Saturday, 29 June 2013

Fiction Writing: Character Basics - Part 1

Without characters, you won’t have much of a story, and every writer knows how important it is to pay attention to characterisation. 
But one of the key things to characterisation, however, is knowing the basics of constructing characters and therefore not making the kind of simple errors that will make an editor cringe when they read your MSS.
Every writer knows that they need fully rounded, three dimensional people to bring their story to life. That means plenty of background information, details about who they are and what they’re about, what they look like, and the kind of things they like and don’t like and so on.
But it’s the simple mistakes that let writers down when they submit to agents and publishers, things that are not always obvious until someone points them out, especially where characters are concerned.
You might think you’ve got great characters, but it’s surprising how some basics are forgotten or ignored. 
These 10 basics should help with getting the basics balanced.
10 Character Fundamentals
1. The one thing that will grate on an editor’s nerves is too many unimportant characters inhabiting your story. If they’re not relevant, then get rid of them. If the reader has to spend the time remembering who is who, then there is a danger that the story will suffer, simply because they will be too busy trying to remember or figure out all the characters to pay attention to the plot.
2. If you find that you do have a number of characters, but they’re integral to the plot and you really can’t cull them, then you have to ensure that they are easily recognisable to the reader. The easiest way to do that is to give them a nickname rather than a full name. 
Similarly, if they only appear in a couple of chapters, there is no rule against naming them after a characteristic or even their clothing, e.g. Baldy, or Goatee Beard or Black Shirt. Their names are more memorable than John or David or Peter etc.
3. Characters should be consistent throughout the story. Don’t have Joey Bloggs appear in chapter three and then disappear for half the story before re-appearing again in chapter twenty-two. The reader will barely remember who he is, and there is nothing more irritating than having to go back through a book to find out who a character is and what relevance they have to the story.
4. It goes without saying that characters should never become caricatures. Neither should they be so clichéd that they border caricature. For example, these are the kind of hackneyed characters to avoid:
·        Rookie cop and streetwise cop. (It’s been done to death in the movies).  
·        The little old dear who is able to solve crimes. (Murder she Wrote, Miss Marple).
·        Madman wanting to take over the world.  (Any Bond film and pretty much most films containing mad men wanting to take over the world).

Your characters should be real, unique and individual, not clichés.

5. Although there is no set rule against it, another thing to look out for is having two characters that share the same first name initials, because this could lead to confusion for the reader, for example names like Carol and Corinne.
There is very good reason why many advise against it – editors tend to speed-read through manuscripts and it is easy to confuse characters who share the same initials, and it could lead to rejection if they’re confused by the character names. 
On this basis, it’s wise to make the characters stand out in more ways than usual if the reader is to differentiate, for instance, between Margot and Maureen, or Gary and Gerry.
In part 2, we’ll look at the rest of the character fundamentals to follow in order to help your chances of impressing prospective editors and publishers.

Next week: Character basics Part 2

Sunday, 23 June 2013

‘Moving the Story Forward’ explained

‘Moving the story forward’ is another of those things that deserves a second in depth look.  You may have come across the expression a number of times in the course of fiction writing. It’s a wide reaching phrase, but it’s also one that writers shouldn’t ignore.
But what does it actually mean?
If you’ve seen the phrase in advice columns, critiques or feedback from editors etc, it means that the editor wants to keep the momentum of the story moving to its conclusion, without interrupting its natural flow and without being overloaded with unnecessary, superfluous information.
From the opening sentence to the closing paragraph, the writer must always move the story forward – it should never slow to a boring pace because the narrative drags on and on and on, nor should it deviate from the main thread of the plot, which often happens with some writers.
In basic terms, it means that each scene and each chapter is a stepping stone to the next scene and next chapter, and so on, right up until the end of the story. 
Think of a group of travellers undertaking a long journey.  Imagine if the travellers decided instead to walk rather than drive.  Then imagine if they decided to have lots of relaxing breaks along the way, and finally they decided to take a nice scenic route.  Such a journey would take far too long, it would be boring in places and because of the meandering, it certainly wouldn’t be a direct route from start to finish.
The same is true of any story. There must be a direct route from the beginning to the ending without it slowing down or deviating wildly from the main plot.
The story must always move toward its conclusion, and there are several ways to do this.
Ways to move the story forward
Dialogue is one sure way to move the story forward. It allows the story arc to progress through characters interacting with each other and imparts necessary information for the reader where needed.
Dialogue between characters also serves to hint at things to come, another good way of moving things forward.
For example:
The boat at the docks departs at 8pm,’ he said. ‘It will get you into port at midnight. Someone will be waiting for you.’
‘Who’s my contact?’ David asked.
‘You’ll know when you get there. They will take you to the hotel.  The others will be waiting. They will assist the next stage of the mission in Rome…’
Description is another way. Again, imparting necessary information for the reader and required exposition keeps the momentum of the story going.  Writers do this by describing certain details – they may use direct information or they may use hints for things that are yet to take place later in the story.  Either way, it helps move things along. For example:
He knew that trying to rescue all the hostages by himself was futile.  He would need help, the kind of expertise that he lacked, and the expert he needed was the one person he detested most in the world - his ex-wife’s new man.  As much as he hated the idea, he had no choice.  He would go to New York and find Lazarus.
Transitional scenes also allow forward movement.  Without them, the story would stutter, become bogged down and deviate from the main plot. These kinds of scenes allow the writer to forgo the boring stuff that characters might otherwise undertake in order to get to the next scene as quickly as possible.
So, instead of, ‘Sarah got in the car and started the engine.  She retouched her lipstick and tidied her hair before adjusted her seat belt.  She checked her mirror and started her journey to Peter’s house…’
The writer could instead say, ‘Sarah raced to the car and headed for Peter’s house…’
The next scene can then start at Peter’s house.  It cuts out the waffle and the unnecessary boring stuff and takes a direct route to the next important scene. It moves the story forward.
Various action scenes also help to drive the story arc because these kinds of scenes will have conflict and resolution and of course, character motivation. The varying pace of these scenes helps to drive the story towards the climax.
By using all of these components together, the writer can keep momentum and move the story forward to its conclusion in the most direct, efficient way. 
In effect, a story should never stand still – it must always move forward.

Next week: Character basics

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Title is Vital

Getting your story written and finished is one thing, but no story is complete without an attention-grabbing title.
Just like the opening hook of the novel – those first few sentences that are designed to lure your reader into your story – the title also plays an important part in this process. 
Not only should the calibre of your writing sell your talent to prospective agents and publishers, but the piece-de-résistance should be a catchy, well thought out title, because this is also selling the writer to the publisher.
In fact the title of your story or novel is the very first thing the agent or editor will see, and first impressions always count. The idea is to prod and arouse their curiosity, to make them want to read your novel.  An eye-catching title is a useful self-marketing tool.  You are not just selling your novel; you are selling the next novel and the one after that. You are selling the whole package.
If you look at some of the titles of bestselling novels over the years, many of them lure or intrigue the reader, or simply spark curiosity. Think Catcher in the Rye, Under Milk Wood, Mercury Rising, To Kill a Mockingbird, Far from the Maddening Crowd…they’re all interesting titles.
They provoke interest. If we re-imagined some famous titles that were less provocative, would they have the same effect?  Would the ‘Mangy Mutt on the Moors’ make you want to buy this book?  Probably not.  ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ is much better.
What about ‘Caught In A No-Win Situation’?  Intriguing perhaps, but not exactly exciting. Instead, ‘Catch-22’ grabs the attention superbly.
There are, of course, book titles that have no particular relevance to the content of the novel. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ for instance, bears no apparent relation to what happens in the story. Neither does ‘The Naked Lunch’.  There are no hard or fast rules about this.  It’s up to the writer what he or she wants to call their work, so long as the title sparks enough interest in the first place.
On the whole, writers like to hint with their book title to what the story is about.  Sometimes this might be overt, i.e. ‘The Da Vinci Code’ or ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, or the title might be more subtle.
Some titles might have a double meaning. Stephen King’s ‘Misery’ is a name of a character within the book, but it also conveys the mood and feeling of the story. The main character’s life is made a misery, so the title has a double meaning.
‘A Farewell to Arms’ in a literal sense may mean saying farewell to arms (i.e. saying goodbye to war) but losing loved ones (lovers and friends) within the story is also a farewell to the arms of those loved and lost.  Again, the title has a double meaning.
Other titles might be more cryptic. ‘The Hunt for Red October’ intrigues us. ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ is a fantastic title and conjures all sorts of imagery.  They are evocative and more than likely we’d take a peep at the first page.
Many book titles start out differently to the finished product. That’s because the writer has put some thought into what the story is about and what it means and has then come up with the best title to show this. 
And although there is nothing wrong with starting a title with ‘The…’ (sometimes it is needed), writers should try to think of alternatives, if only to be a little different and fresh.
Writers should also make sure the title isn’t a cliché, or that it doesn’t end up sounding cheesy or contrived - the kind that usually accompany badly made TV films, for example, ‘Deadly Desire’ or ‘Doomed Attraction’ etc.  A terrible title can put an editor off.  Also, a terrible title might make the reader think the story is just as bad, too.
There are also the kinds of titles that relate to the content but don’t actually give anything away. ‘Jaws’ gives us an idea of what the story might be about. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is another. What about ‘For whom the Bell Tolls’? or ‘As I lay Dying’?  These titles hint at what the story might entail, but they don’t give much away.
An eye catching title is not always easy, either. Usually, the harder we think about them, the less likely we are of thinking one up. Sometimes they just come naturally.  Just like writing the novel itself, writers should take their time to come up with the best title for it.
But the one thing you will notice about all these titles is that they are catchy and they hook you. Whether simple one word titles, or longer ones, the writers/editors have thought hard about them, and they’ve done the job of luring the reader to pick up the book and read the first page.
And that’s because there is more to a title than meets the eye.

Next week: ‘Moving the story forward’ explained

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Why Appraisal is Important

Writers rarely think about feedback and appraisal while they’re writing. 
The story always takes precedence.  But there will come a point, however, when the novel or short story is finally finished – finished in the writer’s eyes – that the work should be appraised.
Feedback is such an important tool for writers, and not nearly exploited enough.  The idea is that a selective range of people – fellow writers perhaps, and ordinary folk – read your work and provide you with constructive feedback.
This obviously means opening yourself to criticism, however is it important to point out that it is useless becoming a writer unless you can’t take criticism.  As a writer, the very work you produce becomes a part of the public domain, so by the very act of publishing a story, you are and can be the subject of criticism. You cannot avoid it, and the quicker you become accustomed to it, the better it will be to deal with.
Why get people to read your work?
Even if we hate the idea, the purpose of letting others read our stories is multifunctional – it helps us to understand our writing, it helps us to understand errors, and over time it helps us improve. 
Critique from those who read your work is an important writing process in also understanding your level of skill, your writing limitations and the need for development in weak areas, because whatever you have missed, no matter how good an editor you are, the reader will inevitably notice.
Think of the feedback as market research. Large companies will regularly carry out market research to see if members of the public like their new products, their branding, their tastes etc.  Public opinion is very important here; it gives the company an idea if their product works or wither it needs improvement.
Nobody likes criticism, but it is a necessary evil where writing is concerned.  Not everyone who reads your story will like it – that is a logical given – but the people you choose should offer constructive and subjective criticism, the kind that helps rather than harms.  We all know that harmful criticism can cause untold problems for writers, so it is important to choose with care a reading peer group who can be objective.
Who do I choose to read my work?
1. Writing groups can provide plenty of guidance and support and constructive appraisal. 
2. Friends are better than family, simply because there is a better chance of them being objective.  Mom or Dad or Auntie Jean will tell you that your novel is wonderful, even if it isn’t. 
3. Some writers choose professional critique services, but that all depends on cost.
4. It’s possible that a tutor or fellow writing professional might also read your work and offer valuable feedback.
By sharing their work with others and by listening to their feedback and critique, writers who are willing to learn will have an instant advantage over those who don’t share.
Advantages of appraisal:
·        Mistakes that you otherwise missed are spotted – grammatical or otherwise.
·        Plot flaws that you thought were tight might be spotted.  This is common because writers become so close to the work that they don’t always see mistakes.
·        It gives you an idea about the strength of your writing – the person reading the work will tell you if there is too much waffle or too little description etc.
·        It gives you an idea of whether the story is actually any good – does it stand up to scrutiny?  Does the reader actually like it or loathe it?
·        Most importantly, it’s a way of measuring how well you handle criticism.
The universal reaction is usually ‘they don’t know what they’re talking about, they’re not writers.  My story is brilliant!’ It might be brilliant in the eyes of the writer, but not always brilliant for the reader.  Writers should understand that a reader’s opinion matters.
Without feedback of this nature, the major story you are working on will never be truly finished.  Even some seasoned writers send out their work for appraisal. They will know if something works, or if it doesn’t, and they will have the humility to do what is necessary to correct it and make it better, without throwing all their toys out of the pram and slinking into a cave to sulk.
Once some of the problems have been identified, fixed and double checked, then a story or MSS will be ready for an agent or publisher’s scrutiny.
If a writer can get over the initial reaction of being criticised, then they will find this process invaluable. 
If you can’t handle criticism, then there’s no point being a writer.

Next week: The title is vital

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Getting the Setting Right

You’ve got the story, you’ve got the characters and you’ve have the plot all planned out, but do you have the right setting?

The setting of the story is just as important as all the other aspects when it comes to writing. 
It doesn’t matter whether your story is set in Victorian London, modern day New York or the planet Mars in the 23rd century, you still have to let the reader know where and when the story is taking place because it helps the reader instantly understand the context and tone of the story and it tells them where the action is happening so that not only can they can visualise it, but they can become involved in the story.
In novels, readers expect a little more than a few lines of description to tell them that character A is walking around in some nondescript city.  Which city?  Where? Is it morning or evening or afternoon?  What’s the weather like?  Are the streets full with people or are they empty and desolate?

If the writer fails to share more of the setting, then the story also fails, to a degree, because it would be like a landscape painting but without the landscape.

By providing a setting, the writer is also providing extra information for the reader.  If, for instance, your character is in Far East, the reader will expect the setting to reflect that – the rich, diverse landscape should form the backdrop and provide the reader with extra information, as well as the flavours, colours and sounds.

Getting the Setting Right
Many writers make the mistake of either not making the setting known, or they go overboard with far too much description that the result is boring and badly written.
The best way to help the reader understand the setting it is to sprinkle the narrative with palatable snippets so that the description doesn’t overwhelm the reader in large, daunting chunks.
For example:
From the main road, John noticed a crop of tall masts glinting in the sun, bright against the azure sky.  They helped him navigate his way through the tourist crowd and finally he came to a large square edged by lively bistros and bars.  In front of him lay the marina, one of the busiest in Hampton…
From this brief description the reader knows that the action/scene is set in a marina, it’s a busy area because it mentions tourists and it references bars, and it also mentions that it’s a nice day because the sun is shining in azure sky.  There isn’t a lot of description, but the small snippets of information – tall masts, sun, tourists, bars and liveliness – adequately relate the setting.
The right setting also means getting the right balance with the description.  The setting does more than simply describe where and why or tells the reader where the action is taking place.  It also gives background colour to scenes and can act as a backdrop for atmosphere and tension.
For example:
The shadowy figure walked the darkened London city streets.  Rain splashed against his half-cloaked face.  Street lights shimmered against the downpour, reflected in puddles. In the distance the clouds churned above the night skyline. A flash of light momentarily brightened the scene before a low rumble sounded overhead. His cold breath hung in the air…
This simple example of setting tells the reader exactly what they need to know.  By adding descriptive flourishes, the whole setting is complete.  The reader knows where that the action is taking place in a city; they know it is night time, they know it’s raining and cold, they can hear the thunder and they can picture the lightning.  The setting has a strong noir feel - it has colour and texture and atmosphere.
Again the example isn’t overly descriptive, it provides small amounts of information that help construct the setting – city street, rain, street lights, churning clouds and cold stormy weather. 
It’s very simple in practice, yet so many writers forget to provide this information.
Setting adds power and effect to the narrative.  It does so much more than simply tell the reader where the action takes place.  Remember that it is part of the whole set up, so when you write your story, don’t forget to include those snippets of valuable information.  It’s worth it.

Next week: Seeking appraisal for your writing, and why it’s important.