Saturday, 30 June 2012

Does Observation Matter?

Imagination alone isn’t always enough to help you write. 

Writers can fill their stories with as much ‘made up stuff’ as they like, but there is no substitute for astute observation – the kind of things that add fine brush strokes and layers to your narrative.
Observation is one of those things you can choose to include in your writing, or not.  It’s entirely up to the writer.  But writing without some observation is like a painting without colour.  It’s about noticing the smaller details, the backgrounds, the minutiae.  The kinds of things that help build a picture, a scene or a landscape in the reader’s mind.

Artists, for instance, don’t paint with their hands – figuratively speaking, they paint with their eyes.  That’s because, on a deeper level, their observation and study of their subject is what is translated to the canvas.  The same is true of writers.  What a writer observes and studies is translated into the written word and then built into the narrative.
Observation plays an important part in writing.  It’s a tool that writers use to embellish their descriptions to great effect.  It means the writer has paid attention to certain details, rather than glossed over a scene without putting in any effort to support it.

You could, for instance, write about a night time scene with a full moon over a landscape.  Most writers would probably opt for the obligatory clouds floating across the face of the moon scenario, or maybe mention the pretty twinkling stars cliché, or you might mention how bright the moon is, which also seems to be a staple favourite.
But have you ever looked at the moon in close detail?  Ever noticed its colours?  (It’s not just bright and grey).  Ever noticed the way it shimmers (yes, even at night, due to atmospheric conditions)?  Ever noticed the wonderful colours when clouds sometimes obscure the moon – the rusts, the blue hues or the pale tints caused by the moon’s light passing through them and thus making the clouds translucent?  Ever noticed the different ways the moon casts it glare?  Or that sometimes the moon seems small in the sky, and other times much larger?  And the moon has different phases of course.

That’s the difference between paying attention to detail instead of relying on cliché to fill your narrative. 
Even the seemingly tiny, unimportant observations can make the difference to your reader.  Don’t underestimate how well the reader subconsciously absorbs what you write, because the finer details help them to build an entire picture of the scene.

Observation also adds a hint of reality to the writing, and readers love that kind of touch, that familiarity.  It means that if you’ve experienced something first hand or seen something for yourself – not just people, places or events and so on - then that slice of reality, and the ability to describe it, adds much more to the narrative. 
Another important aspect of observation is that it is closely connected to the ‘show, don’t tell maxim’.  Take flowers, for example.  They aren’t just pretty colours.  Look closer and you’ll see that petals have texture, shape, definition, folds, lines, veins etc.  Clouds become more than just clouds when you stop to observe them.  Colours become more vibrant the moment you start noticing them.  People become fascinating the moment you study them and so on. 

Everything is observable and, therefore, there is always something that you can add to your narrative.
If you want your descriptions to be vivid and authentic, then go that little bit further and show the reader, don’t just tell them there’s a yellow flower in a field or a cloud in the sky.  Let your observations come to life, let them touch that flower and see those clouds.

You should also utilise the senses to enliven the narrative.  So many writers overlook the senses; they forget to describe scenes adequately; they forget to hint about scents, colours, textures, tastes and sounds.  This last one – sound – is by far the most neglected in narrative.  There is always sound around us, so why do writers forget that it’s there? 
An observant writer is a clever one.  Why?  Because it’s the one thing that marks flat, boring ‘telling’ description from vibrant, rich narrative that shows the reader.

Everything we see and hear and experience forms a bank of memories and recollections to use when writing.  So, next time there is a thunderstorm, stop and listen to the sounds.  Watch how the rain forms on windows or surfaces; see how the wind plays with the trees and so on, look at the shades of the sky.  Observe and pay attention.
Does observation matter in fiction writing?  Yes, absolutely.


Next week:  How to polish your prose.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

What type of writer are you?

The tortoise or the hare?

Everyone knows the old fable about the Hare racing the tortoise, and the assumption that because of his speed, the hare will easily win, until he decides to take a snooze, leaving the tortoise to overtake him and amble across the finish line.  Most writers fall into discernable categories, depending on how they approach writing, and some could be described as hares and others might be more like tortoises. 
Writers are as individual as fingerprints when it comes to writing, but how do you approach your writing?  Are you the kind of writer that likes to dispense with meticulous planning and instead rather get right into the writing and letting the story go wherever it takes you?  Or are you more likely to take the time to carefully plan in detail and plot how your story and characters will evolve?  

Perhaps you fall between the two types.  You might be a mix of both – you like to get on with it, but might do a little bit of planning beforehand to act as a guide.
Some writers tear headlong into their writing, spurred by inspiration and excitement, they push out as much as they can every day, while others like to work to specific daily word counts as a set target, and feel they haven’t achieved anything unless they’ve written 2000 words or so.   

These types don’t really plan or organise; they just go with the flow.  And, on average, they spend less time reflecting on the story or musing how plot twists and characters should develop.  They like to jump right in and just get on with it without worrying too much about the intricacies of writing. 
If this resembles the way you approach writing, you’re more likely to be a hare.

Some writers, on the other hand, approach writing in a diametrically opposing way.  Unlike hares, they take their time to plan everything, they pour over every sentence, every word, they spend hours thinking of the right construct, the right descriptions.  They’re thinking of plot and character development. 
In that time they might only produce a few hundred words...or none at all.

If you identify with this kind of writer, you’re more likely to be a tortoise, and that’s not meant in a negative way.  Neither is being a hare, because the type of writer you are doesn’t reflect of the quality of the writing.  No matter your approach, eventually the end result should be a highly polished piece of work, because it is the editing afterwards that counts, not the actual writing of the piece. 
Hare writers tend to approach most things with gusto, while tortoise writers tend to take a long time to consider their writing and also they reflect more often on what they’ve written. 

I fall into the tortoise category – I like to plan, I like to plot, I can spend hours constructing and then deconstructing sentences and paragraphs and I can spend just as long deciding what words to choose.  I might take an hour to write half a page, it might be that I only write 500 words in one session, other times it might be more.
A good example of a tortoise writer is James Joyce, who famously commented to a friend, who had enquired how Ulysses was going, ‘I’ve written a whole sentence today.’

When the friend enquired again on Joyce’s progress the next day, Joyce replied, ‘Forging ahead wonderfully.  Today I crossed out the sentence.’
Another is Oscar Wilde, who once said, ‘I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.’ 

Or what about Clarence Budington Kelland.  ‘I get up in the morning, torture a typewriter until it screams, then stop.’  
How we approach our writing is an individual thing.  Some of us plan, some of us don’t.  Some of us reflect, some never think about the writing too much until it’s time to edit.  Some of us can produce thousands of words in no time, some of us can’t.  Some just write and let the story go where it wants to go, while others plan right down to the last detail.

Some of us might be hares, some of us might be tortoises, others are inbetween.  The most important part of the writing journey is how it’s all edited and pulled together to make the finished product.  That’s what counts.
So, what type of writer might you be? 

Next week:  Does observation matter?

Saturday, 16 June 2012

The Art of Foreshadowing

A writer’s job isn’t just about telling a story.  It’s more complicated than simple storytelling, because there are so many devices available to help writers improve and enrich their writing. One very useful tool available to writers is the art of foreshadowing, or in simple terms, the art of subtle revelation, forewarning and teasing.

It’s surprising how much foreshadowing is overlooked in fiction – we don’t always think about little things like this and we tend to forget the minute intricacies that help bring depth and richness to our stories.

What does foreshadowing do?

Foreshadowing has many functions, from providing subtle hints about characters or situations, clues to events yet to happen, to imparting necessary information, but it also serves to move the story forward and to sometimes deliberately wrong foot the reader.
Foreshadowing more often than not brings an extra dimension to the story, because it means you are hinting at what might come, what might happen, what could occur further into the tale.  It’s about teasing the reader with snippets of information, by making them privy to what is happening, therefore the reader will know what might happen, but your characters will be oblivious.

This means the reader can look forward to an event that might happen further into the story, or they might even guess the outcome. 
Foreshadowing also adds a little tension, anticipation, mood and atmosphere regarding what might happen.  It creates that sense of suspense. 

You might want to deliberately fool the reader into thinking something will happen, and then the story twists in another direction, but it has to be justifiable and should not leave the reader feeling completely manipulated in a way that they feel dissatisfied or cheated.
One important process is to move the story forward.  Foreshadowing does this by allowing the reader to jump into the foreseeable future of the story and guess what might happen, thus teasing them.  This allows the story to move forward because of anticipation and guesswork.

Writers can also use foreshadowing as a device for plot development, because if there is a snippet of information or a symbolic tease that is directly associated with the plot, then once again the writer can make the reader privy to a future story development.
Effective foreshadowing is a skill; it has to be subtle and symbolic without giving too much away, or by being too overt.  If not done carefully, the foreshadowing might seem too obvious, too contrite or two forced, and might allow the reader to wholly predict the outcome of the story.  Hence a story or film or play becomes too ‘predictable’. 

Why is it important?
If a writer fails to include some form of foreshadowing, then there is a danger that an incident or occurrence in the story happens too unexpectedly and leaves the reader confused and wondering why it wasn’t mentioned earlier, or why they are connected.  

The skill with it is not to give too much away, but at the same time, the writer shouldn’t provide too few details that it’s becomes confusing for the reader.
How is it achieved?

Foreshadowing should hinge on likely significant events in the story, so it’s about finding out which of the significant events or incidents you could foreshadow, then plant likely hints or perhaps impart information to tease the reader.  You might do this by mentioning something in dialogue, something that the characters are planning perhaps, or you could hint within the narrative about something significant.
You don’t have to be overt – you could use weather, like gathering storm clouds to signify something dark about to happen, or it could be the repetition of a character’s words or behaviour, it might be the symbolic nature of a specific colour, something happening in the background...it can be anything, as longs as it is significant to the story and spikes the reader’s interest.
And of course, if you do foreshadow something, make sure you carry it out. Don’t hint at something and then do nothing about it and leave readers wondering what or how or why.
Example:
He looked at the crimson rose on the seat beside him, rich in colour, a token symbol.  He had always lured them with roses; the deep colour of life, velvety to the touch, lush with the temptation of love…and death…

This extract foreshadows future events through the symbolic nature of a rose. ‘He had always lured them with roses’ is a massive hint.  Lush with the temptation of love…and death…’ This suggests that whoever he gives the rose to might end up in trouble. 
It’s understated and subtle enough to sink into the reader’s conscience.

Summary of foreshadowing:
  • Hint at information
  • Give clues to events yet to happen
  • Move the story forward through revelation
  • Tease the reader
  •  Mislead the reader, but always make it justified
  •  Evolve plot development

Whichever way you decide, don’t make it too obvious, let the reader do the work because they are very good at ‘reading between the lines’, but most of all let them enjoy that sense of anticipation and suspense of what might come.

Next week: What type of writer are you?

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Varying the Narrative for Better Writing

There are, on occasions, when fiction writing causes numerous headaches for writers in their pursuit of better writing.

One of those headaches is the rate of use and occurrence of ‘he’ and ‘she’ within sentence structures, and in particular, the incidence of the old ‘he said’ / ‘she said’.  

‘He’ and ‘she’ become so commonplace within the narrative when we are writing that we take them for granted, but it’s not until you read back through our story that you realise just how much you have relied upon their usage, and only then you can appreciate how clunky your descriptions might appear if they are overused.

Of course, using them is completely unavoidable. We all do it and we do need them, but as with adverbs and adjectives, writers can limit the amount of ‘he’s’ and ‘she’s’ within sentences by tightening and tidying the narrative so that it not only reads better, but it looks better to the reader’s eye.  

Look back through previous manuscripts and stories and you might be surprised just how many times it occurs. They can clog the narrative without you even noticing.

This is a typical example of what you might find in an average story (I’ve highlighted the offending tags):

He looked at her, unsure.

She smiled. ‘I wouldn’t have asked if it wasn’t a good idea.’

The breeze coiled around them, chilly now the clouds had gathered.

‘It’s not that,’ he said. ‘I just don’t think we should go back there.’

She sidled up to the car. ‘We don’t have a choice, Mike. I want that house.’

His shoulders sank. He could feel the hint of rain on his face. He approached the car. ‘But that house gives me the creeps.’

While there is nothing actually wrong with the above example sentence structure, it can be further improved so that it reads better and is more concise by improving the writing and varying how some sentences are structured so that ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ or ‘he’ this and ‘he’ that etc, don’t make the writing look too stilted, weary or repetitive. 

You can do this by replacing ‘he’ or ‘she’ with the character’s name every now and then (always use in moderation), you could rearrange the sentence order, or you could remove or add certain words to make the sentences more succinct.

A reworked example might read like this, with the modified narrative highlighted:

Michael looked at her, unsure.

She smiled. ‘I wouldn’t have asked if it wasn’t a good idea.’

The breeze coiled around them, chilly now the clouds had gathered.

‘It’s not that. I just don’t we should go back there.’

Jess sidled up to the car. ‘We don’t have a choice, Mike. I want that house.’

His shoulders sank.   He approached the car, felt a hint of rain on his face. ‘But that house gives me the creeps.’

The first line uses the male character’s name, Michael. The fourth line dispenses with speech tags altogether, because it’s clear Michael is speaking. The fifth line uses the female character’s name, Jess, while the sixth line makes use of the narrative to completely rearrange ‘He could feel a hint of rain on his face. He approached the car’ and changes to a better choice.

These examples are very simple, but hopefully they show how a little tweaking and aforethought can improve narrative without that much effort.

In the end, it all comes down variation and moderation to sentence structure. Get the structure right and you won’t have to worry about how many instances of ‘he’ or ‘she’ sprinkle your narrative.  

He said/she said
The same principle applies about constructing better sentences where ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ crop up at every opportunity without the writer even noticing. Again, it’s all about variation and moderation.

Here’s very simple example of the kind of scene that writers slip into without realising, where he said/she said becomes commonplace:

‘There’s nowhere for you to go,’ he said.

‘Not unless you help me,’ she said, tight. ‘I need to get into the mountains and find him.’

‘But you could be heading into trouble,’ he said. ‘His men will kill you.’

‘Are you going to help me or not, Simon?’ she asked.

‘Look, it’s not that easy,’ he said.


Now here’s the same scene, tweaked to cut out some of the he said/she said tags:

Tilley gripped her arms. ‘There’s nowhere for you to go.’

‘Not unless you help me,’ Alex said, tight. ‘I need to get into the mountains and find him.’

‘But you could be heading into trouble. His men will kill you.’

Her eyes darkened. ‘Are you going to help me or not, Simon?’

He sighed. ‘Look, it’s not that easy.’

By switching the sentence order, removing some tags and adding a few words, you can make the sentence better, tighter, and in some cases, you can do away with all those speech tags altogether. All it takes is a little time to think about how you structure your sentences by asking yourself - Can I make them better?

But should this really matter?
In the grand scheme of things, not really. Not unless you want to become a better writer, that is.

A writer is as only as good as his or her willingness to learn. If writers don’t want to learn, that’s fine, but they will never evolve and therefore never improve. 

If they do want to learn, then the little things like this are just as important, so next time you catch yourself writing ‘he’ and ‘she’ too much, or ‘he said/she said’ umpteen times in a scene, take a moment to decide if you can rework the narrative and make it better, tighter and more concise.

Next week: The art of foreshadowing

Monday, 4 June 2012

Tricks of the Trade - Handy Tips

As writers, we’re always on the lookout for helpful advice and hints, and every writer should get used to using some of the tricks of the trade in order to improve their fiction writing.  They are there to make out life much easier, and our writing much better.

Hook

Not sure where to start? Start with a hook.  Something that instantly sparks the reader’s imagination.  Get straight into the heart of the action in your first chapter. That way there is less chance to bore the reader.  Grab them from the start and keep up the same momentum.

Slow narrative
When you read through the narrative and you find it seems to plod in all sorts of areas, that’s a clear indication that you need to adjust the pace of the narrative by speeding things up and giving it some balance. 

Slow narrative occurs when there are few action scenes, very little conflict, not much dialogue, too much description and not enough balance.  Also, prologues can make the pace become slow before you’ve even started writing the first chapter, so avoid them.
You can adjust the pace of the story by adding dialogue relevant to the story, action where necessary and conflict – all of these tools help move the story forward.

Fast narrative
When you find the narrative running away at a blistering pace, without leaving you breathing space, that’s when you need to slow things down.  This gives the reader chance to pause and reflect – and also does the same for your characters. 

You can accomplish this by seeing where you could add some reflective, slower scenes while still moving the story forward – perhaps with some more dialogue.  Description is a brilliant tool for slowing the pace, or perhaps you can use a flashback.  These help break up the pace of the narrative and allow the reader some breathing space.
Moving the story forward

This is an important part of fiction writing.  You must always move the story forward.  It has to have that momentum until the end.  But what if you think the story isn’t going anywhere?  What if it seems to have come to a halt?

There are several ways to do move the story forward:
  • Reveal parts of the story through dialogue – this moves the story forward and also increases pace.
  • Pivotal action scenes also help move the story along.
  • Create immediacy – characterisation and good dialogue help create a sense that the reader is right there, within your story.
  • Provide necessary information – in other words, use your characters to impart pertinent information about the plot/story.  This can be done through their inner thoughts their actions or through dialogue.
Does it all make sense?

Read your story aloud.  This may sound strange, but it works wonders for your writing. That’s because you are not just reading as you normally would a novel, but you are listening to the resonance of the narrative and descriptions, you are listening to the dialogue, you are listening to how the whole thing sounds and flows. 

You will immediately notice if the narrative doesn’t flow correctly or if it doesn’t feel right, you will instantly pick up on cheesy or irrelevant dialogue.  You will notice glaring plot flaws, you will notice if you need more dialogue or description, or whether the story needs more or less pace. 
You will become aware of these things because we don’t always detect them when simply reading to ourselves.

Cliffhangers

Need a way of keeping the reader interested?  
Cliffhangers.  The art of a good story is not only being able to tell a good story, but also the art of teasing the reader at every available opportunity.  That means leaving a little teaser at the end of each chapter, something that makes the reader want to turn the page and find out more.

Always engage the reader wherever possible.  You employ the same tactic at the end of key scenes too.
Plant information

It doesn’t have to be over the top, but planting simple, subtle hints for the reader keeps their curiosity brewing, something they will know or become aware of further into the story, (but the character won’t).  This keeps the reader’s interest firmly on the story.
Too much dialogue

Too much dialogue usually means some characters are talking irrelevant rubbish.  The consequence of this is that it doesn’t move the story forward.  Cut out the extraneous dialogue and replace with description, action or conflict to balance things up.
The Big Sleep

Are you in danger of sending your reader into a deep sleep with a story that seems limp and uninspiring?  If so, then your story needs action and conflict.   Certainly no story can be a story without conflict of some sort – this is what drives the characters and the story.

Ensure you have the right balance of action scenes and conflict between characters.   Entertain your reader, don’t bore them.
Always remember that your story needs conflict, action, dialogue, description and pace, and above all, you must always move the story forward.

Next week: Varying the narrative to avoid too much 'he said/she said'.