and horses and nothing else. 

There isn’t much to stimulate or look at is there?
In fiction, you shouldn’t have foreground without a background - have a fair balance of both so that the reader can jump into the scene.

What about action versus inaction?   Stories shouldn’t steam along at breakneck speed for the duration without allowing the reader to breathe and reflect about the story, so make sure you slow things down a little. Find a balance between fast-paced scenes and softer, slower scenes. 
Vary it so that the reader doesn’t feel rushed by the narrative, or, conversely, doesn’t fall sleep through boredom brought on by nothing much happening within the story.  That way you engage and excite the reader, but never bore them.

Finding balance can help you control the ratio of dialogue, description and narrative.  You can control the amount of conflict/tension/action scenes with softer, slower, emotional scenes.  You can create a balanced pace – sometimes fast, sometimes slow.  You can give the reader background as well as foreground detail. 
By keeping an eye on all these elements, you can see if one aspect appears to be stronger or more apparent than the other, and then you can correct it.

We don’t always think about it, but stories work better with the right sense of balance.  That’s because they are fine-tuned and structured well, but more importantly, it means they are appealing to editors and publishers alike, and you stand more chance of becoming published (and staying published).

Next week: Quality or quantity?

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Chapter & Novel Lengths

Just how long should a chapter be? What’s the best length? And does a novel have to fit into a set amount of words?
These are just two of the most common questions asked by writers.  They assume they have to work to a strict template of X amount of words and X amount of chapters, usually because most novels have around 30 or 40 chapters and around 80,000 words. 
Novel Lengths

Firstly, let’s dispel a few myths - novel lengths are dictated by the story itself, not the writer or the editor or a specific written formula.  Secondly, writers don’t have to fit their word count into generic set amounts.  Again, the story will dictate how long the novel will be.
It’s also worth knowing the different types of novels that work well with different word counts.  Uncomplicated stories containing minimal characters tend to be short – usually around 20,000 to 60,000 words.  These are called novellas.

Longer, more complex stories, which contain a handful of main characters and peripheral characters, tend to run at about 60,000 to 95,000 words.  This would constitute the average length novel.
The saga – plenty of characters and a complex, epic story told over many generations – think Roots or War and Peace - usually run at over 100,000 words.

If you are writing a standard length novel, aim for 80,000 to 95,000 words.  It doesn’t have to be exact, but it’s there to guide writers.  If you set yourself a target of 85,000 words, you’ll know that if you fall short of that average figure, your story is either lacking in substance, or it doesn’t have enough fuel to be a full length novel (without some serious editing), and would therefore be a novella instead.  If you go way over that figure and you find yourself easily drifting over 100,000 words, then you need to do some serious editing to reign the story back in, otherwise you risk it turning into a saga.
Another reason to use these figures as a guide is that if you submit your MSS to an agent or publisher stating what kind of story it is, i.e. a thriller based novel which is a whopping 150,000 words long, you might get a rejection before anyone has even read the first line of the first chapter because that kind of length for that kind of story just isn’t a viable option for them.  Conversely, if you state that you have an epic tale of love and revenge, set in the last century, which follows several generations of the same family, the editor would balk at a paltry 75,000 words.

In other words, think about the genre you are writing, think about the story itself, and know what kind of book you’re writing.  Can it be told in that reasonable amount of words?

Chapter lengths
Writers soon learn that there are no particular set rules when it comes to writing and chapter lengths fall into this area. 

New writers tend to assume that a chapter must be a certain set length in order to maintain the average novel length of around 80,000 – 95,000 words, but in truth, chapters can be as long or as short as you need them to be.  There is no formula.  You don’t have to pick a number like 80,000 and then divide it by 30 chapters to give you 2500 words a chapter (average).
If you have ever read Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’ or many Stephen King novels, then you’ll realise that a chapter can be a sentence long.  Or just one word.  Or it can be 5000 words.  Again, like novel length, chapter length is dictated by what is happening in the story, not by the law of averages and applied mathematics.  Many books have 40, 50 or sometimes 60 chapters, all varying in length.  And it’s the variety of length that counts.  They don’t have to coform to any pre-conceived ideas.  Every writer is different, so every chapter they write will be different in length.

The only thing you need to apply where chapter lengths and novel lengths are concerned, is common sense. 
If you think a chapter is far too short for whatever reason, examine it to see why.  It may be you simply haven’t included enough description.  If your chapter seems to go on and on...again look at it to see if it is overly long - you risk boring your reader or losing their attention if it doesn’t sensibly move to the next chapter.

If there was such a thing as an average chapter, it would probably be around 2500 words.  Or you could say 10 x A4 sheets, because this also acts as a visual prompt for some people.
There are no hard and fast rules.  It’s all down to the kind of story you are writing, how you tell it, and of course, a touch of common sense.

Next week: Finding balance.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Why Titles Matter

There are several factors that make us choose a novel from the endless books available to us.  One factor is the cover – its job is to initially entice the reader’s eye.  Then there is the blurb – the couple of lines on the front cover or the back that hook you.  Then of course, there is the title.
But a title isn’t just there to tell your audience what your story is called. Titles have a number of uses which a writer should always take advantage of, and titles matter - they are an integral factor when getting your work noticed by agents and editors.
Book and story titles act as a lure.  Great titles always grab our attention – think To Kill a Mockingbird. Or A Clockwork Orange.  They tempt us to want to know what the story is about; there is a sense of intrigue and fascination that entices us.

But what if they were called Scout and Jem’s Adventure?  Or The Droogs?  Would they lure us in the same way?  Probably not.  They certainly wouldn’t have the same allure.  If anything, they would seem rather boring by comparison.
Where novels are concerned, you have spent months or years putting effort into making it the best you can, so a lame title will not do your story any justice.  You should be making a statement with the title you choose, so where possible, make your titles interesting, provocative.  Try to avoid using ‘The’.  i.e The Teacher, The Street, The Cornfield etc.  It’s one of those words that just make a story title that little bit staid and boring, and sometimes quite corny and clichéd.  Think dynamically when it comes to your titles; make your work stand out.

Some of the best novels don’t have ‘The’ in the title, and this works well, for instance Misery, Moby Dick, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five, and so on.  Of course, that is not to say that some great titles do have ‘The’ in the title, like The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, but the idea is to be different with your titles, and these classic titles use ‘The’ to their advantage by not giving away too much of the story content.
That brings us to this very consideration: titles often give the story away before the reader has even read the first line.  What’s wrong with that?  Nothing, except that ‘Granny’s Day Out’ or tells the reader what the story is about without reading a single line of the story. 

The idea with genre fiction is to keep the reader guessing all the time, to keep them interested, keep them fascinated.  If you tell them in the title what it’s about, more often than not, you lose some of that allure and impact.
A title can hint at the story, but the idea is not to give too much away so that it invites the reader to step into your fictional world, it lures them enough to want to become involved with the story.

Titles also often deliberately mislead the reader. This is an effective tool employed by writers, and is designed to tease the reader into thinking they know what the story is about, but it turns out to be something completely different.
Think Gone With the Wind or Where Angels Fear to Tread.

When I wrote Under a Veil of Red (see cover image top right) for the February Femmes Fatales showcase, I wanted to convey several things with the title.  It is a story about the underlying prejudice that fuels the pursuit of a victim.  I could have called it ‘The Chase’. Or ‘The Runaway,’ or ‘The Pursuit’.  But none of these titles are interesting, and they tell the reader what it’s about. 
The Veil of the title suggests a shroud, a cover of some sort.  The Red is a symbolic gesture – the colour of blood, which appears in the story.  Under a Veil of Red intrigues but gives nothing away in terms of the story’s content.

Another short story, ‘A Stain on the Heart’, published in the US, deals with intolerance and injustice set during World War 2.  The title is twofold.  It’s hinting at what the story might be about, without giving too much away, and without even telling the reader it’s set during the war, but it’s also informing the reader of nature of the content, and the key words here are ‘Stain’ and ‘Heart’.
So, when it comes to titles, think about what your story is about, what it is trying to say. Coming up with great titles isn’t easy, so think about the story. What is its message?  How does it relate to your reader?  How can you entice them?

Titles do more than just tell your reader what the name of your story is.

·         Grab the reader’s attention – use a catchy title
·         Hint at the story – tease the reader
·         Don’t give too much away in the title if you can – keep them guessing
·         Deliberately mislead the reader with your title
·         Try to avoid using ‘The’ too much
·         Avoid corny or clichéd titles
Effective, provocative and interesting titles can be the difference between agents/publishers being interested in your story, or not.

Next week: Chapter and novel lengths.