Saturday, 19 December 2015

The Essential Fiction Writing Checklist - Part 1

As 2015 draws to a close, what better way to round off the year than with something that every writer should keep close at hand as a reminder for their writing?
The Essential Fiction Writing Checklist is a list of useful prompts and reminders that even experienced writers sometimes forget. That’s because we become so wrapped up with our writing that we are all capable of forgetting the simplest things from time to time.
This list covers those essential elements that sometimes slip through the net. It will help you when you come to revise your drafts and edit your work, and hopefully make everyone better writers.
In Part 1 we’ll kick off the list and Part 2 will appear in January 2016.
The Checklist:
Begin to/Decide to/Going to
Here’s one of those peculiar instances in fiction of what seems right, but isn’t. Don't have characters ‘begin to’ do things. In real life, we don’t actually begin to do anything, we just do it. Fiction is no different, so have your characters take direct action. For example:
They began to speak, she began to run, he began to dig…
We’re all guilty of this at times, so go through your story and take them out. Ensure the characters take direct action, for instance:
They spoke, she ran, he dug…

The same principle applies when characters ‘decide to’. Don't have people ‘decide to’ do things. Whist people in real life do decide things; in fiction we can’t really show this process. We can tell the reader that a character is thinking or contemplating what to do, but where action is concerned, characters don’t decide to do anything. For example:
After the meeting, he decided to leave for home.
Deciding to do something stalls the active part of the narrative. Just have them do it, for instance: 
After the meeting he left for home.
Yet another of the ‘begin to/decide to’ constructions is ‘going to’. While this is not exactly incorrect, many writers still use it, especially when showing character’s thoughts, or in dialogue, for example:
She was going to be angry.
‘He is going to be upset,’ he said.
Always aim to make sentence constructions better, so instead of ‘going to’, it is better to use ‘will’, for instance:
She will be angry.
‘He will be upset,’ he said.
Tight Dialogue
Always aim for dialogue that flows naturally and relates to the story. Don’t prattle and don’t have characters talk about stuff that has nothing to do with the story. Vary the dialogue, but try to keep it brief, and don’t overuse character names, for example:
‘Listen, Jane, I’m glad you’re here. I really need your help. I need all the files on this case; I need you to help me go through them with a fine tooth comb. I know it’s a pain in the backside, Jane, what with all the overtime you’ve put in, and I know how much you’re saving for that holiday in Bali, but you know how important this is to me, right, Jane?’
Dialogue like this can be much better by keeping it brief and to the point and removing the repetition of Jane, for instance:
‘Jane, I need all the files on this case; we need to go through all of them. It’s important.’
The second example is straight to the point and cuts out the waffle. Less prattle here means more description and narrative elsewhere.
Gerunds are the nouns that end with ‘ing’. For example: smoke = smoking, run = running, read = reading. They are fine when used in the right context, but in narrative they have a tendency to creep in when the sentence structures are ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, for instance:
He grabbed the rope, pulling it as hard as he could, heaving the dead weight up and over the edge, relying on his upper body strength to do it…
Every writer does this – it’s natural to do it, however, sentences are stronger without them. That’s not to say that they aren’t useful, because they are, in the right places, but in a sentence like the example above, they tend to weaken the writing. It’s better written like this:
He grabbed the rope, pulled it as hard as he could and heaved the dead weight up and over the edge. He relied on his upper body strength to do it…
Not one gerund appears in this second example, because the sentence structure makes it hard to fall into the habit of using them.
One way to make writing better and tighter is to avoid overuse of participial phrases. They have their uses in the right places within narrative, but it is often much better without them. Writers have a really bad habit of using these; especially beginners, for example:
Lifting the heavy bags of shopping, she made her way to the front door.
Running for the elevator, he caught Jane’s attention.
Both these examples would be much better if reconstructed without the participle, for instance:
She lifted the heavy bags and made her way to the front door.
He ran for the elevator and caught Jane’s attention.
Intensifiers & Qualifiers
These are words that are placed before adjectives and adverbs to intensify or create an effect, for instance, ‘She was really tired’. Here, ‘really’ is the intensifier, when ‘she’s tired’ is sufficient. The sentence doesn’t need anything else.
Watch out for other intensifiers such as very, so, quite, extremely and absolutely. Removing them almost always improves the sentence, so don’t rely on them.
Qualifiers are similar to intensifiers – they are words or phrases that are placed before adjectives and adverbs to attribute a quality to another word, for example:
He was somewhat busy.
She was slightly wary.
While they might look okay, they’re unnecessary. The narrative is much better without them, for example:
He was busy.
She was wary.
Intensifiers and Qualifiers enhance or limit the meaning of words, and not always for the best effect. Find them and rid your narrative of these.
Overuse of this word will lead to ‘telling’ rather than showing, which is just fine if you want to write like an 8 year old. If you’re more concerned about the quality of your writing, avoid too much use of ‘was’, for instance:
She was sitting on the park bench on the hill. It was a cold day and moisture was in the air.
Recognise this kind of writing? Three instances of ‘was’ render the narrative as ‘telling’. Without them, the sentence becomes stronger and ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells’.
She sat on the park bench on the hill. She felt the cold against her skin and moisture on her tongue…
‘Was’ is necessary in the correct places within the narrative, but when it comes to descriptions, try to avoid overusing it.
We’re all guilty of this at some point. Remove superfluous details. This keeps the narrative tight and concise. Overwriting isn’t to be confused with flowery writing or purple prose.
If you want a character to get in his car to drive away, don't have him insert the key into the lock, twist it, then lift the door handle, open the door, get in the car, then start the car.
Just have the character start the car and drive away!
Passive Writing
Many writers accidentally use passive verbs. They have their place – they occur in essay and academic writing – but for creative fiction, they shouldn’t appear, so if you spot passive verbs within your writing, get rid of them. They weaken the narrative and tend to slow it down, for example:
The carrots were sliced by the chef.
The plant was watered by John.
Always keep verbs active, which keeps the narrative strong, for instance:
The chef sliced the carrots.
John watered the plant.
It’s that easy. Look at your sentence structures, check for passive verbs and create more active sentences.
Repetition occurs naturally when we’re in the throes of writing. We don't notice repeated words until we read through and edit the work. Repetition can be words, sentences or phrases, for example:
She was shocked by his reaction. She thought he would be okay with her staying out with her friends a little longer than usual, but she felt shocked when he raised his voice.
Here, ‘shocked’ is repeated twice. In this case, it’s a matter of finding a synonym to replace one of them, such as ‘shaken’ or ‘stunned’.  
Repetition can be used deliberately – to create the right effect – but readers will spot when it’s an effect and when the writer has simply not paid attention.
Seemed/Seem To
This is another of the words that creep into our writing without us noticing, simply because it looks right and doesn’t appear out of place, for example:
The boat seemed to roll and roil in the water.
While it doesn’t appear too awkward, the construction is weakened and the aim for any writer is to make the writing strong and tight, for instance:
The boat rolled and roiled in the water.
Speaker Attributions
Writers have a habit of using the wrong speaker attributions in the attempt to affect action within the narrative, but it almost always it leads the use of gerunds, the ‘ing’ or the use of adverb constructions, for example:
‘I don’t care what you think,’ Jane said, pushing him aside.
‘You’re pretty when you’re angry,’ John said, laughing.
‘Go to hell,’ she said angrily.
For a stronger, clearer narrative, use as few attributions as possible, for instance:
‘I don’t care what you think,’ Jane said. She pushed him aside.
John laughed. ‘You’re pretty when you’re angry.’
Her voice became tense. ‘Go to hell.’
Here the rewritten examples don’t have any gerunds or adverbs and it shows who is speaking, through character action. This avoids too many he said/she said attributions.
Summary of the Essential Fiction Writing Checklist Part 1:

1. Don’t have characters begin to/decide to/going to
2. Create tight dialogue
3. Cut out gerunds and participial phrases.
4. Cut out Intensifiers & Qualifiers
5. Cut down on the use of ‘Was’.
6. Don’t over overwrite.
7. Remove any passive writing
8. Cut down on repetition
9. Avoid the use of ‘seemed’ or ‘seem to’.
10. Use correct speaker attributions

I would like to thank you for your support in 2015, and wish you all Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year.  AllWrite will return 9th January 2016, with Part 2 of the Essential Fiction Writing Checklist.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Backstory – How to Do It

Authors often mention backstory when discussing their novels, but what exactly is backstory and how important is it in novel writing?

Backstory (or background story) refers to the background history of your main characters, and that may include incidents from the past that underpin the narrative of the present story. Back story usually involves the protagonist and antagonist, while there are some writers who include one or two other important characters with backstory, who may share a sub plot. 

How important is it? Why use it?

It’s a useful literary device to support the plot and help with characterisation, however, it’s not set in stone that authors must use it, because they don’t have to. It’s a choice. Many famous authors didn’t use it, such as Hemingway, but those who do want to include it can provide meat on the bones of their story.

On the positive side, it gives something more for the reader other than just basic characterisation - it gives them a history, it provides character motivations and can lend to the reasons behind their behaviours within the narrative, thus lending some depth to the story. On the negative side, it can be difficult to use correctly without burdening the narrative and clogging the pace.

What’s the Most Effective Way to Use It?

Beginners tend to make the fatal mistake of writing too much backstory at the beginning of the novel. This is very common and probably arises from the belief that they have to show the reader the reasons why the story is happening, and why the main character is in such a situation, otherwise how else is the reader going to understand?

But readers are very discerning. They don’t need to be spoon fed. That means you can hold back and reveal backstory a little at a time, rather than reveal everything in one huge narrative chunk, simply because this is much easier for the reader. There is nothing worse for a reader than being confronted by large swathes of exposition. This will just bore them and they will lose interest. The idea is to keep the momentum of the story, rather than kill it.

Often the best way to filter backstory into the story is through the use of dialogue. This means your main characters can drop hints in their dialogue. Another way is through narrative, by using snippets of exposition, but not too much that you fall into the ‘telling’ mode. You can also show it through flashbacks, character thoughts or memories. It can be quite subtle, perhaps just a sentence or two here and there – readers will pick up on it. It doesn’t have to be several paragraphs long and it certainly doesn’t have to come in one giant hit. It can be spread across the novel.

Despite the urge, avoid dumping backstory into the first few chapters. Chapters one to five need to be dynamic; they need to engage the reader and keep them interested. Leave backstory to later in the story, for when it matters to the plot. More often than not, the need for it isn’t as necessary as writers think.

If you feel that you’ve created too much backstory early on in your novel, go back over the chapters and ask the following:-

1. Does the story need it? Is this information crucial to the plot? Can it be filtered in later, when it may be relevant to the plot or the character?

2. Does the reader need to know all this information right now?

3. Does it slow the pace of the novel? Does it seem to drag a little?

If you do find that backstory has crept into the novel in all the wrong places and seems to be strangling the momentum of the narrative, then consider re-writing the chapter to make it better. Don’t push it all into a prologue either – this will kill any interest in your novel.

The advice here is to choose whether you want to include backstory. If you do, make sure you place it correctly, and don’t use too much. There’s no doubt that well-placed snippets of back story give readers much more than the basics – they will glean more from your characters and will have a better understanding of their situation and behaviour. It can be very useful, but it’s not paramount, it’s not vital.

Just remember to spread the backstory across the novel, reveal it through dialogue, narrative and flashbacks/character thoughts, and try to make it subtle.

Next week: The essential fiction writing checklist

Saturday, 5 December 2015

The Advantages of Using Suspense

We’ve looked at suspense and how to create it in past articles; however, in this article we’ll look at why writers should take advantage of this useful tool and seek to use it at every available opportunity.

Writers understand what suspense and atmosphere is, but very few understand the significance of this literary device, which is why many self-published novels have zero atmosphere or suspense. Writers sometimes don’t pay enough attention to these elements and the result can be an awful, lacklustre read.

Why use suspense?

Readers rely on and interpret descriptive stimulus to help them understand the nature of what they’re reading. They need to feel empathy with your characters, to feel close to the anticipation or expectation within the story, to feel fear, concern or other emotions. They want to feel impending danger, become embroiled in action. They want to feel the escalating tension until right to the end. In simple terms, readers love drama.

We often associate suspense with atmosphere, but they’re not the same. They work well together, but atmosphere is the state which is created by the mood and tone of the work.

Creating suspense is about building anticipation, and depending on the scene, how much the writer reveals to the reader, to keep them guessing what will happen next. It’s otherwise known as dramatic tension - the sense of impending or implied danger. Suspense relies on the elements of uncertainty and tension, and on occasion, misdirection, whereby the writer deliberately wrong foot’s the reader in order to create suspense.

Why is suspense so important?

No matter what the genre, every story requires suspense, and that’s because readers love the expectation of guessing what will happen next. Uncertainty creates trepidation, unease, tension and a certain amount of anticipation about what will happen next in the story, or what might happen to the protagonist. It’s this premise that is vital to telling a good story, and there are plenty of writers who have no idea what suspense is or how vital it is to telling a story.

We use suspense to turn the ordinary into something completely different – whether that’s something foreboding, menacing or just edge of the seat action; suspense is like an electrical charge that runs through the story; it creates a buzz at certain intervals for the reader, to keep them interested.

Without any dramatic tension, a story will be flat and uninspiring and will fail to engage the reader on a deep enough level for them to care much about the story. Take this example, where there is very little suspense:

Her bedroom opened ajar to the shadows in the hallway, but Kate remained in slumber, despite the room growing cold. 

The door wavered. The shadow in the corridor lurched. A silence descended and the darkness filled the stairs and hallway as though shrouding something from view. The bedroom swung wide open. 

The scene lacks any sense of anticipation, emotion, menace or foreboding, and so the reader won’t care much what the character does, but more importantly, they won’t care what happens to the character. They won’t care if the hero is in imminent danger if you don’t give them any suspense.

Now compare the same scene, but with suspense added:-

Her bedroom door opened ajar 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 cold. 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. 

A stilted, oppressive silence descended like a clammy mist and clung to the cold air. The darkness brooded; it grew thick with each minute and filled the stairs and hallway as though shrouding something from view. The bedroom door silently swung wide open. Like an invitation…

This example shows suspense; it creates dramatic tension, a sense of menace, leaving the reader to guess what might happen next – is it something bad, something evil? What lurks in the dark? What might happen to Kate? The choice of certain descriptive words, together with the structured sentences and the perception of the slowing of time all help create suspense.

The good thing about suspense is that it isn’t there just to try to lead the reader into something terrible. It also works even if nothing bad actually happens in the scene, but instead there is the feeling of something bad might happen. This is what gives many scenes suspense - the sensation that something bad or unfortunate could happen.

If you use suspense at the right moment, i.e. the important or key scenes, it will heighten the anticipation within the narrative. You will also find that it creates plenty of atmosphere.

In fiction, you have to engage the writer at every available opportunity. And by creating suspense, you will engage with the reader, which means they will care about your characters and what they do next.

The advantages of using suspense:

  • It creates anticipation and/or expectation.
  • It keeps readers guessing.
  • It creates uncertainty.
  • It can wrong-foot them.
  • It creates dramatic tension.
  • It engages the reader, makes them care.
  • It heightens the feel of important scenes.
Suspense is so easy to overlook when eagerly writing your novel or short story, but it’s such an essential ingredient to a satisfying, good read. Make time for suspense, keep your readers on the edge of their seat, keep them guessing, engage them, give them chills. It’s what they love, and they’ll come back for more. More importantly, it will make your work stand out; it will make it that much better.

Next week: How to create backstory.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Creating Tone in Your Writing

How often do writers think about tone? Not that often. That’s probably because writers rarely think about what it is or know how to use it.

So what exactly is tone? And how can it be used in fiction writing?

When we talk about tone, it means the overall manner or attitude that the writer has toward the subject of the novel and the way it is approached. It can also cover the themes in a novel. Writers like to set the tone from the outset, and if you read your favourite authors, you will notice tone in their work.

Tone can take on many forms – it can be subtle, overt, serious, sad, amusing, chilling, atmospheric, or anything you want it to be, and very often such tones also reflect the themes that run through the novel and in fact tone is not that different to tone of voice – it’s the pitch or resonance of how we say things, rather than what we actually say.  Tone in writing is no different – it’s how you write, and the words you choose, rather than what you actually say that helps you express the tone of writing.

But isn’t tone the same as mood? 
Tone and mood are often confused by writers, but they are quite different. They tend to be referenced together as one aspect in writing, rather than two different literary devices, simply because one supports the other within the narrative. Mood, however, covers the feeling or sentiment the unfolding story creates for the reader; mood effects how the reader feels with the story and the characters.
Tone, however, is set by the author.
The thing to note about tone is that it is not always a constant. It can change as the story evolves and different themes and moods come into play within the story. That also means it can alter in pitch as the story develops.
Also, writers should be aware that tone should not become intrusive to the point that it becomes an author’s soapbox – tone is subjective, but it should not drown the narrative. It’s about how the writer broadly feels about a subject, and his or her attitude about related themes, but it does not cover personal opinions. Never let personal opinions appear in your writing.
Conveying Tone
Conveying tone is about emphasising the right words, whether those words are abstract, formal or just general. The use of imagery helps show tone, so the more imagery used, the greater the effect, for example, this snippet from A Tale of Two Cities, by Dickens:-
There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do. It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach-lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road; and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.
There are certain words that Dickens has used here, such as ‘steaming mist’, ‘forlornness’, ‘clammy’ and  ‘unwholesome sea’ that show there is a darkened tone and a hint of foreboding. It’s atmospheric and creates a sense of mystery. It shows just how choosing the right words can set the tone for the story.
If, for instance, you are telling a story about the cruelty suffered by the Jewish prisoners in the Nazi labour camps, it’s likely that you feel passionate about the subject and want to inform readers about it, and therefore the tone of the story will be serious and powerful and sad. If you are writing an adventure novel about a boy and his faithful dog, then the tone might be one of excitement, fun, and being carefree. If you are writing a horror story, then the tone may be dark, serious or grim by comparison.
Romance writers lean towards softer words for their narrative, while horror writers will use and accentuate darker, stronger words. Thriller writers might use tight, concise exposition to create a fast paced narrative that sets the tone.
All these types of story will have tone.
The one thing to remember is to be consistent with tone throughout the novel, but not to overdo it that you end up hitting your readers over the head with it by turning into an obnoxious bore, or that the tone turns into the writer’s personal crusade against something he or she doesn’t like or agree with.

Next week: The advantages of using suspense and atmosphere