Saturday, 29 November 2014

How to Improve Writing Skills

None of us start out as experts at writing. We all have to start at the beginning and learn and grow as writers, but there are many ways writers can improve their writing skills. Some of them are very simple.
Know the Basics
The basics of fiction writing should not be beyond the comprehension of any writer, even newbies. By basics, I mean things like a good grasp of vocabulary and grammar, a familiarity with the language (i.e. to have some knowledge of verbs, adverbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns and so on), and syntax, the ability to provide decent narrative composition.
When these basics are not in place, then learn about them, otherwise the resulting attempt at a blockbusting novel might be a mess. The easiest way to learn about the basics is to read lots of books on grammar and writing.
Observe and Listen 
Not many writers give credit to this, or they fail to see how it could possibly improve their abilities, but observation is vital to learning and improving writing skills, because the more you observe, the more experience you store in the memory banks to help you construct better descriptions. For example, if you have a scene that involves rain, have you ever scrutinised it; how it moves, the shapes it makes when it hits a surface, the sound it makes? Ever just watched and listened to it? 
If so, then you can translate it into your fiction with better imagery and description. If not, try it.
This applies to anything you observe, be it clouds, storms, people, situations, sounds, nature, working systems/mechanics...anything that you can call upon to help enrich your narrative with that hint of realism that the reader loves.
This is the cornerstone to self-improvement where fiction writing is concerned.
Every writer will tell you that reading is paramount to improving writing skills.  Why?  Because you get to see how other authors write – their styles, their voice, their narrative constructions and so on. The more you read different authors, the better you will recognise and understand the writing process and what it takes to write effective fiction.
Reading allows us to widen our understanding of fiction writing, it helps us discover new words and meanings, it helps understand how things like flashback or foreshadowing works, it shows us how scenes are constructed and set out etc., but most of all, reading others helps provide writers with inspiration by motivating us to write, to be the best we can be.
It is still one of the best ways to help writers improve, and that’s to simply write. The more you write, the more you learn and understand and the more you improve. It’s that simple and it works.
Practice is what makes us better and more proficient. The more you write, the better you become.
Pay Attention
It’s easy for writers to do their own thing and ignore common advice about writing, especially general guidelines that are there to help them, whether it is about writing or whether it’s about submitting to agents or publishers. 
If writers don’t pay attention to general rules and guidelines, then the result will be obvious for readers – a badly written, badly constructed story not worth a moment of the reader’s time.
While there are no rules set in stone – other than grammar and syntax – instead there are guidelines, which are in place for a very good reason, so pay attention or ignore them at your cost.
Learn to Edit
Being a writer is the whole deal, you’re in it for the whole nine yards. Not some of it, but all of it. If you write it, then it’s your responsibility to do the hard work and edit, not someone else. It has become so easy now for writers to palm off their novel to an editor who may improve the work, but they don intimately know the work like the writer does. 
Learn to edit your work. Not only does it make you appreciate your own writing ability and your limitations – every writer has limitations - but it also improves your skills and knowledge of fiction writing because
Plan what you want to write. You don’t build a house without a plan first. Fiction is no different. Having a plan – be it a plan outlining the plot, a simple line diagram, a mind map or a thoroughly constructed strategy – it helps keeps the writer on the right track, it provides a catalyst to creativity, it prevents writer’s block and it stops the writer wandering off on a tangent.
A simple plan is the fiction writer’s best friend. Those who don’t plan will end up stumbling by the middle of their book; they will face a brick wall and won’t know how to develop the story further. They will drift off or other characters may take over, or the story will get so messy it become unclear whose story it is.
Plan or not to plan? That’s down to the writer, but if you fail to plan on where you are going or what you are doing, then you quickly end up going nowhere.
To summarise:

  • Know the basics
  • Observe and Listen
  • Read
  • Write, write and write
  • Pay attention to guidelines
  • Learn to edit
  • Plan your work

Next week: Active and Passive Voice

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Symbolism - Part 2

With some understanding of what symbolism is and the important part it can play in your fiction, how does a writer use it to his or her advantage, and more importantly, when should it be used?
Symbolism is about representation and interpretation, so the inclusion of it should be carefully considered. It’s not one of those things a writer can make up on the spot. And more often than not, these elements don’t make themselves known until the second or third draft, when the narrative has been edited and the story arc becomes clear. By then, themes and motifs will have emerged to strengthen the story, and any symbolism you have in mind will be closely related to the themes running through the story.
In short, symbols need to mean something within the story; they have to have a purpose and they should link to the themes within the narrative.
You may find that some symbols become apparent while writing, while others emerge during the editing process.
Placing symbolism first requires the writer to fully understand the depth of their story, to instinctively know when to place any symbols. For instance, you may have a character that keeps seeing certain things – perhaps a bird keeps appearing at heightened emotional moments. Or maybe a certain colour triggers a memory it time he or she sees it, and the colour represents something in the character’s past.
Certain moments within the story undoubtedly benefit from symbolism, a key moment perhaps, a revelation or a subtle undercurrent of hints in more atmospheric moments.
They don’t need to be overt or obvious. Sometimes the best examples of symbolism are the subtle ones. You can be as specific or as vague as you want, it is entirely up to you, but as long as the reader is able to notice them and reference them.
The ring in the Lord of the Rings could be interpreted as a symbol of power. In the Harry Potter books, the snake that reoccurs throughout the story could be seen as a symbol of evil. Animal Farm is packed with symbolism, but the most evident is that of the power of the pigs and the ruling class that symbolise the growth and emergence of Communism is Russia.
In a recent short story, I used a clock to symbolise not just the passage of time, but the importance of an impending event by having the main character constantly check the time as it ticked towards the inevitable outcome. The clock an inanimate object, yet it plays a significant role within the story.
The way to use any symbol effectively is to have it appear in the story several times at key moments (any more than three or four times over the space of an average 80,000 word novel would be overkill). So in an important moment you could reference the symbol, then further into the story you could place it again to add a little depth, and then towards the end where its meaning gains the most momentum and strength.
Of course, where you place them is entirely down to you, but they should never be placed randomly, otherwise their meaning is lost on the reader. All symbolism should relate directly to the key moment you want to reference.
As with many literary devices, writers should never overuse them, because if the narrative becomes littered with symbolic references, they simply lose their impact with the reader. Less is always more.
Also remember that you should never force symbolism into the narrative to try to create an impact, because the result is always trite and somewhat mechanical (or ‘machina’, as per deus ex machina). Let the symbols emerge naturally from the narrative.
But what if they don’t emerge? Don’t worry too much. Symbolism isn’t always apparent on the first or even the second draft. Sometimes they become clear after several edits. There may even be occasions when symbolism just doesn’t happen for the writer. Sometimes that happens. If does and those symbols remain elusive, then don’t worry, there are plenty of other literary narrative devices to help boost and strengthen your story.
So, whether you use a sunrise to show a sense of hope, withered flowers to show something in decline or a ticking clock – whatever the symbol – make sure it’s relatable to the themes and story and that it’s repeated in the narrative, but above all, make it mean something.
Next week: How to Improve Your Writing Skills

Saturday, 15 November 2014


How much symbolism do you use in your fiction? Some? Not much? None at all?
In truth, many writers don’t bother with symbolism, it’s absent from their fiction, simply because they don’t really understand much about it or why it should be there in the first place. 
Literary devices such as symbolism aren’t a must. Writers don’t have to have to use it in their writing. There is no rule to say you should. But like most literary devices, it adds those ‘brush strokes’ or layers of depth to the finished story, those subtle nuances that readers really like, but don’t always realise are there.
But what is it? What does it do for fiction?
Symbolism is an extremely useful device that contains hidden, deeper meaning to the narrative, but represents many aspects of the story.  In the context of any story there is the literal meaning to the narrative, but also a symbolic meaning, if the writer chooses. This is done using objects, people, colours, shapes, words, actions and even the senses…practically anything can be used for symbolism.
Symbolism works because it gives readers the chance to peel back the layers of a story and take a sneak peak below the surface, to find the stuff that isn’t so overt.
The Power of Suggestion
Symbolism is a powerful tool if used correctly. It’s a great way to hint at things beyond the surface level. We all know what ‘read between the lines’ means, and adding symbolism helps the reader understand much more than is being said in the narrative. It helps them to read between the lines and discover the hidden meanings in the story.
In simple terms, the writer has the power of suggestion, so all good novels/stories should contain at least some symbolism.
Different Symbols
Colours are often used to great effect in novels. Think of the association we have with the colour red – it can symbolise love but it can also symbolise blood, life or death, depending how the author uses it. Black has many different connotations, particularly with death or foreboding. It’s an effective colour to show impending doom or depression. Blue is said to be a relaxing colour and green evokes a sense of nature or renewal etc.
Writers often use nature and the elements to symbolise different things, be it rain or water, which is generally associated with cleansing, fire, which has many cultural and social connotations such as regeneration or renewal and the weather is used by many writers, for example a faraway storm to symbolise a rough road ahead for your main character or an ice cold frost which may mean a place is unfriendly or uninviting. And how many of us have read about ravens?  They are usually a symbol of death and foreboding whenever they appear.
Of course, the most obvious ones are used on a regular basis – daylight symbolises rebirth, goodness. Night symbolises death or evil.
Metaphor is also used as symbolism. For instance, caged birds could be used as a metaphor for repression or captivity, of feeling imprisoned.
Motifs are another way of creating symbolism.  A motif is a repeated element throughout the story and is more obvious than more subtle, hidden symbols.  I use the colour red – symbolising blood – throughout one of my stories, especially when it’s starkly contrasted against pristine snow. The motif is the colour itself and the blood symbolises the struggle of life and death for the main character.
Does Symbolism Matter?
It should matter if you want your fiction to stand out. Symbols allow a writer to show the reader so much more beneath the narrative, that there is more to the story than meets the eye. It should matter if you want your fiction to stand out. Symbols allow a writer to show the reader so much more beneath the narrative, that there is more to the story than meets the eye.
The whole story is something that the reader can scratch or peel away to reveal more. They are part of the process – as writers we want them not only to read what we have written, but to interpret what we have said. That way, reading a good yarn takes on a whole new meaning.
Next week we’ll look at when to use symbolism in fiction writing and how to use it effectively.

Next week: Symbolism – Part 2

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Creating Believable Plots

It’s at the forefront of every writer’s mind to create a story that is believable or realistic, to ensure the story doesn’t lose its credibility by the end of the story. The plot is a fundamental necessity.
So what exactly is a plot?
A plot is the sequence of events within the story that are all related in some way – The bare bones of the story which will follow a main character who has a specific goal, but he or she is unable to reach it and has to do what is necessary to achieve that goal.
The plot is the framework for which all events are built around.
For instance, a simple plot would be that a boy really likes a girl, but she’s going out with the handsome kid who is good at everything, and because of that he’s arrogant, cocky and not a nice person. Our hero is a quiet underachiever, who thinks he won’t amount to much, but a series of events helps him to get closer to the girl and eventually she sees beyond his nerdy persona to the real person within and eventually she falls in love with him…
The plot is simple, but the events that happen must be believable and plausible for the reader to fully accept the story.
Problems with Plots
Quite a few writers still make the mistake of letting the characters and the action take over the plot (you only have to see Hollywood films to see how this happens). The plot – the guts of any story – becomes lost. The reader won’t get what the story is truly about.
Also, if you have really ridiculous things happen in the story – beyond the realms of realism – the reader will spot it.
For example, halfway through the novel your protagonist has to do something that his or her character wouldn’t actually be able to do in real life, such as build a make-shift bomb or tap into an encrypted computer to retrieve important files…unless of course that character is a bomb expert to begin with or he or she is an IT expert with computers, and you have made these facts known from the very beginning.
In the realistic sense, these just wouldn’t be possible otherwise; therefore they render the plot unbelievable.
Not only that, but the reader won’t believe in the characters as a result. You will lose any credibility.
Waving a magic wand over your character so he suddenly knows how to fly a plane out of danger or work a complex piece of machinery he’s never seen before is known as deus ex machina. Avoid it.
That said, if your character possesses a certain skill, make it known early in the story, otherwise if they do something really out of the ordinary, the reader will think “What? No way, that’s ridiculous!”
Coincidences, like hot-wiring a car or knowing how to pick a lock are one thing, but there are only so many coincidences the reader will put up with. A plot should be probable and possible and should stick to the realms of average realism.
Readers Need to Relate to the Plot
It’s quite self-explanatory. With a sense of realism and the ordinary, readers can relate to the situations you create for the characters.
Would you be able to construct a weapon from a few bits of metal pipe and a spring? Would you be able to bypass a secure computer network and get your hands on sensitive information? Would you know what to do with a raging fire all around you? Would you be able to escape a secure prison cell?
In reality, not many of us could answer those questions affirmatively. Because in reality, we wouldn’t know what to do, we wouldn’t have the means.
The reality is very different from the imagination. As writers we have to bring that sense of reality into focus.
So perhaps we can show a character, through flashback or early narrative, that he or she has seen something on the internet or TV, or has had some training in a certain skill, or has friends who are experts from their field, or they have read something in an instructional manual.
By showing the reader how your characters can do things and why, the reader can then relate to it. We can relate to training or experience, we can relate to using initiative and enlisting help, we can all relate to seeing lots of stuff on TV and internet and books; information that might come in handy one day. We all relate to that.
The events you create must therefore become relatable and plausible. Situations have to be believable, not contrived.
The way to create a believable plot is to create a story and its events that are not over the top, but are plausible and within reason, and the key is to let the reader know early on in the story the kind of person the main character is and what they can do. So if they have a special skill, make it known. If they have experience of something, make it known.
Not only that, but the character has to be believable. Your main character is not James Bond or Superman. They are ordinary people like you and me, with ordinary skills and ordinary flaws.
Want your plot to be believable? Then be reasonable with the events and the characters, don’t go over the top and make sure you let the reader know early on what their strengths and weaknesses are.
Make your plot:

  • Plausible and probable
  • Realistic
  • Acceptable
  • Relatable
  • Credible
  • Sensible
Next week: Symbolism

Sunday, 2 November 2014

How to Write Scary Scenes – Part 2

Last week we looked at the different elements writers can use when writing scary scenes.
Part 2 is about bringing those elements together into believable, cohesive scenes that should build upon the mood and atmosphere, with a sense of impending doom, danger or hidden anticipation for the main character.
Usually the reader is privy to this approaching danger, but the main character is not.  Writers use this ploy very successfully. That means that the reader is aware that something bad will happen any minute, so there is a build up of expectation. The reader will know something is about to happen.
The trick with this kind of atmospheric scenes is to keep the focus on the main character – their actions and thoughts and reactions - and not allow POVs to shift around. That will instantly kill any tension and atmosphere you have already established.
Description is also key to a successful scary scene – the reader is relying on the writer to deliver such imagery that they feel as though they’re right there in the action. You can choose to be visceral or gory or you can be the opposite and let the reader’s imagination fill in all the details.
With those elements in place scary or atmospheric scenes should be easier to write. Here’s some example from my own published stories:
‘Her bedroom door slowly opened to the shadows in the hallway; they sucked out the warmth and left a slicing chill, but Kate remained in slumber, despite the room growing colder.  A teasing stream of vapour coiled into the air as she breathed.
The door wavered as though a soft breeze had swept past.  The shadow in the corridor lurched, grew black…’
Here the emphasis is on the mood and tone which helps to create the build-up of atmosphere and expectation within the story. Shadows creeping in the dark, the cold air, the girl asleep in bed, unaware there is something lurking in the corridor outside her bedroom…these simple elements help the reader imagine the worst.
Excerpt from ‘Nocturne’ © 2011 published by Static Movement
The following excerpt is about an evil clown who manifests from an old oil painting of a clown – it comes to life with murderous intent. It preys on our fear of clowns, on our perceptions of inanimate objects moving in the corners of our eyes and then it creates foreboding for what is about to happen.
Something slithered beneath the canvas and large flakes of paint peeled away as the material flexed. Slowly, a shape appeared, as though drowning beneath silken sheets. First the shape of a mouth, open as though screaming, then a large forehead, then tips of fingers, pulsing and pushing beneath the canvas...pushing until a tearing sound spliced the silence and the painting split open to reveal a darkness which spilled out like innards into the cumulative silence, before retreating and spreading into the shadowy corners of the study…
Excerpt from ‘Augustine’ © 2014 published by Thirteen O’clock Press
The excerpt below uses foreshadowing to tease the reader of what lies in wait. It’s very simple, but it uses visual cues to set the scene for which the rest of the story is built upon:
The demon in his eyes unfurled.
Darkness descended quickly. Orange-tinted clouds rolled and billowed forward, low in the sky. Grey layers began to form above the forest like a bank of fog.
The rain was coming.
Excerpt from ‘Deceit’ © 2013 published by Static Movement
Being able to scare or horrify your readers isn’t easy – what may seem creepy or scary to one reader may not be to another – that’s all down to perception. It’s how the reader perceives what is being described – and that’s where the setting, the atmosphere, the tone, the mood, the focus, the sense of impending danger and the character focus really works.
And of course, it’s about how you describe it all.
The best way to understand it is to read the likes of Edgar Allen Poe or HP Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, Graham Masterton, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Clive Barker, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and James Herbert, to name but a few.
General Tips:
1. Don’t overdo the scene or take too long over it, otherwise you risk losing the mood, atmosphere and tension.
2. Try not to fall into cliché, such as setting your story in a dark house in the middle of nowhere, a haunted mansion or the over-used cabin in the woods. Also avoid characters that do really dumb things, such as creep around in the dark when it’s plain they could just switch a light on. If they have to creep around in the dark, give them good reason to.
Don’t have your character(s) in the ‘car won’t start at the worst moment’ cliché or the running from the monster and tripping over their own feet cliché, (especially when they’ve managed the whole story to stay upright without incident).
3. Play around with reader’s expectation. In other words, the reader may expect what will happen next, but then something happens that they don’t expect at all.
4. Torture your reader – raise the tension, make them think something is going to happen, then ease off. Then raise then tension again. And so on until they can’t take anymore.
5. Practice, practice, practice.

  • Tease the reader; hold back on some the details to create a sense of tension and foreboding.
  • Raise the stakes for your main character – hint at or show conflict
  • Increase the sense of danger
  • Make use of the setting
  • Make use of the sense 

Next week: How to write believable plots