Saturday 30 April 2011

Z is for Zzzzz


Tired? I’m pretty wiped out. It’s been an intense month for blogging. I started off doing one or two posts a week in February and now I’ve done 26 in 30 days. That’s quite a leap. I had planned to do them in advance and have them scheduled ahead of time, but you know how that goes. 

It was a great experience, and I’m very pleased with what I managed to scrape together — although, if I had planned things better I would have edited my posts to be more concise and focused.

I doubled the amount of followers and most of my posts got a fair amount of comments, leading to some interesting debates. Those of you that stopped by on a regular basis, thank you for responding to my thoughts and ideas. I’m sure traffic will fall off after the challenge finishes, but I hope some of you will continue to drop by. I tried to visit as many blogs as I could, I hope to keep that up as much as possible.

So what next? 

Friday 29 April 2011

Y is for YA FTW!

I have been roaming around the blogosphere for the last three months, and there are two things that have stood out for me when encountering other blogging writers.

Firstly, the vast majority of these writers are female. There’s no one particular kind of woman, it goes from school age through to young mothers, to frazzled soccer moms, to silver haired retirees. But it is very, very definitely not a man's world (we’re outnumbered Little Big Horn style).

The other striking thing is the genre most women choose to write in: Fantasy. I found this quite odd, I don’t recall girls reading much of this sort of thing when I was a kid. Not many D&D girls crossed my path (oh, if only...). But from princes and faeries, to werewolves and witches, it is very much the genre of the moment. And with a strong tendency towards the Young Adult end of the market.

This is my impression. I don’t have any stats to corroborate it with. Am I way off? Allow me to dig myself a little deeper.

Thursday 28 April 2011

X is for X-Rated Expletives

Swearing — it isn't big and it isn't clever. Not unless you do it properly (then it's fantastic). There's a joy to swearing that is undeliable. The words feel good. And they can feel bad. It's all in the delivery. And it's also in the predisposition of the recipient. Some people have issues with the words in whatever context they may appear, and that's understandable. But in order to look at their use (and abuse) I will be using them freely, in widescreen and technicolor, so fair warning.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

W is for Write What You Know?

I think this proclamation is often misunderstood, certainly in this form. A better way to put it, I feel, is ‘Use what you know.’

Obviously if you know a lot about the subject that you're writing about then you will bring an authenticity to it. Your words will carry authority. The confidence you feel in the words you put on the page will transfer to the reader. One of the biggest issues for aspiring writers is feeling their story is going to be doubted. People will say, ‘You said she was going to a cool party. I wouldn’t want to go to a party like the one you’ve described. How can you think this is cool?’ 

This kind of insecurity is at the root of a lot of the vague, detail withholding, coy writing at the start of stories. If I don’t say exactly what I mean, no one can judge me. I may not have proved I’m right, but nobody can prove I’m wrong.

One of the ways to get round this 'retreat into the comfortably obscure' is to write what you know to be true. I went to a party like this, it was damn cool, and I don’t care who thinks otherwise. That confidence from experience can get you over that initial hurdle of self-doubt.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

V is for the Value of a Vader

When somebody gets famous for something, sports or movies or whatever, they become admired and respected. Sometimes adored. People want to see them, write to them, stare at photographs of them. If they appear in an advert saying how refreshing they find Pepsi, people who have tried Pepsi before and found it sweet and sickly, will suddenly decide it’s their favourite beverage.

It’s a strange thing, but fine. We as people influence each other and affect each other’s view of the world, and some people have a greater influence than others. But the one area I find most perplexing is the collecting of autographs. What does it mean to have someone sign their name on a piece of paper and give it to you?

In my whole life there was only one time I got a famous person to write their signature for me. That person was Darth Vader.

Sunday 24 April 2011

U is for Unexpected Delivery

Within a story the plot will go in various directions and surprises and revelations will occur. But in between all that people will move around and interact, and that’s where writers can come undone. Informing readers of ordinary activities in ordinary ways is going to slide through their heads without really registering. Even if a story is true, if the events are described accurately and with authentic touches, that won’t necessarily make it interesting.

Giving a character goal, even a simple one like making a coffee, and then showing them achieving that goal, is dull. But some writers think if they show the process in great detail it implants meaning and resonance to the mundane. And sometimes it does (but not automatically — you have to know what you’re doing and what effect it will have on the reader). If I think I know what’s going on, and it turns out it’s exactly what I thought, whether it was a big plot twist or some tiny incidental moment, it will deaden my curiosity. Even if there’s plenty of exciting things to come, I will detach from the story, skim or skip bits or give up altogether, because my desire to know what happens next isn’t being stimulated. And dammit, it’s the writer's job to stimulate me.

Saturday 23 April 2011

T is for Toil and Trouble

Looking for trouble? You better be, because story is all about conflict and tension. Trouble needs to be in the rear view mirror or on the horizon or next to you in the passenger seat, or all three. If it's happening right now then you should have the reader gripped. Of course, you don't always want to be in the middle of it. But even when you're in between moments of high drama there should still be a sense of it around.

If trouble is approaching then it needs to be foreshadowed. A man sunbathing on the beach feeling relaxed and happy is not very interesting. Even if it is intended as the lull before the storm and a few paragraphs later an aeroplane falls out of the sky into the ocean in front of him, that section of him catching rays needs to have something about it that suggests the approaching catastrophe. 

You can do that in many ways (and I will go into that little later) but if you don't, if you decide you want the contrast of a relaxed easygoing moment before things go haywire, the problem is people will skim it and there's nothing you can do to stop that if you don't add some kind of tension.

Friday 22 April 2011

S is for Sympathy for the Devil

Make your MC likeable, right? Give the reader something to relate to. Give the bad boy a soft spot. Show he has his heart in the right place. A moment of selflessness. Save a cat. Rescue a turtle. Lend money to a chimp.

Which would you rather read about, a dull, tedious, sympathetic character, or an exciting, daring, son of a bitch?

Obviously you don’t have to make it one or the other, but I would suggest when choosing between interesting and  sympathetic, the primary area of concern is how entertaining your character is, not how much they give to charitable causes.

Thursday 21 April 2011

R is for Reading Writing Out Loud

You should read your work aloud. Definitely. When you’re alone, when you can’t be overheard, speak the whole thing. Don't mumble or whisper it under your breath. As though you were reading it to someone, which you are (yourself). It will help. It is a little tedious, maybe even excruciating. It will help. 

But there are some drawbacks you need to be aware of.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Q is for Questions, Questions, Questions

For this post I thought I would answer any questions people have on writing, about their own wip or just in general. I can’t promise the answer will be useful, or interesting or correct, but I can guarantee every question will get an answer of some kind.

Leave questions in the comments section and I will repost it in the main body of the post along with a link to your blog, so a bit of promotion for you also.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

P is for Point of Who?

Which is the best Point Of View to use? First Person? Third person omniscient? Limited third? (if you’re interested in Second Person you’re on your own, and good luck to you). 

The POV of a story is a major decision, one that will affect the rest of the story. But why one POV is preferable over another has got little to do with that POV itself, and more to do with the writer’s personal preference.

A simple story can be told in any POV equally well. If a man on a mission, encounters obstacles and overcomes them with fortitude, then that story can be told in many ways, and will make sense in all of them. The writer can choose a particular POV to emphasise an aspect of the story, for example the man's determination to avenge the death of a loved one  might be enhanced if the story was written from a first person POV — we really feel his pain — but revenge for a clear wrong is not particularly hard to understand and a skilled writer would be able to be just as effective using third person. So why choose one POV over another?

Sunday 17 April 2011

O is for Optimal Objects

In your story you will use objects. Characters will employ them as they go about their daily lives. Utensils, tools, decorations. Eat with a spoon, dig with a spade, balance a tiara and whatnot. Sometimes these items will also add personality to your character. What kind of object they’re using, what they’re using it for, how well they use it, will all add something to how that character is perceived.

Beyond that, objects have a number of roles they can play. And some they will play whether you want them to or not.

Saturday 16 April 2011

N is for No More Nonsense

Sometimes in a book a character will do something odd or confusing or wholly out of character, but it will be explained later and make perfect sense. The problem for the reader is that they don't know whether the ‘mistake’ is intentional or not. This can sit in the reader's mind distracting them, or even annoy them so much they give up reading the story.

With an established writer most readers will just take it for granted that it will probably turn out okay. It may not, but most readers will give the author the benefit of the doubt. But with a new writer, especially if it's an agency or a publisher that is reading it, so often does it turn out to be an actual mistake, the character just behaving inconsistently, that it is safer to assume that the writer just doesn't know what they’re doing.

Friday 15 April 2011

M is for Maximum Minimum

One of the skills a writer needs is to be able to get the most out of the words he uses. It is relatively easy to go on at length about something and by doing so convey what you mean to the reader. If I describe something using as many words as possible you will eventually be able to visualise it. If I keep going it will get annoying. Once someone knows what you mean, they will not appreciate your eagerness to be extra super clear.

It is not just a matter of using the fewest words either. Simply stating facts in a literal manner ends up being very dull. But when you can concisely convey what is happening and at the same time evoke an emotion, a strong tone and specific voice, then you start to create something beyond information, you create story.

It is something of an irony that the most efficient, succinct way to get across something that people instantly recognise and relate to is to use a cliché. If I say 'He had a face for radio' you know exactly what I mean and it is a clever way of saying it, and kudos to whoever came up with it. The thing is, it's easy to get a laugh with someone else's joke but that doesn't make you funny. Being an author is about authorship and you want people to know that what they're reading is you, it's your work and your ideas and you should get the credit (or blame).

Wednesday 13 April 2011

L is for Literary Literature

What is Literary Fiction, other than what's left after you take away all the other genres? I think it is generally accepted that literary fiction is more in-depth, takes on more serious subject matter, and deals with the inner life and what makes us human — although that could mean just about anything. As Justice Potter of the US Supreme court said about how to identify pornography: I know it when i see it. 

I think most of the books that are considered within this group were not written with the label Literary Fiction in mind, they were just written as stories. Ultimately when you look at a novel of whatever genre the main thing it needs to achieve is to tell a story and to tell it in an interesting way and I think that applies to all genres equally.

The problem with the literary genre is that when you try to critique it, because it doesn't have fixed parameters, it is very easy for the writer to squirm out of answering those criticisms head-on. A slower pace, a lack of purpose, a denser use of language are all things associated with this type of writing. But a story is either interesting or isn't and even though tastes differ, I think most people. like Justice Potter,  can spot a dull tale when they see it.

K is for Kill Your Darlings?

This well-known phrase, attributed to various people, basically means that sometimes we hang onto something in the a purely because we like the sound of it. It may be irrelevant, it may be long winded or unbalancing, it may disrupt flow and pace, but because it’s clever, or funny or lyrical, we see it as having earned its place.  I think we all know when we've written a nicely turned out phrase and who wouldn't want to show that off? The problem is it means the rest of the narrative suffers and, difficult as it may be, the sage thing to do is to remove it.

I don't necessarily agree.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

J is for Just Joking

Writing a funny short story or sketch is fairly straight forward, but writing a funny novel is very hard. Even the books that have pull-quotes on the front saying things like "I laughed on every page" and "hysterically funny" are usually anything but. So here is a small selection of books that are genuinely laugh out loud funny and also what they have taught me about writing in general. Because there is often more truth in a carefully constructed joke than in an entire volume of philosophy (twice as much if it includes poetry).

Monday 11 April 2011

I is for Inciting Interest

At some point in the first chapter the main character will have to deal with something. Some issue will arise, a problem will present itself, a revelation will be made, a decision will be considered. This inciting incident will set the story into motion, and tell the reader the sort of thing they can expect. The tone, the theme, the level of realism. Sometimes it occurs on the first page, maybe even in the first line. Or it can take a while for it to emerge, allowing us to get to know the characters and the setting.

The inciting incident doesn't necessarily have to be a problem the main character will be dealing with throughout the whole story. It can be one of a series of events that lead into whatever the story is about. But it has to capture the reader’s interest as it is the first point of entry into the story proper.

Big or small, of domestic or global importance, two things need to be considered. Firstly how are you going to present whatever it is? And secondly what are the consequences?

Saturday 9 April 2011

H is for Hanging on to Hope

You look at the stuff on the bookshelves and you think:

That’s bad. I could do better than that. But that never really explains how something that bad got picked up in the first place.

That’s good. That’s exactly the kind of thing I should be doing. But that certainty gets forgotten somewhere along the way.

That’s really good. Too good. So good it depresses you. How can you compete with THAT?

And then there’s the sublime. So good it gives you hope. Not just in writing or whatever your chosen field is, just hope in general. That there are some intelligent, insightful people in the world, not just the screaming jackasses (jackasses scream, right?) that represent us on the television.

Friday 8 April 2011

G is for Guardians at the Gate

Who are the gatekeepers? When you send a manuscript to an agent or publisher first it has to get past a reader. Someone who will look it over and decide whether it is worthy of higher consideration. The people who are giving this task are generally secretaries, PA’s, younger writers looking to make a bit of money and interns. They have no great expertise in identifying a good novel/script and have their own personal preferences and prejudices.

If they come across something so amazing that even they can spot its value then they can hand it over to someone higher up the chain. Obviously there will be various manuscripts with potential that will be overlooked, but since there are plenty of writers with potential already on the books, it’s considered a risk worth taking.

Often it is seen as a way to gets a more junior member of staff up to speed on the standard of work out there. Everything does get read eventually but it soon becomes apparent that most of it is not very good and the enthusiasm with which a reader will approach work sent in will fade over time. To be honest the pitch in the query letter is just as much aimed at that slightly bored person who spends most of the day answering phones and making coffee as it is at the agent.

Thursday 7 April 2011

F is for Feeling Failure

You can go to medical school, train, study, be an exemplary student, but your first day on the job you will be the worst doctor in the world. There is no substitute for doing, whatever your vocation. It's painful and difficult (and people may die) but it's the only way.

Obviously you want to be as prepared as possible but to be honest knowing how to prepare only comes after you've done it (whatever it might be) and done it badly. People who have been through it before you may offer advice, but what's right for them isn't necessarily right for you. Because part of doing it is failing. You're going to fail, you’re going to fuck up, and it's not going to go well. Which is a good thing. It is also a very unpleasant thing. But it's also definitely for the good.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

E is for Ends with an Epiphany


You have a character with a goal, he reaches his goal, the end. Right?

A bit boring maybe. Okay, you have a character, he has a goal, he faces obstacles, he overcomes them, the end. Better?

It depends, I suppose. If the obstacles and the way he overcomes them are interesting then that would be fine. It's all a bit mechanical though. Shouldn't there be a more emotional aspect to a story?

You have a character, a vampire kills his wife, he hunts down the vampire and finds an army of them. He sacrifices himself to stop them. The end.

The problem is what I'm suggesting is a variation on a simplistic theme. A person has a goal, when they either achieve it or fail to achieve it, the story ends and obviously that is how most stories work. But when you get to the end of a story you want some kind of moment. A feeling of satisfaction. Everything has been building to a point and now that  you’ve arrived you want it to have some kind of meaning. And the way for that to happen is for the character to not just achieve (or not achieve) his mission, but for him to gain some understanding from it. You want him to have an epiphany.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

D is for Dead-on Dialogue


Dialogue should be fun to read. It should flow easily as a conversation and sound like people are talking right in front of you. But too often it reads stilted and unnatural, like it’s been written down, not spoken. Some people have a natural ear for it, but most don’t.

The most common mistake with dialogue is to be too direct. People say what they mean and give full and frank explanations of themselves. It’s like a bank robbery where everything goes smoothly and everyone gets rich, there’s no fun in that. Dialogue is very flexible and you should take time to bend it. Lying, avoiding the truth (not the same thing), answering a question with a question, changing the subject, these are all ways of  making a conversation interesting.

But my number one tip for improving your dialogue is this:

Monday 4 April 2011

C is for Chapter One: The Notebook


In my previous Chapter One post I had a look at the opening of A Kiss Before Dying, a tautly written thriller. This time I’m looking at The Notebook, a romantic novel. I had intended to take apart the first chapter in a similar way to last time, but it turned out to be quite a different kind of book and quite an eye-opening experience. The conclusions I came to after spending some time with it were unexpected to say the least and I hope you find them as interesting as I did.

The Notebook is a very slim 50,000 word romance that was Nichloas Sparks’ first published novel in 1996. It was picked out of a slush pile by an agent and sold for a $1 million advance to a major publishing house, and instantly became a bestseller. This should make it clear that everyone along the way, agent, publisher, public, took to it immediately. People knew it was something special. The strange thing is, I thought the opening chapter was terrible.

It not only doesn’t obey any of the basic guidelines of opening chapters, it almost completely goes against all of them. It’s slow to the point of being static. It’s unclear who the characters are or where we are. The voice of the narrator (first person present tense) is strong, but quite tedious and self-involved. The story is rambling and unclear. But someone picked up this book and said yep, that’s a blockbuster. How did that happen? I certainly wanted to do my best to find out.

Saturday 2 April 2011

B is for Backstory-a-go-go

Let me tell you a joke. Two men walk into a bar. And the barman says, “Welcome to the Trapatonni Bar and Grill, first opened in 1932 by Giuseppe Trapattoni, a squat Sicilian who left his homeland with only the shirt on his back and a dream that one day…”

How much more of Giuseppe's story would it take for you to realise the background information had nothing to do with the joke? Not long, I'm guessing.

It used to be different.

Friday 1 April 2011

A is for Angry Young Men


It’s easy enough to say a character should be active, driving the story forward, have a goal etc. but what if he isn’t that sort of character?

A lot of young male writers that I read and critique in the various writers’ workshops I belong to, write about young male characters who don’t know what they want, who haven’t decided what their goal is, who don't care about anything. These writers want to write a story of discovery. They want to write about how to figure out which are the important things. They want to rage against the ridiculousness of life, in no particular order.

They want to write about these things because life doesn't conveniently offer up a neat, pre-packaged plot to give existence meaning and direction. That’s what they’re interested in, because that’s what they feel about their own lives. Certainly people have written books about such characters, so why not them? If it reads slow or aimless, then it’s literary fiction. It’s character driven. It’s intentionally mundane to reflect life. But how do you stop it being boring for the reader?
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