Sunday, 28 February 2016

Turning Points

We’ve looked at this subject before, but it’s always good to revisit certain elements of fiction writing, it helps keep things fresh in the memory, so it’s time to look again at the art of a good turning point.
So what do writers mean when they talk of turning points?
A turning point describes exactly what it is – it’s a pivotal moment within the story when the story takes a turn in a different direction and things change. This occurs either through the actions or decisions of the main character, or there’s a significant reveal. It may be the character faces a terrible dilemma.
They’re important in fiction because no story is without ups and downs and twists and turns, otherwise there wouldn’t be any story. They don’t always have to be physical turning points – through actions, for example – they can also be emotional turning points when, perhaps, a character ‘realises’ a hard truth or loses someone important to him or her. Perhaps it is something unexpected, so these kind of turning points don’t always need action and conflict to turn the situation.
How do you use Turning Points?
That depends how well the writer understands when a turning point is needed.
Usually the turning point occurs when certain events within the story affect the main character and their goal, and certain character decisions will have different repercussions for the rest of the story. That often means conflict is heightened and the dilemmas created force the characters to act in unpredictable ways.
For instance, let’s say a protagonist doesn’t want to become involved in a local gang war, however, when his son is killed in the crossfire during a drug store robbery, he decides to act to stop them – this is a turning point. It’s an emotional turning point that has a significant impact on the rest of the story, because his actions will accelerate the conflict and cause repercussions.
What if the protagonist realises halfway through his crusade that his son was actually involved with one of the gangs, and kept it secret? This is another turning point, because his actions will impact the story in other ways, and will affect his decisions as the story progresses. It’s also a realisation of truth that the protagonist has to deal with.
Here’s another example – the main character has struggled with the bad guy for most of the story and can’t seem to find a way out of trouble and thinks look bad. He then discovers the antagonist has a weakness of some sort, something the main character can exploit. He can finally defeat the bad guy. This discovery would be a turning point in the story, a defining moment in the character’s circumstances that would affect the story outcome.
These examples are very simple, so how you construct yours will depend entirely on the story and the characters.
The thing with turning points, however, is that they must evolve from the main story. They should never be forced into existence just to try to create the effect, otherwise they will appear contrived and the reader will spot this.
Often they occur organically as we’re writing; they develop in order for the plot to move forward, and if that is moving forward, then so too is the story. Turning points move the story forward because they’re showing the significant changes, actions and reactions which will affect how the story eventually ends. They form part of the entire story arc and shape the character’s journey.
When you find you have a significant turning point, then it’s an opportunity to heighten the conflict, atmosphere, emotion and drama and make the most of it, otherwise it will become a chance lost. If you don’t exploit them, you’ll lose the effect you want for your reader and it may go unnoticed.
Probably the most important turning point you’ll write will come at the beginning of the novel, because every story should begin with a massive turning point in your main character’s life – the very event that starts them on their journey in the first place.
Most turning points happen because of the following:-

  1. There’s a decisive change in the character’s life
  2. There’s a decisive action the character must undertake
  3. There’s a significant revelation
  4. A main character realises something important
  5. The character faces a dark, impossible moment, a terrible dilemma
  6. There’s a defining moment such as betrayal or a loss

Every story needs turning points, because without them, the main character won’t evolve, the reader won’t learn about the story and the story won’t actually move forward in a seamless, natural way.

Next week: Creating A Supporting Cast of Characters

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Editing Hacks – Part 2

Part 1 looked at five tips to use when it comes to editing, things such as waiting to finish the story before you edit, printing it out so you have a physical copy to look at or reading it aloud and so on, but here are five more hacks to help writers help themselves where editing is concerned, starting with hack number 6...
6. Keep a Continuity Sheet/Notebook
Similar to making notes, this is another tried and tested method that many writers use. A continuity sheet or notebook is a useful way to make sure that key details remain correct and consistent throughout the story - things like character names, place names, incidents, characteristics, colours, settings and clothing etc.
It’s easy to forget that your hero might be a blonde, blue-eyed stud because by chapter 25, after all the action and excitement of the story, he’s morphed into a man with brown hair and dark eyes. Or it could be that in chapter 3 he’s from a town called Oakley, but in chapter 7 it’s become Oakly. Perhaps a Grandfather clock - significant to a character or the plot, is mentioned in one chapter, only to vanish thereafter, never to be seen again.
Continuity errors crop up in all sorts of ways and they’re not always easy to spot. Make sure that place names are spelled correctly throughout, that names of certain things remain consistent, or that weapons or tools used by your characters remain constant. Make sure that significant things mentioned within the story – such as the Grandfather clock example - don’t vanish into thin air. Make sure the style and colours of garments and decoration etc. remain the same in scenes or chapters, make sure incidents don’t change detail halfway through the story.
The best way to catch these flaws is through a continuity sheet/notebook. It will help because while you are doing an initial read through, you can make a note of them by detailing the error and the page number, so that when you come to edit you can address them. That way, such errors won’t appear in the final version.
The little things really do make a big difference and they do matter, because if you don’t spot them, your reader certainly will.
7. Be Methodical – Don’t Rush
The world doesn’t stop revolving while you work hard at editing. Too many writers rush what is, in essence, the most important part of the writing process, and they end up making a hash of it.
There is no rush.
The key to a good edit is to be methodical. That means editing without constraints on time, so tackle it one chapter at a time, instead of setting a goal to do five chapters in a few hours because you just have to get it published right now.
No, you don’t have to do it right now. Better to be thorough with one chapter than be slapdash with five of them.
By not rushing, by being so focused, there is less chance to miss errors. That’s because taking the time with one chapter at a time makes you meticulous – you’ll spot silly mistakes, continuity errors, punctuation and grammar problems. You’ll see where you’ve missed information, where scenes need to be re-written. You will notice problems with characterisation, POV, tenses and so on. Everything will stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.
8. Don’t Exceed More Than Six Drafts
The reason this is advised is because there are only so many times you can revise and rewrite something before it turns into a mess.
There is no right or wrong here – the six drafts number is simply an average of what most writers tend to do – but it is sound advice that has been tried and tested. And that’s because if you do fewer drafts, you risk the work not quite being ready. More than the advisable number of drafts and you risk ruining the work because it has been edited too much and that leads to editing tip number 9...
9. Know When to Finish
There will come a time when you have to stop editing, we all know that. But ask any writer and they will always say that they think the process is never complete – there will always be something, always that comma that needs removing, that little word that needs replacing or that sentence needs one more tweak. In fact, without discipline, they might continue ad infinitum and eventually wreck the whole thing. That’s because we always know we can do that little bit better. But we also need to know when to stop before the work becomes something we barely recognise or dislike.
And that’s because there is no such thing as perfection.
In truth, when there are no more real errors, no more real plot flaws, no sentences to really change, no words to actually tweak means you’ve finished. It’s time to let go.
10. The Essential Checklist
Finally, whatever the writer’s ability or experience, an at-a-glance list of things to look out will prove helpful, even for the most reluctant editors:
1. Finish writing first, then edit.
2. Leave it alone for several weeks.
3. Read through it.
4. Print out the manuscript
5. Read it aloud
6. Make thorough notes
7. Keep a continuity notebook or sheet
8. Be methodical and don’t rush. Editing takes time.
9. Try not to exceed six drafts; otherwise you may ruin the story.
10. Know when to stop editing.
Editing for some is a chore, but to others it’s a joy. I personally love the editing process – it’s when creativity really comes alive. It allows writers to push themselves beyond mediocre, to write something amazing, to delve beyond the surface and dive deep into another dimension in order to create the truly breathtaking.

Next week: Turning points – what are they and what do they do?

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Editing Hacks – Part 1

Editing isn’t the most enjoyable process for some, or the easiest, but there are ways to make the process simpler, especially for beginners, so these insights will help make it easier for writers – regardless of their experience – to help themselves when it comes to editing their work.
Hacks, tips, snippets of advice – whatever you want to call them, they provide a starting point for writers, something to work to, and while there is never a right or wrong way to do things, they’re all tried and tested, and they all work in their own way.
So, what’s the best way to try to edit a novel?  What are the best tips? In this first part, we’ll start will the basics and work our way up.
1. Finish the Manuscript
There is a valid and important reason for this particular piece of advice, and it’s now an accepted an accepted universal guidance. The reason why we say it’s better to finish the manuscript first is because it makes the entire editing process easier.
There are writers who prefer to edit as they go along. There is nothing wrong with this approach – but by doing it that way, the writer might be at a disadvantage because:-
a) They may miss something critical because they are not actually focused on the entire novel as a whole, but only the last few pages or chapters they’ve written.
b) Mistakes, such as spelling and grammar, are often missed because the writer “can’t see the wood for the trees”. In other words, the writer is so involved in the work that he or she is oblivious to the obvious. This is very true. When we work on something for a long period of time, we become too close to it to be truly objective and we don’t always see the minutiae.
c) The writer isn’t allowing enough time between writing and then editing, for the reason above. Time plays an important role in good editing (see hack No 2.)
d) Editing straight away tends to skew the writer’s objectivity, which means lots of small mistakes and larger flaws will go unnoticed.
For those who want to avoid these pitfalls, it’s best to wait until the entire story is written, i.e. completed, before editing. That way, the entire work can be assessed cohesively, objectively and thoroughly.
2. Leave it Alone
There’s good reasoning behind this.
The longer we leave something once we’ve finished, the better we see things. If you start editing straight after you’ve finished the work, it’s less likely you’ll spot the most blatant errors. That’s because you’ve spent months (or even a year or two) writing it, you’re so close to the work that you know chapters back to front, and so you just won’t be able to see what is obvious. If you spend some time away from the work – weeks, even a month or two – you come back to the work completely refreshed and focused, and that’s because you’ve forgotten about the story completely, which is the whole point.
After a break from it, you would see the work as editor or reader would see it.
3. Print the Manuscript
This might seem like overkill, especially as you can just read direct from your computer and edit, however, without a doubt, the best way to edit is by having a physical print out of what you’ve written, because staring at a screen for hours on end can make the brain and eyes tired, and often you won’t spot the simplest things.
One reason authors do this is because a printed version helps to cast a fresh perspective on the book.  It makes it easier to focus. It mimics the way a reader would read a book, either in a Kindle or in actual book form. The story is seen properly and not just words on a computer screen.
Another good reason is that a printout also allows you to make notes as you go, which you can refer to when you start re-writing. Again, this makes the process so much easier.
4. Read Your Work Aloud
Another universally accepted bit of advice. You may feel silly doing it, but this really does work and plenty of authors do it. Reading aloud helps the writer listen to and hear the narrative.
But how does this work? 
Reading your words aloud helps you to spot errors that would otherwise go unnoticed. Saying the words, rather than reading them, gives your manuscript a whole new outlook. You can judge just how well your narrative, dialogue and descriptions flow together and whether the story makes sense. It helps you to get a feel for tone and pace, to see if there is any atmosphere or emotion (or lack of).
Reading aloud forces you to hear the story, so you’ll notice if you stumble over the words, or whether sentences are clumsy. You’ll notice whether it reads smoothly and succinctly, or makes no sense at all. 
Another useful tool is to use the Text to Speech application in Word. This will read the text for you, and because you are ‘hearing’ it, you will spot any bad sentences or clunky words or nonsensical narrative. The voice is slightly robotic, but it does exactly what you would normally do by reading aloud.
If you’re not sure how to apply this, go to your Start button and type in Speech in the search box. From the menu choose ‘Change text to speech settings’. This will bring up a Speech Settings menu. Choose the Text to Speech tab. Here you can choose the settings. One you’ve chosen your settings, click apply, then click OK.
In your Word document, click on the ‘Customize Quick Access Toolbar’ arrow. (This is usually located on the ribbon above or below the main toolbar, along with the save, undo, repeat and draw table icons).
From this drop down menu, choose ‘More commands’. This will give you the More Commands menu. Look for ‘Choose commands’ drop down bar. Click on ‘All commands’. This will list all the commands that are available to place on your toolbar in Word. It’s in alphabetical order, so scroll down to ‘Speak’. Click on it and then press the Add button to add it to your toolbar, then click OK. It should now appear on your ribbon**
**(Windows 7)
Sometimes it’s not possible to read aloud, so Text to Speech is really useful and a great way to hear the words you’ve written. This leads nicely into Hack No. 5…
5. Make Notes
Sometimes the simple things help more than complicated processes. And none more so than taking notes. The best way to edit is to make preliminary notes during the read through. The urge to go full throttle and do a full on edit might be tempting, but to use a well-worn cliché, it’s best to learn to walk before you can run. Many writers make several passes over the manuscript, and the read through is the ground work on which the rest of the edit will take place.
Notes with the familiar red pen might take the form of spelling and grammar errors, change of sentences, or the order of words or new paragraphs. You might spot a flaw, you might see your tenses are incorrect or you might want to delete certain sentences etc.
The notes you make on your first read through are essential building blocks from turning a raw first draft into something solid and coherent and stronger. It’s not unknown for authors to scrub out sentences, entire scenes or even crap entire chapters, or make even more additions. Making notes is a fundamental part of the process.
In part 2 we’ll look at more editing hacks, all designed to make editing that much easier and. All of them work; it’s just up to the writer if they want to embrace them.

Next week: Editing Hacks – Part 2


Saturday, 6 February 2016

Rewrites – Is There a Correct Process?

Some writers love rewriting, others loathe it. But it’s a process every writer must do in order to get to a publishable standard.
Every piece of work needs rewriting – no writer is perfect, and no first draft is ever perfect either, fact, so any writer that boasts that they don’t need to rewrite is a liar or an incompetent fool.
Rewriting is a fundamental part of the writing process because there will be times when you will want to add scenes, cut scenes, change things around, add characters, remove them and so on.  Some writers chop and change whole chapters – whatever it takes to get the scene or chapter right. Not only that, but often chapters overrun, or scenes just drag on, so some judicial cutting and rewriting is a must.
Is there a correct process for rewriting? 
The simple answer is that rewriting is an individual process, and writers approach in it different ways; however it’s an important process that every writer should get to grips with.
Beginners, in particular, struggle with rewriting because they’re not exactly sure what it is they have to rewrite – they don’t see what elements need changing and if they do spot something, they are unsure what to do about it.
The correct process, if we could say there was one, is to follow a standard check list when it comes to re-reading through the novel to check for errors. First drafts are always crammed with errors; no matter how advanced you are at writing. A first draft is the bare bones of the novel, where a writer has thrown in all sorts of thoughts and ideas as the novel has evolved, and sometimes writers don’t write in chronological order, so inevitably there will be parts of the story that won’t make sense, things that don’t belong, characters that shouldn’t be there and things that seem out of place.
The main things to look out for that usually mean a rewrite include:-

1. Overly long scenes that have nothing meaningful to say.
2. Overly long chapters that drift on and on.
3. Unnecessary peripheral characters clogging up the story.
4. Gaping plot flaws.
5. Lack of cohesive subplots.
6. Info dumps or long narrative exposition.
7. Secondary characters stealing the spotlight from your main character.
8. First person skipping into third person POV and vice versa.
9. Glaring continuity errors.
10. Some of the story just doesn’t make sense.

Rewriting is all about reading with a critical eye, recognising the problems and knowing what to do about them. Writers who are well read will have an advantage here, because the more you read, the more you become aware of how plot, themes, characters, scenes and chapters all come together in an effortless flow.

By far the best way to spot these is to be judicious – however much you love your work, you have to be objective enough to know that if something can be improved by removing or rearranging something, then you have to do it. This is often referred to as ‘killing your darlings’. But to be objective and to rewrite efficiently, you have to sometimes destroy, kill and obliterate parts of your novel before you can rebuild.

A rewrite can range from minor to major work – sometimes novels change characters, with the secondary character becoming the protagonist, or some of the events change considerably. A writer might change the setting to something that fits the story better. It’s not unknown for writers to change their entire novel from third person POV to first person and vice versa.

Reading is a key ingredient to a good rewrite, especially if you read your novel aloud. You will soon notice if something doesn’t work; if sentences lack rhythm, if there’s no pace, if there is too much narrative and no description. You’ll detect if there is no tension or conflict. You will become aware if absolutely nothing happens for pages and pages. You will notice huge holes in your plot, or you may spot silly continuity errors, such as the bad guy’s weapon changing from a handgun on page 40 to a hunting knife on page 81.

You will instinctively know when something isn’t right, and the more you do this – writing, reading and rewriting – the more proficient you’ll become as spotting the obvious.

Rewriting isn’t a quick fix. It takes time and patience – it should be a methodical process, page by page, chapter by chapter. If something clearly isn’t working, sometimes we have to kill our darlings, as the saying goes, and revise until it works. Starting from scratch is not unheard of. Whole scenes, whole chapters. Whole novels.

So, if it isn’t working, rewrite it. If it still doesn’t work, start over. Sometimes we have to tear our work to shreds to find the very obvious.

Next week: Editing Hacks Part 1