Posts Tagged Tips and Techniques
In my previous article I talked about why you might want to use outlining as a technique. In this article I’m going to look at what outlining is.
At it’s simplest, outlining is the enhancement of content through spacial arrangement. That can involve the placing of elements in a list, a grid, a hierarchy, on a map, or in any other way which helps you to understand the relationships between elements. Take a simple example:
This is a list of colours. We could say that the order of the list references something about the wavelength of the light, or we could say it reflects the order of the rainbow. It remains, though, an ordered list. Now to add some detail:
- Rust, or is that brown?
- A fruit
- Expression of; where does this come from
- Has ethical implications
- Down, depressed, low
- Isn’t this just purple?
- No this is purple – why two purples?
Now we have an outline which expresses some detail about these colours, and adds information in a structured way to imply that the detail is a property of the heading. We may want to re-order this list according to some other criterion, or add things in that we feel are important:
- A fruit
- Expression of; where does this come from?
- Has ethical implications
- Down, depressed, low
We’ve done a number of important things from an outlining perspective. We’ve inserted Brown into the list before Orange and put Rust under that because we think that’s where it belongs. Note that we can insert anywhere, not just at the end. We’ve merged Indigo and Violet into Purple because we think they’re the same thing, and we’ve moved them nearer to Red where we think they fit. We’ve moved Ribbon up the list under Yellow, but still under Yellow, and we’ve added Fingers to Green.
Note we didn’t type Green fingers; it’s position under Green implies Green, the same as the Ribbon is still Yellow. If I moved the Ribbon under Red it would be a Red Ribbon unless I state Yellow Ribbon under Red, which I could do if it meant something.
This isn’t about getting a right or wrong answer; it doesn’t matter that Indigo and Violet are different colours because the difference in this context at this time is not significant to us. It may become significant later. It doesn’t matter that Brown is a composite colour: here and now it’s in the list.
This is the freedom of outlining. It allows you to get things down quickly and intuitively without necessarily challenging those thoughts at the time. You can consider this outline later, having done some more research, and you may at that point want to introduce Black. Is Black a colour? This isn’t a list of colours, it’s an outline of colour related thoughts, and therefore Black is a colour if we say it is. So is Pumpkin.
We can take a two step approach to this:
Step 1: Divergent Thinking
- Adding elements as they occur
- Ordered but not fixed in order
- Adding levels of detail where they occur
- Adding place-holders where it needs work
- Mixing and merging concepts (eg: temperature, colour, and badgers)
- Without challenge:
- Speld howevr is quickest
- In the order they occur or fit
- Using the words that most easily decribe
- Capturing the spirit and the message
- Skipping mechanics or detail
Step 2: Convergent Thinking
- Ordering elements into sequence (not necessarily time-based)
- In the order they will be used or consumed
- With only enough detail to enable you to recall
- Crystalising or deleting place-holders
- Merging and separating concepts and concerns, eg:
- Questioning the place, order and precedence of everything
- Establishing flow, teasing out themes, highlighting holes and outstanding issues
Two steps implies that you do one then the other, but this may not be the case. You may iterate between divergent and convergent, adding in layers and then detailing them, only to add more later. You may start converging and then realise you have a whole new thread and start diverging from there. It’s organic and it’s meant to develop over time.
Step 3: The Power of Delete
I said it was a two stage process and it is, but it doesn’t always work. Don’t be afraid to delete everything and start again, I don’t mean save and close, I mean DELETE. Get rid of the whole thing. At worst you will lose a couple of hours work.
Start again, but not in the same place. Come at the whole thing from a new character, a new timeframe, a new perspective. If you’re brave enough to delete you will find that the pressure to keep what was good means that those ideas bubble up to the surface again in new guises. If you don’t delete you will find yourself constrained to the paths you’ve already taken. The delete key is your liberator.
Change the layout and look at it differently. If you had an ordered list before, put things in a circle and draw lines between them. Write things on sticky-notes and post them on a wall. Add symbols, or emoji, or highlighter, or stickers.
The importance you attach to things is dictated by their relevance and importance to you, at this time, in this context. It can be more or less useful, it can be clear or opaque, it can help or hinder, but it can’t be right or wrong.
Next time I’ll talk about how tools help and hinder.
As part of a new series I’m going to be looking at outlining as a technique for writers and I’m going to start by acknowledging the obvious – everyone is different. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another, so my objective here is not to tell you how to write or what to use, but to encourage you to develop a portfolio of tools and techniques that will help you to organise and direct your thoughts and be more productive.
This series is aimed at writers of long fiction (i.e. pieces over 20,000 words) but some or all of it may also be useful if you are writing non-fiction, or shorter pieces, or a dissertation or long-form essay. It’s up to the reader to pick out what is useful to them and incorporate it into their methods.
So why outline? Why not just write?
There are a number of advantages to outlining a piece of work both before and after writing it. The first is perspective. It’s much easier to get an overview of a piece of work if you can look at it all at once. This is useful at the planning stage to allow you to experiment without commiting yourself to hours of work just to see whether an idea will bear fruit.
It’s also useful in editing when you can see scene-by-scene what is happening. It helps you identify sections where the plot may be flat, or unfocussed, or just plain confusing. By resolving these at a higher level it then enables you to dip into the text and resolve the issues one at a time and work through the text to resolve the issues while keeping the narrative flow intact. It can also provide you with an overview of character-arc, or themes, or key events. With the right software it can even help with timing.
One of the most common weaknesses, particularly for new writers, is a lack of structure. Without a framework the story tends to lack pace and direction and the writer can end up stuck – not because they can’t write, but because they have reached a place in the narrative where there is either no believable progression or resolution for the characters, or because they feel blocked. Outlining allows you to unwind to the point where the story can branch anew and find a more fruitful and promising direction. You can experiment in outline with different scenarios until you find something that works for the story, and for you as a writer.
A major challenge of any work over 50,000 words is to organise what is being done. Outlining allows you to easily order and re-order scenes, move elements around, experiment with sequence, timing and the interplay between actors before investing time in writing the scenes. It also allows you to dip into key scenes and write them first, putting into place the crucial turning points in the plot and crystallising these so that the rest of the story can form around them, then using these as waypoints in the narrative for story development. It liberates the writer from the timeline.
By freeing the writer from the timeline and giving them the framework of the narrative, the outliner is able to drill into a scene and focus. It allows the writer to think about that scene in context and understand what is being delivered in terms of plot development, character evolution, escalation, tension, narrative twist, humour, horror, suspense or any other element. When the scene is written it can be edited both as a scene, and as an element of the whole
Even using outlining it is possible to spend weeks or months on a story and then find that for one reason or another it doesn’t work. Having an outline to go back to allows you to restructure rapidly. Instead of lamenting the lost time, you can use the experience to rapidly introduce new character perspectives, develop new plot threads, and find out what’s not working. Doing that with 100,000 words would take months in itself, but using an outline it’s possible to see what can be saved and what must be scrapped. It allows you to maintain momentum when you feel like you’re paddling upstream.
The most common argument against outlining is the proposition that somehow by outlining a story in advance it nullifies the sense of discovery that can be experienced through story development; that by pre-empting the story, you remove the opportunity for the characters to surprise you. This may be true for some writers. However, the first rule of outlining is that you don’t have to stick to your outline. It’s a framework and frameworks can change. If you discover a creative thread that looks promising you can follow it. You are not tied to your outline. Even if you throw it away and start again you’ve lost very little.
Some writers prefer to hammer out a first draft and then develop it in editing. One way of looking at that is to say that the first draft is the outline; it’s just longhand rather than note-form. Knowing the plot is only the first part of telling a story. Setting a scene, building expectation, developing characters, crafting dialogue; all of these and more besides are part of storytelling and must be addressed in your writing process. If you choose to do them in second or third draft then that’s your choice.
If you’re writing already then you’ve probably discovered that writing isn’t one skill, but many. The exercise of those skills is what makes it challenging, demanding and rewarding. Outlining is a skill like any other, it must be acquired and practiced before it can be mastered, but mastering it opens doors that might otherwise be closed.
As the series progresses I’ll be showing how that skill can be developed using a variant of software (and more prosaic) tools, so that you can add outlining to your skill-set.
Plot development is at the centre of this week’s article in the series Twelve Rules of Writing – in particular the subject of outlining. As a quick reminder, this is the extract from the original article: ~
11. Do I need to outline my story or just write it?
That depends. If you already have a detailed outline in your head, then you don’t need to outline it. If, on the other hand, you have no plot or structure then you need to outline the plot you don’t have. It’s easy, just indent every other sentence until it makes sense.
Outlining is just one of the techniques that can help you if you are struggling with plot, and since we mentioned it, let’s start there:
The purpose of outlining is to allow you to operate at different levels within the overall plot arc. At it’s most basic, we can start with an overall premise and three labels: Beginning, Middle and End. Note that you don’t have to adopt a 3-act structure and if you already have a structure that works for you then use that, but the important thing is that you impose some structure.
Once you have an overall structure you can begin to fill out the levels beneath the overall structure with elements, initially at high level and then in more detail. The point of outlining is that you can dip down into detail anywhere in the plot as it occurs to you without worrying about how you get there. There is a freedom in this that liberates you from the narrative sequence and allows creative expression.
You don’t need software to outline, though there are some useful tools you can use which include outlining functionality such as OmniOutliner, Scrivener, NoteLiner and others, but you can just as easily use sticky notes or index cards. The key elements are that you should be able to expand and collapse each element independently allowing you to focus on that element without worrying about everything that precedes or succeeds it, and that you should be able to move elements about in the structure if you want to. That might be laying cards out on a surface, or clicking and dragging a paragraph.
Potential pitfalls of this technique are in the level of detail to which you descend. If you drop down too far you can over-outline an element and steal all the fun and surprise from that scene so that when you come to write it you find there’s nothing to do and your pen is dry. On the other hand you can push the level of detail so that you are, in fact, writing the scene and then you’ve lost the big picture, which was the purpose of outlining in the first place.
The trick is to stay light and agile, swapping between scenes and adding in detail all across the story arc until you have enough that you think you can write it. Then stop outlining and start writing.
If outlining had an antithesis it would be freewriting. In freewriting we ignore structure and follow the narrative path to discover where it leads. There is a different kind of freedom in this, in that it liberates the writer from structure and allows their subconscious to manifest in the story, revealing new truths and discovering hidden jewels. Writers sometimes talk about characters walking in and taking over, which is an aspect of freewriting – if it feels right then go with it.
The downside is, of course, that you can end up writing material that has no discernable plot – a structureless story without development or progression. In some cases this can be avant-guarde, but mostly not, and it can leave the reader disorientated and unable to follow.
The most powerful tool for the freewriter (some would say for any writer) is the delete key. If something isn’t working then have the courage to delete it. If it was good after all then you will be able to re-create it, if not then it is better gone. This can mean that you are deleting more than you are left with, but if that’s what the story demands then so be it. Remember that freewriting can produce a lot of material quite quickly, so there is seldom a problem with insufficient words.
At its most powerful, freewriting is revelatory and inspiring, but not for the faint-hearted.
Snowflaking is a little like outlining in that it operates at different levels of detail, but it is rather more formal in approach. This technique starts at a high level, one sentence summary of the plot and then iteratively creates increasing layers of detail until the story is written. Note that this is different from outlining in that in outlining you are encouraged to switch levels and move around within the story arc as the mood takes you, but in snowflaking the direction of progress is towards increasing levels of detail.
The power of this fractal approach comes from the link between the overall premise and the final story, and it is almost guaranteed to provide you with a story that is true to the original idea. The weakness is that it doesn’t allow you to deviate from that idea, and can produce results that are formulaic and uninspiring. It also relies on a brilliant premise, and if you have that then this technique can generate a story quite quickly and relatively easily, but if you don’t then it can feel like you are just digging yourself into a deeper hole.
If you really need a formal structure and a regulated approach then this technique can work for you, but don’t let it stifle your creativity.
Backtracking is an alternative approach to plot development that starts with the end and works backwards to the beginning. This sounds initially strange but can be very useful in certain circumstances. If we take the example of a murder-mystery, we can start from how the murder was done and then work backwards to the clues generated, the red-herrings created, the characters who would be suspect and the beginning of the story, which could be where and when the body was discovered.
The power of this technique rests in the questions. Why was the victim killed? Who would want them dead? Had they done something to deserve it? Who would have a motive? Where would the murder take place? Questions are powerful because they feed back into character. What sort of person would kill another human being and then conceal what they had done? This gives you an insight into that character and allows you to write about that person in a way that feels true and vital.
Backtracking can be used to plot an overall story, but also at a more detailed level. If you have an event in the story arc that you need to get to but you find yourself blocked, then you can work backwards from that event by asking why it happened. What happened to lead to that event? Who was involved, and what was their motivation? These questions may lead you back to a different point in the story than where you were trying to write from, and allow you to discover why you were blocked.
The weakness in backtracking is that it can lead to plots that seem tenuous and contrived, since there is a web of dependency leading to the final event, created specifically to support that event. When using this technique you should question each link in the chain and ask whether that is really there for the story or simply to make the plot work. Otherwise you may find your story dominated by plot devices and helpful coincidence.
Each of these techniques has strengths and weaknesses and each is more or less appropriate in certain circumstances, so which would I recommend? The answer is all of them. Writers need to develop a range of techniques and tools for dealing with different problems and learn when to use a particular technique. This comes with experience and practice, so trying each if these techniques is a good place to start. You will find that each has benefits and each comes with it’s own restrictions and limitations.
This is not a definitive list of writing techniques and there are others that you can learn and experiment with. Try mind-mapping or borrow Robert McKee’s excellent screenwriting technique documented in Story. Use flowcharts, cover the walls with sticky notes, fill notepads with random notes and build character databases. All of these have their own strengths and weaknesses, and you can discover them for yourself by experimentation.
There is no single recipe for good story writing any more than there is one writer of good stories. Each writer must discover what works for them. But if you find yourself stuck and you’re wondering what to do about it, try a different approach – you might find that you solve more than just the problem you’re faced with.
In this article in my series, Twelve Rules of Writing, I will be looking at point of view from a story-telling perspective. To remind you how this was addressed in my tongue-in-cheek article here’s the original.
10. Which point of view should I adopt?
This depends on genre. If you’re writing pornography or recipe books then second person present is what you’re looking for. If you’ve chosen science fiction you need to write in the future tense and if it’s historical fiction you need the past-imperfect. First person present is essentially for the psychologically disturbed and third person is for insurance policies.
Should stories be told as if the writer is experiencing them, or as an observer? The point of view colours the way in which the tale is experienced as a reader. Let’s take a more unusual example first: ~
You take the stairs, one at a time, ascending each tread as slowly and carefully as you may. Your fingertips brush the smooth waxy grain in the banister so that you sense many hands that have come this way before. Your eyes lift as you ascend, even though you cannot yet see what is at the top. You hear each creak as your weight shifts onto each stair….
Using second person present puts the reader directly in the position of protagonist, which can be useful where the experience is a strong part of the narrative. It is more commonly used in horror or erotica, both of which may benefit from a sense of immersion and direct involvement. A byproduct of this perspective is that it denies the reader free will and the writer is constantly in the position of instructing the reader in what they will do and how they will do it. This can be tiring as it forces the reader to constantly question whether they would follow the instructions as written. Used sparingly it can be a powerful tool, but in overuse it often becomes oppressive and fails to engage.
Shifting to third person perspective gives us a little distance and allows the writer to narrate. The following is in third person past tense:
Tony watched the street from the darkened window. His eyes sought the shadows, looking for a glimmer of reflection or a shape out of place. He felt he was being watched, and wanted to know why. A glint of metal from beneath a tree, close to the trunk where there should be nothing to catch the light, told him that someone watched him in return.
Shifting that into present tense changes the mood, upping the tension:
Tony watches the street from the darkened window. His eyes seek the shadows, looking for a glimmer of reflection or a shape out of place. He feels he is being watched and wants to know why. A glint of metal from beneath a tree, close to the trunk where there should be nothing to catch the light, tells him that someone watches him in return.
Comparing these two paragraphs we can see that the second is more immediate. It has a sense of tension and action that the first is denied because the events in the first example have already happened. In the second example events are happening now and things could change at any moment. For shorter pieces third person present can work very well for exactly these reasons, however over a longer piece it’s hard to maintain the tension through extended periods, especially when the tension ramps down again.
Stories have a natural rhythm of their own, and while publishers are fond of quoting books as having a pace that never lets up, in practice this reads as unnatural and forced. Everyone has to breathe at some time, even characters in a book, and if they are never allowed to consider their actions and reflect on what’s happened then it will seem as if they are flotsam, washed along by waves of events with no control or influence, making them uninteresting as characters. The best characters make the most difficult choices, but how can they choose if they never reflect on their actions?
Second person past tense is rarely used because it is a combination in conflict with itself. By placing the story in second person you are setting the reader as protagonist, but by placing it in the past you are saying events have already happened. As a reader you are even further out of control than you are with second person present.
The other main choice is first person past tense.
I was staring into space when it happened, so I didn’t really see. I could feel the wind as the tube train buffeted towards the platform and hear the grinding and squealing as the driver applied the brakes. I was part of the crowd waiting for the train. There was no sign that the guy beside me was in any distress. He just stood there with everyone else, until the train was yards away. Then he stepped forwards, leaned over the edge and toppled onto the tracks.
This is an extract from the opening of Sixty-One Nails, which is written mostly in first person perspective. The reason I chose this was that I wanted to reader to experience the discovery of the world as Niall, the protagonist, discovers it. This is both a strength and a weakness because the reader can’t know anything the protagonist doesn’t know and can’t see anything he doesn’t see. The viewpoint is vulnerable to their prejudices and subject to their assumptions. It also means we can tap into the character’s thoughts, revealing insights into their decision process and emotional reactions.
There is a danger in this that the narrative becomes introspective and locks into self-examination. The character’s voice can take on a whiny quality as they begin to wonder why all the bad things in the story happen to them. This can distance the reader from the character, undermining the empathetic relationship between reader and protagonist. The opposite can also happen, with the character seeming like an empty cypher for the story, manipulated by events and immune to the consequences. The character can seem untouchable, which distances the reader once again.
With Niall, I wanted to have someone who was completely closed off, emotionally damaged from a crashed relationship, immersed in a work-sleep cycle, a workaholic estranged parent who had locked themselves into a numbing cycle to avoid the pain of dealing with the rejection and guilt of his marriage break-up. When he has a heart attack in chapter one, he isn’t really dying – he’s already dead. He’s numb to the world and sees only what’s in front of him.
First person present worked well for this, but when I came to write The Road to Bedlam it seemed insufficient to simply present Niall’s view, especially as his view had shifted. There were things going on around Niall that he couldn’t see and we had come to know Blackbird, at least through Niall’s eyes. Including some passages from Blackbird’s viewpoint, but switching these from first person to third person, allowed me to follow Blackbird’s thread of the story without compromising the relationship. If I had used first person perspective with Blackbird the reader would have gained intimate knowledge of Blackbird’s feelings about Niall, something I wanted to explore later and which forms one of the core threads of the arc-plot.
If you are fortunate enough to get feedback from a large number of readers you will find that some people expect your characters to wear their heart on their sleeve and voice their emotions openly and expressively. Others will want your characters to stop talking about how they feel and get on with the plot. The simple fact is that you can’t please everyone. As a writer, what you can do is be true to your characters. Your choice of viewpoint is linked to your expression of those characters in the context of that story and forms the basis of the reader’s relationship with the character, so it can make or break the empathetic link that is so important.
Point of view is a powerful tool for a writer and like most powerful tools should be used with care. The choice of viewpoint depends on the story and characters and provides the writer with the opportunity to zoom in to a character’s inner dialogue or zoom out to get a wider perspective.
It’s not just for insurance policies and the psychologically disturbed, after all.
At this stage in the Twelve Rules of Writing we reach the issue of word-count. As it says in the rules:
8. Word-count is important.
Only books with specific numbers of words ever get published. This is why many books never see the light of day. Once a word-count has been used, though, it can’t be re-used, which is why books are different lengths. The exact number of words required is a secret of the industry and is only known by editors and publishers, which is why they are often published authors in their own right, as they know what number comes next.
Try counting the words in recently published books to try and guess the next number in the sequence.
There are a surprising amount of questions about how many words are required in order to increase your chances of publication and there is a lot of misleading advice out there, which is why Rule 8 exists. It’s as if somewhere there is a magic number of words that will appeal to all publishers, agents and editors. So let me be clear: There is no magic number. There are, however, better and worse answers to the question, and that’s what this article is about.
As an initial and purely practical guideline, between 70K (70,000) and 150K words in a good number to aim for in a first novel.
These aren’t hard numbers. 65K might be okay and 160K might also be fine, although once above 150K words you are starting to reach the physical boundaries of a printed paperback. Font sizes may have to be reduced and the binding may require special attention to prevent splitting when you open it. This can increase the unit cost of publication.
That does not mean that books will not be published outside these boundaries. As an example, my first novel, Sixty-One Nails is 154K words and because of that the font size is very slightly smaller than normal. Genre plays a part – The Eye of the World, the first in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, was 305K words. George R R Martin’s: A Storm of Swords is 404K and runs to over 1,000 pages in paperback. There is even an acronym in the industry, BFF, which stands for Big Fat Fantasy, for exactly this type of book.
Similarly, below 70K words novels start to look a little thin, and the font size and line spacing may increase slightly to give a book a bit more heft. Too much below 60K and the reader starts to feel that they might not be getting their money’s worth, the spine get’s thin and the book vanishes on the shelf when edge on. Below that we’re talking more novella than novel.
But once again, there are exceptions. Stephen King’s: Gunslinger, first of The Dark Tower series is 55K words. Paulo Coelho’s: The Alchemist, is about 45K words, which is well into novella size, but they were both successfully published and sold very well indeed. John le Carré’s: The Spy Who Came Into The Cold, and Ian Flemming’s: Casino Royale, both fall into this category as they were published at a time when thinner books were more prevalent.
When a publisher takes on a new writer, they take a risk. There’s a chance that the book won’t sell and they’ll end up crediting the booksellers for all the unsold stock and swallowing the cost of publication and distribution. If the book is more expensive to produce then the consequences of that risk become greater, so publishers can be reluctant to publish a new author’s book if it costs more to produce, especially if there’s a shorter book from another author that’s just as good.
While word-count will not prevent your book from being published, it will have a bearing on the decision an agent or publisher will make. They will look at the risks and the opportunities and make a judgement call. They have to look at their market and decide whether readers will buy what you’ve written for the price they can produce it.
Part of the craft of writing is learning when to cut and when to expand. It’s not a matter of writing to a particular word-count, but rather learning to step back from your work and understand where a thin story needs more meat and a fat story can be pruned to remove distracting detail. The expectations of your audience and the current conventions of the genre are the guide here rather than any arbitrary number.
The trump card is the writing. If you can make your story stand head and shoulders above anything else on offer then the word-count will be irrelevant.
It really is that simple.
As part of my continuing series on Writing, this article is about writing for your senses. Here’s a refresher for those who missed the original article.
6. Write for all five senses
Some writers make the mistake of only writing for the visual sense. In order to increase the depth of your writing you need to engage the other senses too, so when you are writing about a particularly romantic sunset, you will need to explain how it smells and tastes, as well as how it looks. If you are writing about a sunset and you don’t know how a sunset tastes, you have already broken rule 1.
It seems obvious, therefore, that to increase the sense of immersion you engage the readers other senses through their imagination. However, I am not talking about those five senses in this article – I’m talking about the other five senses that are equally important in making your writing come to life:
A Sense of Place
In fantasy, the sense of place is often overlooked as the writer engages in creating their world. They create gleaming towers and forbidding castles, forgetting that people have to live somewhere and grow things to eat. Creating an imaginary place is harder, in some ways, than setting your story in a real place. You have to imagine not just how it is, but how it came to be like that. Terry Pratchett does a fantastic job of this with Ankh-Morpork and, however unlikely a place it seems, you know the twin cities evolved from real places with real histories.
Readers carry around with them a huge knowledge of the world, and as a writer you can use that knowledge to evoke a sense of place in the mind of the reader and bring a place to life. To do this, you need to develop the eye of a photographer, and start looking at the world around you with a new and inquisitive eye. Develop a curiosity about strange names, oddly curved streets, eccentric landmarks and historic buildings.
Each place has its own story, and that story can feed your story.
A Sense of Purpose
As Kurt Vonnegut said in his Eight Rules of Writing (and his rules are much better than mine):
“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
~ Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction
In your story, each and every character should have a sense of purpose. Otherwise, why are they there? If they don’t have a purpose then they are cluttering up your story and diluting your action and should be cut. Be merciless – tell your characters, “Either come up with a reason to be here or get the hell out!”
However, not every character reveals their purpose immediately. In your first draft, be tolerant, let characters hang out and discover their purpose by interacting with others. Let them develop, mature and come into focus. Only if you get into editing and you still don’t know why a character exists should you excise them from the story.
A Sense of Humour
Kurt Vonnegut also said: ~
Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
It is easy to get lost in the dreadful happenings with which you are torturing your characters. If you are writing well and things are flowing then you will be caught up on the action and driven to the end.
At these times you may need to remind yourself that life has a sense of humour, and that by echoing that humour and letting it resonate through your darkest times, you lift the entire story and give it depth and flavour that undiluted dread never has.
Remember to make them smile while you’re persecuting them.
A Sense of Proportion
If you are writing stories, and especially if you are writing fantasy or science fiction, it is important to give your characters something to fight for, and what better to fight for than their existence? In fact, why stop at their existence? Why not have them fight for the existence of time and space itself? Either they succeed in their quest or the universe ends.
This is where you need a sense of proportion, for it seems that size does matter after all, but not in the way you perhaps thought. Let’s consider – if the universe ended we would all be dead. Would we care then? Annihilation is not the threat it seems to be. The death of everything just isn’t personal enough.
Small things matter. A robin who carries a worm back to the nest to feed its chick, only to be caught and killed by a cat as it tries to land, matters more to us than a planet crashing into a star in fiery doom. We can empathise with a bird, or even with the worm, but not with a planet.
You are the most important person in the world to you (parenthood notwithstanding). Your loved ones are next. Your close friends after that. No-one can truly care about people they don’t know and have never met. So if your story does not allow you to meet and know the people involved, the reader will not care.
It is what happens to those people that matters, not what happens to the universe.
A Sense of Wonder
As a fantasy writer you would expect me to say that a sense of wonder is important, but I think this transcends genre.
Even in a fantasy novel, a sense of wonder does not necessarily come from magic. It can come from the cry of a new-born baby, or a person suddenly realising an inner truth. It can arise from revelations in the plot or from the discovery that a character you thought you knew can do something truly unexpected and still be true to themselves.
However it arises, a sense of wonder brings light into someone else’s existence, gives them the strength to overcome their own difficulties and can, at its best, change someone’s life.
More than that, it is a gift given to strangers, without expectation of reward, which restores our faith in human nature.
Continuing to take a serious look after my tongue-in-cheek article, the Twelve Rules of Writing, we have reached number five, which is concerned with the writer’s voice. Here’s the original rule to remind you: ~
5. Develop a writer’s voice
In order to be a successful writer you will need to develop a style which is distinctive and immediately identifiable. To help develop your writer’s voice, try doing impressions of other writers. YouTube is great for this as you can download clips of writers and imitate their speech patterns. Once you have the hang of it, you can try developing your own voice.
We are told that so-and-so is the new voice of Science Fiction and that editors are always looking for new voices. We are also told that your voice should be unique, distinctive and original. It is not revealed, however, what your voice should be. That, after all, is up to you. It’s your voice. It’s a personal quest, which only you can undertake.
What do we mean, then, by voice? What is it that you’re looking for, that seems both elusive and obscure?
Here’s Mickey Spillane, talking about his name:
I got a kid named Mike…jeez, the names they gave ME. My father was Catholic, my mother was Protestant, and because of that I got Christened in both churches, so I’ve got all these names…but my Dad always called me Mick. My mother called me Babe, and Babe is not a nice name for a guy, unless you’re Babe Ruth.
~ from an interview with Michael Carlson for Crime Time.
Your voice is not one thing, but many. It’s the pace at which you tell stories – the timbre and tone you adopt. It’s where you place stress and emphasis and where you let things trail. It has both rhythm and timing, pace and punch, and forms a unique combination like a fingerprint. It’s about where you pause for breath, and what’s in that pause when it occurs.
A singular notion dawned upon me. I doubted not – never doubted –that if Mr Reed had been alive he would have treated me kindly; and now, as I sat looking at the white bed and overshadowed walls – occasionally also turning a fascinated eye towards the dimly gleaming mirror – I began to recall what I had heard of dead men, troubled in their graves by the violation of their last wishes, revisiting the earth to punish the perjured and avenge the oppressed; and I thought Mr Reed’s spirit, harassed by the wrongs of his sister’s child, might quit its abode – whether in the church vault or in the unknown world of the departed – and rise before me in this chamber.
~ from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
For some people, writer’s voice seems to come as easily as breathing. It’s as if they’re in the room as you read, literally a voice in your head. It helps if you’ve heard the writer read their work out loud, but for some, like the voices above, you don’t need to hear them – it’s there on the page. That didn’t happen by accident. I guarantee that the writer has worked to develop that voice. Maybe it’s a reflection of their natural voice, but even then it takes art to transfer it to the page so that it comes across in writing.
What can you do, then, to develop your own writer’s voice?
My advice to imitate writers voices from YouTube may have been flippant, but the idea of imitating other writers has some merit. Writing a short story or a piece of description in the style of another writer, whether it be as Charlotte Bronte, Mickey Spillane or another distinctive voice, gives you an idea of what makes that voice so distinctive. It makes you conscious of the elements brought into play, making it more explicit. You have to step back from the story and examine the words, the placing of punctuation, the delivery, to see what makes that voice.
Be sure to take more than one example and choose as many and varied as you can. Write as Tom Clancy, J R R Tolkein, P G Woodhouse, A A Milne – though with this last, you may find yourself channelling Alan Bennett by mistake. Then go back and look at what you’ve written and ask yourself – why is that sentence so long, or that comma placed there?
While your speaking voice is the product of your upbringing and your environment, and of the language(s) you speak, your writing voice is a cultured thing – something grown, developed and exercised. Having explored other voices, you need to find the voice in your own head, and heart, that expresses the truth that lies there.
In your imagination, create your own reader – they can be family, muse, friend, or lover – and bring your story to life for them. Make it personal, intimate and close – you’re not giving a lecture, you’re telling a story under the sheets by torchlight to someone with wide eyes and rapt attention. Watch their reactions as your story unfolds, pause while they hold their breath, race when the action is pumping, but tell it in your own way for that one person.
Finding your voice can take practice and time, but it is an essential part of what makes your stories unique, vivid and enjoyable for your readers. It is worth every moment invested and will make your stories stand out where others seem to lack something indefinable and essential.