Saturday, 28 June 2014

Top Writing Tips

Sometimes there is so much to remember when we’re writing that it’s easy to forget some things, but all it takes is some quick and easy tips to give ourselves that little push to make sure we’ve covered all the necessary elements to write a good story.
So, to make sure you don’t miss the obvious, here are some quick and easy writing tips:-
1. BANG!
That’s your opening gambit. Or something very similar. 
In other words, start your story at a pivotal moment in your character’s life, a moment of change, a moment of jeopardy, or even a bang; something that makes the reader instantly sit up and take notice.
Don’t ever start a story with lots of backstory. That means the reader would have to wade through three of four pages of boring information before anything notable happens.  Your opening chapter, and your opening sentence, should grab the reader and throw them right into the action, right from the outset.
2. Tempt, Tease & Tantalise
Sell the story like you mean it. In other words, never lose sight of the whole story and what it means for the reader. So you’ve grabbed their attention with a good opening, you’ve set the scene, you’ve introduced the main character and you set up the conflict…but then what?
Well, you keep doing just that you have to hold the reader’s attention for the entire story – tempt, tease and tantalise the reader from the opening sentence to the closing paragraph. That means you have to keep them reading by tempting them with what may come, you have to engage and entice them with the story by dangling those carrots and you have to excite and frustrate them in equal measure, right until the end.
3. Create Conflict
If there is little conflict there is no story.
Every story needs it. That means there will be a protagonist and an antagonist working against each other, and there will always be something stopping the main character reaching his or her end goal. That’s what conflict is about.
Conflict causes tension and tension causes atmosphere. Your story should never be as flat as a calm lake. Instead it should be rolling and roiling like a stormy sea.
Conflict comes in three forms, so make every use of them:-
Man v. man (external)
Man v nature (external)
Man v himself (internal)

4. Raise the Stakes!

Don’t make it easy for your main characters.

In fact, make it as hard as possible for them to reach their ultimate goal. Be mean. Back them into corners, give them problems to deal with, place barriers in their way, give them dilemmas and force them to make choices.

Keep raising the stakes...readers love it.

5. Dump the Info Dump

Many writers fall headlong into the info dump.  This is when there is too much explanation in the narrative, where the writer has forgotten that huge chucks of information will bore the reader senseless. Readers don’t mind information, but in small, easy to digest snippets. In truth, they just want to get back to the action.
If you’ve written three pages of explanation or backstory, go back and edit it until it’s no more than three or four paragraphs.
6. Go on a Wordy Killing Spree
Go through your story and kill all those pesky adverbs and adjectives - they just love to creep into the narrative and weaken it. Instead, replace them with nouns and verbs, which strengthen the narrative.
Get rid of all those dangling participles at the beginning of sentences, look out for repetition, weed out the instances of ‘was’  from your descriptive passages, and make sure your descriptions don’t suffer from wordiness.
7. Show, Don’t Tell
Everybody knows this maxim. Where important descriptions are concerned, show the reader, don’t tell them. Your story isn’t an instruction manual. If you tell the reader everything, rather than show them, they won’t be able to engage with the story or your characters, they won’t be able to imagine being there in that moment.
For example, don’t tell them that two characters are trying to cross a fast flowing river to rescue someone on the other side, that they used a rope and made it safety. That’s boring.
Show the reader how the characters struggle with the current, show the danger, the fear. Show them the conflict (man v. nature), and show the determination and strength of courage and finally show them the relief when the reach the other side.
By ’showing’ the reader, you strengthen your key scenes considerably.
8. Make Your Ending Count
Your ending should never be a damp squib. It should be satisfactory for both writer and reader – in other words, it should be absolutely right for the story.
Don’t overwrite it, or let it drag on, but don’t leave the reader scratching their head or feeling they’ve been short changed, either. Put as much effort into creating the right ending as you would to create a great opening for your story.
If it doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t.  Endings should tie up all the loose ends and more importantly, leave the reader gratified and contented with the outcome.
9. Read Your Story Aloud
Another great way to edit is to read your story aloud.  This may seem strange, and you may feel silly doing it, but it is a fantastic way for you to actually ‘hear’ what you have written, as opposed to reading it.
Reading it aloud allows you to listen to your dialogue – does it sound real enough, does it make sense? It also allows you to hear the pace of your story and whether it flows correctly, and whether all your sentence structures read well.
10. Write, edit, write, edit…
First drafts are but the skin that covers the bare bones. That means no one can ever write a perfectly polished, publishable story/novel first time around. It never happens, because the story will be full of mistakes, there will be too many long scenes, stuff that doesn’t quite make sense, characters that can be ditched, holes in the plot, not enough description, or not enough dialogue, or subplots and loose ends that need to be tidied up.
What writers do, however, is edit each draft until it’s a close to perfect as possible. Some writers can do it in two or three edits, depending on their experience, others need four or five edits. But each time you edit, the story should improve, until there are no plot flaws, everything reads smoothly, there is a good balance of narrative, dialogue and description, there are no grammar errors, the subplots compliment the main story and the characters are fully fledged and so on.
Never lose sight of all these elements and you won’t go far wrong in your writing.

Next week: Does cross-genre writing really work?

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Why Rejection is a Good Thing

There is nothing worse than a hard kick in the guts. That’s generally what rejection feels like.
After working hard writing, drafting and editing your masterpiece, and especially after having the courage to submit it to an agent or publisher, you get the summary rejection.  And it does deflate you, no matter how experienced a writer you are.
There is a misconception that rejections represent failure. But while rejections do hurt – we feel they do because we automatically interpret a rejection as a personal rejection, when in fact it is nothing of the sort – they should be treated as a positive rather than the epitome of failure.
Firstly, rejections happen for many reasons, not just the obvious “my story must be rubbish, that’s why it was rejected”. For instance, there are other reasons:-

  • Not right for the target market
  • Agents/publishers are not taking on new authors for the moment
  • Not what the agent/publisher is looking for right now
  • Needs more work/editing on plot/storyline
  • Not enough characterisation – characters were not strong enough
  • Implausible plot
  • The story wasn’t quite strong enough.
  • The quality of writing is lacking, and needs more work.
Those are just a few of the myriad reasons why writers receive rejections. Many rejections may involve a few words from the editor to why the work was rejected – this is very important. Others may not offer anything but an automated ‘no thanks’.

The reasons for rejection will either make you throw your manuscript into the nearest corner while you retreat to your cave to sulk, or it will make you sit up, take notice and work towards improvement by taking the feedback given to you and reworking your story.
Rejections are a valuable way for you to understand the strengths and weaknesses in your writing, and you as a writer, so you should take the time process the rejection and the reasons why. Once it is processed, you can dust yourself off and get on with improving the story. There is no need to give up. 
Any notes from an editor will help you see where improvements can be made – on the whole they tend to be very constructive. Things like grammar, better sentence structures, more characterisation and more “showing” rather than “telling” are staples of many rejections. And with a bit of thought and hard work, these things are easily improved.
You may be lucky to get a more in depth response from an editor, detailing problem areas such a dialogue or lack of description. Or they may have spotted much bigger problem areas such as plot flaws or far-fetched storyline.  
As the writer, you should take the comments on board and go back to your work with an objective eye to see how right they are. Are there really plot flaws? Is the storyline really far-fetched? If so, work harder to improve them.
Really good, constructive rejections won’t just highlight those shady areas that could be made better; they also tell you the positive points, the things that do work. Getting things right is what we all want, and to receive that affirmation makes you feel better, but it also motivates us become better writers, who write quality stories.
Rejections are not the end of the world (only for about a day, maybe), before the clouds of doom clear and we see things differently. The realisation that, actually, your story does need to be re-worked.
Essentially, rejections are a good thing, they make us better writers. They tell us that we have to do better; they tell us where we’ve gone awry. They are our headmistresses, lurking in the classroom, making sure we do well.

  • They highlight strengths and weaknesses in our writing
  • They pick out flaws in our writing
  • They challenge the often inflated opinions we have of ourselves as writers, and bring us down a peg or two.
  • They highlight various areas for improvement
  • Some are quite constructive, highlighting our good points
  • They are not about failure, but about putting in more work.

With the exception of those who choose to self-publish (and thus bypass the rejection process), every writer has experienced rejection. I could paper a wall with all my rejections. But without those rejections, I would not have become published.
Love them or loathe them, rejections are more valuable than writers realise.
Next week: Top writing tips.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Difference Between Narrative & Exposition

Every writer will know what narrative is, but how many understand what exposition is?
It’s easy to think that both terms mean the same thing, but they are different, and writers should understand those differences when it comes to their writing. Not only do writers need to understand there are differences, but that exposition and narrative have different roles to play in story construction and they effect the pacing of the story.
The easiest way to explain the difference is that narrative is a way for the writer to inform the reader with non-active description, a way of simply relaying non-essential information. In its broadest sense, the writer is ‘telling’ the reader, but that information doesn’t really move the story forward.
For example, this is narrative:
In the days leading up to Bobby’s death, Michael never gave a second thought to the safety of his horses. His complacency had become so ingrained that it was an invisible force. He should have paid attention, but in the end, he didn’t.
You can see that this is non-essential background information for the reader. Narrative like this fills the gaps between descriptive, active scenes and dialogue. It is telling the reader some information, it gives some character revelation, but it’s not descriptive in any way, it’s merely telling the reader.
Exposition, on the other hand, gives important information, it explains to the reader in more detail, it contains description, it informs and it moves the story forward. The writer is ‘showing’ the reader.
For example, exposition would be something like this:
The huge chestnut horse didn’t move, and when Michael touched Bobby’s neck, it felt firm and cold. His eyes were darker than Michael remembered; the life drained, his essence vanished, leaving behind a physical shell that continued to die. Whatever had killed Bobby, Michael wanted payback.
Unlike narrative, the exposition is showing the reader with description, it’s informing the reader, but it is also moving the story forward by hinting at Michael’s indentations.
When is narrative effective?
Narrative is most effective when it’s balanced with description (exposition) and dialogue.
There are times in a story that a writer needs to quickly convey necessary information to the reader, without taking two pages to describe it, and therefore narrative is essential.  Because it is merely relaying information – in the right places, with little disruption – it helps slow the pace of the story and allows the reader to take a breather, allowing them to step back from the action while they process prior information or events.  Writers have to allow their readers to take a breather, to vary the pace, to tease them.
Narrative also gives the writer time to establish some background details and setting, the tone, and to set up the next scenes.
By its very nature, narrative will slow the pace of the story and halt the active momentum; therefore writers should be aware that too many long sections of narrative will eventually bore the reader. They will want to get back to action. In other words, keep narrative sections fairly short, but just enough to give the reader any necessary information.
Narrative is also used for transitions, smoothly moving from one scene to another without pages and pages describing how and why. Just a few words of narrative will accomplish a transitional scene.
They are also used to establish flash back scenes, because in just a few sentences the writer can take the action back to a time in a character’s past. This can’t be done effectively if it was written as exposition, simply because it would take half a chapter to do it.
Good writers can successfully weave the narrative between descriptive and action scenes and dialogue scenes. That way, there is no need for huge chucks of narrative that could effectively bring the pace to a complete halt.
When is exposition effective?
As with narrative, exposition works when balanced with dialogue and narrative.
In Latin, it means “showing forth.” Put simply, show the reader what is happening, don’t tell them. And that is the crux of exposition.
Exposition is effective when interwoven with dialogue and narrative in order to provide depth and dimension to the story, because most scenes in any story will be made up of all three elements.
Well written exposition helps the writer to show what is happening, rather than just telling the reader. The descriptions give the reader more information, more facts, and more emotion, and it helps with active scenes by quickening the pace.
Unlike narrative, exposition also allows us to hear character thoughts, for example:
Reflective crystals glittered in the snow, bright beneath the moon glow. David pulled aside the branches he had carefully lain over the large mound, but the snow and dirt beneath had been disturbed.
Someone’s been here, he thought, and his heartbeat quickened. Someone knew Ellen was buried here…
The exposition here not only shows what he is doing, but also shows what David is thinking in correlation to the scene.  
The drawback with exposition is that writers sometimes write too much of it and it then becomes an ‘info dump’. As with anything, it’s all about balance.  Use just enough exposition show the reader in a compelling, interesting and descriptive way, interspersed with narrative, and dialogue, to get the right balanced effect.
In a nutshell, narrative is telling. Exposition is showing.

Next week: Why rejection is a good thing.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Creating Suspense & Atmosphere – Part 2

Last week we looked at creating suspense and expectation.
This week we’ll look at atmosphere and how it works in relation to suspense in order to keep the reader on the edge of their seats.
Firstly, atmosphere often refers to the mood and feeling that is created within the story. Sometimes it is subtle, sometimes it’s obvious.  But relaying it successfully depends entirely how well the writer conveys it. If done well, the writer will have created an emotional response from the reader.
Without a reader’s emotional connection with characters, the ability to capture atmosphere will be lost.
But what actually creates atmosphere?
Several elements help the writer create a sense of atmosphere – description and imagery, senses and the setting. Used separately they are interesting elements, but used together they have the power to drag the reader right into the heart of the story.
Description and Imagery
Description helps the reader understand what is happening within the story; it gives them more than just a flat landscape to walk through. They rely on descriptions to imagine the characters and the places and the action. Even small, descriptive details help create atmosphere.
But description is nothing without powerful imagery to enhance it.
Imagery refers to the sensory details given by the writer – it is the catalyst to creating mood and emotions, and ultimately, a sense of atmosphere.
For instance, a dark house in the middle of the forest already creates a sense of mood. The clever use of description enhances that mood – things like shadows, low cloud, the intense darkness, moisture in the air, earthy, musty scents. For example:
Rust tinted clouds gathered across the forest, full with rain. Behind the grimy windows of the old farmhouse, the shadows of the past skulked without purpose, forever silenced, except for the wind rasping through the its empty hallways...
The description in this example, inlaid with imagery, creates a sense of foreboding and unease. These feelings and emotions, and the imagery, creates atmosphere because it is manipulating how the reader will feel.
If it was written with different description and imagery, it would create an entirely different atmosphere, for example:
Marshmallow clouds drifted across an azure sky, and reflected the sunlight across wide open fields. Behind the pristine windows of the farmhouse, children chased each other from room to room, filling the air with voices of delight.
You can see how the mood is different and the atmosphere is one of light and playfulness. The right choice of words creates evokes entirely different feelings for the reader.
You don’t have to over describe, but think carefully how your descriptions build upon and maintain the atmosphere.
The Senses
In addition to description, writers use the senses to enrich the description and overall mood, which they do not just through description, but more importantly, through their characters, because this creates a sense of immediacy.
What can the character see? What can they smell? Can they taste anything on their tongue – the salty hint of sea air maybe? What can they hear? A soft breeze on a summer’s day, or the low growl of a storm?
What if they reached out and touched something? What would that something feel like? Is it soft and wonderful or is it vile and sticky? 
These elements can help the reader imagine these senses, and again the choice of words and the anticipation creates atmosphere.
In my previous example I used an old abandoned farmhouse surrounded by a forest. This is the setting. By the virtue of it being abandoned to shadows, it already creates atmosphere and the reader will immediately pick up on the eeriness and the seclusion and the trepidation.
The setting that you create can evoke something warm and fuzzy, or it can be creepy and scary. It could be something nice taking place in the daytime, or it might be something terrible about to happen during night time. 
Weather conditions can form part of your setting, so you could have a scene with the sun and the heat, or you might want a thunderstorm and the coolness of the rain. Each one conjures different connotations.
Whatever you create, they all form part of the overall atmosphere and has to create a strong response with the reader.
Consider the imagery certain words can create, think about the emotional responses you could generate with the right choice of words, whether they are positive reactions or negative ones.
When you mix together the right description, the right imagery, the setting, and you involve the senses, you can create atmosphere, mood, tension, anticipation, trepidation…the list is endless.  And all these keep your reader on the edge of their seats.
Next week: The difference between exposition and narrative.