Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Zen And The Craft Of Writing

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When I first started writing fiction I read a lot of books about how to write. How to write attention grabbing stories. How to engage emotionally with the reader. How to keep the story moving forward. The inciting incident. The danger of excessive adverbs. Why you should show instead of tell.

I’ve read widely enough to have a fairly well developed sense of taste. I know when something’s really good. I know when something’s bad. I know when it isn’t quite working. 

The difficult part though is knowing what needs to change, and how to change it.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

X-Factor That Sells Books

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While it’s fairly self-evident that there’s more to creating a bestselling novel than good grammar and a well formatted manuscript, working out exactly what it is that lifts one book above the crowd is not so obvious.

It should also go without saying that I’m not going to be providing a magic bullet at the end of this post that will turn your book into a million-seller.  But then the experts in this field, the publishers and agents, have no better idea of what the secret ingredient to a popular book is either.

I don’t mean to be snide (even though I do find it very easy), I’m simply referring to the numbers. Of the thousands of books carefully selected each year because they reach the high standards expected by the industry, which are then polished to a high sheen by the top editors in the business, 90% make no money.

So I decided to take a look at the really big sellers of recent years just to see if there were any common factors they all shared. The following will be highly scientific so please have your slide rules and nerd glasses at the ready.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Writer's Waning Willpower

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No matter how dedicated and determined you are to be a writer and produce the next great novel, there will be times when you don’t feel like sitting in front of your computer and tapping at the keyboard.

You know it’s the right thing to do, and once you get into it you’ll probably not want to stop, but you just can’t be bothered.

What people don’t realise though is that how you feel mentally is a biological process. You may think you’re angry because Bill at work was an ass, but the actual anger in your body is created by chemicals and hormones and various things floating about in your blood (I should point out that I am not a doctor, but I have seen nearly three episodes of Gray’s Anatomy, so I know what I’m talking about).

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Visualising Story

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In many ways the written word is the most visual way to tell a story. The images you can create inside a person’s head can be the most arresting and memorable they’ll ever experience. In high definition and fully 3D without the need for glasses.

For many aspiring writers, the use of language to create pictures you can literally see, people whose faces are in your memory even though they don’t exist, places that are real as any place that you’ve actually been, is what being a writer is all about.

That’s why they spend so much time trying to paint a picture with their words. But a lot of the time it doesn’t work. It feels stolid and longwinded, and a chore to read. Why?

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Unified Theory Of Writing

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It’s important to know that no matter how obvious and sensible a piece of writing advice might be, there are always going to be circumstances when it won’t hold true. Or when there are other, equally effective ways to tell the story.

It’s all open to debate and depends on context and specific examples. An unmitigated disaster for one writer, may be an unqualified success in the hands of another.

It would be a lot simpler if there were solid, unquestionable, carved in stone rules that we could all learn and then go from there.  So here are three universally true things that apply to all writers at all times in every situation (I am 1,000,000% not exaggerating for effect).

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Theme And Truth In Story

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Every story has a theme. You may not know what it is. It could be vague or hidden. Or there could be multiple themes that make things unclear. But there is always a theme in there somewhere.

Theme is the underlying  truth. What the story’s really about.  But sometimes the underlying truth is the same as the overlying truth. This can lead to a feeling of being spoonfed or being told the obvious.

Some people are afraid of being too heavy handed about theme. They don’t want the story to be about an issue or force characters to behave in a particular way. But that won’t remove it from the story. There will still be a theme. It just might not be very clear what it is.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Story Spectrum

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We can all agree that there are two kinds of books: good books and bad books.

What we might not be able to agree is which ones are which. 

There are obviously a broad array of genres and sub-genres. And there are also people with varying tastes and preferences.

But surely we can agree on some basic requirements for a good book. A truth, so to speak, universally acknowledged.

Let’s start with the most basic of basics. The writer has to be able to write to a decent standard, right?

Weeeell, not exactly. 

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Reading Not Like A Reader

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Often, when a writer asks for feedback on a work in progress, they will ask for the reader to pay attention to things like story, character, pace, and to not bother too much with spelling or grammar or other nit-picky elements at this stage.

The reason for this is pretty obvious. It’s early in the development of the story and most of those minor errors will be taken care of during the polishing and fine-tuning stages which will happen once the story is more or less completed.

Right now, all the writer wants is an overview of how things are taking shape and whether the premise seems interesting and engaging.

Which is fair enough. But there is a slight problem.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Question Time

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It’s Q-day in the A to Z Challenge and as is traditional here at Moody Writing, I'm opening the floor to any questions you might have about the writing process. I can’t promise you a good answer, or the right answer, but hopefully I can offer you a new way of looking at the problem.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Persuading Readers

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You can write a story and present it as, Here’s some stuff I made up — hope you like it! 

Or you can present it as, I’m going to tell you what happened — I know because I was there. 

Even though fiction is obviously all lies, and the reader knows that, you can make a big difference in how they receive a story simply by how you approach the telling of the tale.

In order to persuade the reader that they are getting the skinny from someone who knows, you have to create a sense of authority. A sense that they can’t get this story from anyone else, because no one else knows the story the way you do.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Objectives Provide Story Momentum

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When the objective is clear and the character is moving towards it, the reader will stay with the story, at least until they reach a natural break in the narrative.

But ever be reading a book and you find yourself in a section where not much is happening, no great action or set piece, but you can’t stop reading?

You go from one line to the next and it’s like you’re leaning forward as you’re going down a hill and it would almost be more effort to stop than to just keep going.

That’s the power of momentum.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Number Of Stories: Infinite

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Girl meets boy. Cop catches killer. Knight defeats dragon.

There may only be a limited number of types of story, but each is made up of a series of connected goals.

In order to get from A to Z, you first have to get from A to B. Then from B to C. How the character reaches each goal requires a choice. When you string enough choices together not only do you end up with a story, but you also create a pattern to that narrative.

In order to get the most out of this process, though, you need to be aware of what options are available to the character at each stage.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Motivation For Writers

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As a writer you need someone to be honest to your face (even if it’s just your online face). You may feel you can take criticism as long as it’s constructive or sensitively worded or if it comes from someone you respect, but trying to influence how a reader reacts to your work is never going to yield good results.

Constructive doesn’t mean polite or supportive, it means something you can build on. That’s not to say you can’t be those things when putting forward critical opinions, but if you’re asking for constructive criticism, be aware of what it is you’re asking for.

Having said that, it also helps greatly to have someone to encourage you. 

Wait, didn’t I just suggest that helpful feedback didn’t require a cheerleading section? Yes, I did. But there’s more to writing than getting the words in the right order and nicely polished.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Leave In Everything

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As you write the first draft of your story, you may come to a point where you wonder if you need to add more stuff, take stuff away, go into depth about this or that.

My advice is go deep. Add as much detail as possible, all the explanations and explore as many tangents as occur to you.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Knowing What To Do Next

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In life, sometimes you come to a point when dealing with a problem where you don’t know what to do next. Either there’s no obvious solution, or it’s in somebody else’s hands and you have to wait.

In fiction, characters can face this same issue. Leads can dry up, tests have to be waited for, procedures followed.

However, in fiction, taking a break from the story isn’t really a viable option. Waiting six to eight weeks for the blood tests to come back from the lab isn’t going to be very interesting if you approach it realistically.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Just Get On With The Story?

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If you ask a reader whether they want answers immediately, or do they want to wait a while, chances are they’ll want to know right now.

But that doesn’t mean you should give them what they want.

They might complain if you seem to be taking too long getting to it, but the more you build up the tension and suspense, the higher you raise the stakes, the more they'll enjoy the journey.

But human existence is all about knowing what’s best for you and not doing it. Or knowing what you shouldn’t do and doing it anyway.

We can’t help ourselves. 

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Inventing New From Old

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What people like to read about is something new and different. Something they haven’t experienced before.

What people also like to read about are things they recognise and are familiar with and know well.

Herein lies the problem for writers.  Go too far from what people are used to and they don’t want to risk wasting their time on something they may end up not liking.

Stick to what’s been done before and get treated like a hack and imitator.


Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Handling Story Problems

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A story is about a character dealing with a problem of some kind.  But is it just any problem?

What makes the task a character faces interesting to the reader?

Is it the risk involved? The difficulty? Does it vary depending on genre?

If Mary decides to start selling cupcakes, it is certainly no easy task running a business in the current financial climate. But will her journey towards financial success be story worthy?

Monday, 8 April 2013

Guidelines Not Outlines

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Some people like to have detailed outlines before they start writing. Others prefer to wing it and enjoy the process of finding out what the story’s about as they go.

Both styles are perfectly fine and workable, it comes down to a question preference.

If you have a method that works for you, that’s the one you should use.

The problem for some people is that working it all out beforehand is too constricting AND leaving it all to inspiration is too vague. Neither approach works.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Focus On What Matters

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Characters in stories tend to be single-minded. Either they’re driven by some internal need, or circumstances force them, but they rarely live a carefree existence going from one thing to the next as they please.

There’s a reason for this. Once a reader is interested in what a character’s doing, they want to know the outcome. Of that story.

If you go off in various tangents, even if you intentionally do it in an attempt to generate tension or suspense or mystery, there’s a good chance you’ll just annoy or frustrate those readers.

But there’s a problem here. In order to make a story dramatic and layered, you actually need to go off in different directions, to pull the reader off the main road every now and again.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Emotions Belong To Readers

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When it comes to using emotion in a story, the person whose emotions should be most important to you is the reader.

An emotionally invested reader is more likely to go wherever the story leads, and also more likely to make allowances for parts of the story they aren’t too sure about.

You can still keep readers engaged through intellectual curiosity or general drama and action, but grabbing them emotionally is always going to be the most intense experience for them.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Differentiating Through Dialogue

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While there’s nothing wrong with making characters sound different by giving them specific accents, it’s not something you can do for every character in a story. Not unless your tale takes place at the United Nations.

And while giving them vocal tics is useful, yeah? It helps identify them quickly, yeah? It also gets old just as quickly, yeah?

Rather than using how people speak to make them stand out, it is much easier and more effective to use what they say rather than how they say it.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Choosing Character

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There are two basic types of character: the ordinary person and the special person.

The special person is really good at their job, has skills most people don’t, or maybe even possesses powers beyond those of regular folk.

The ordinary person is like you or me.

Once you decide which type your main character is, the important thing is to get the reader to see the character as someone worth reading about.

Both types have certain drawbacks which, while not a problem, need to be addressed.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Beginnings And Their Endings

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My view has always been that great first lines are overrated. Famous opening lines tend to become famous after the fact. Once a book becomes acclaimed or well-loved, the opening takes on a significance that it didn’t have to start with. Nobody read “Call me Ishamel” and thought, Genius!

First paragraphs are overrated too. Orson Scott Card has a theory that the first paragraph is a freebie, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

The first paragraph can be in a different POV, be generic or introductory, set the tone, or be the lyric from a song. It doesn’t really matter and readers don’t really expect it to be consistent with the rest of the book.

Ever since somebody came up with Once upon a time...  readers have understood that.

First chapters, however, are important.

Monday, 1 April 2013

An Awesome Idea

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For this year’s A to Z Challenge I will be doing a series of hints and tips on how to get from the start to the end of the writing process. I will be keeping these posts relatively short (for me). And a big thank you to Arlee Bird for creating the A to Z Challenge. Cheers, Lee!

*

Some people can sit down with a blank page and start writing. Come to think of it, we can all do that. But some people actually like what they end up with. And by some people I mean not me.

What most of us need before we start writing is an idea. A good one.
 
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