Archive for category Writing

Good Writing is Invisible

Continuing my series on the Twelve Rules of Writing, here is rule 2: ~

2. Spelling and grammer are what copy editors are for.

Clearly, as a creative person, you do not want to be burdened with the task of spelling things correctly or constructing sentences that are grammatically correct.  This is, after all, what copy editors are for and you will be depriving them of their livelihood if you do their job for them.

Did you spot the deliberate mistake?  This is one of my blind-spots – I consistently type grammar with an ‘e’ when I know it’s spelled with two ‘a’s. It’s the sort of thing that I rely upon copy editors to spot for me because I just don’t see it for myself. That’s what copy editors do – except it isn’t. They will do it, but only when you don’t.

What your copy editor is really there for is to sense-check what’s been submitted, enforce a consistent style, and make sure there are no unexpected surprises in the text. For instance, did your character wake up with blue eyes and now they’re brown? Has your character been drinking from the same wine-glass for five hours without ever filling it? Are names consistently used throughout the text – is it Catherine or Katherine? These are the sort of things that trip writers up, and copy editors are there to make sure you don’t fall on your face.

So what about spelling and grammar (see, I caught it that time)?  Well, curiously enough, that’s your job. You’re the writer and words are supposed to be your thing. More importantly words are meaning, and so is punctuation. Take the following passage: ~

he slaked his thirst taking long gulps form the glass realizing that no matter how much he drank he would never loose his thirst again: the eternal thirst

Starting a sentence with a capital letter and ending with a full stop (a period in the USA) is not optional. These, like commas, are clues that allow the reader to break sentences into digestible pieces. Learn where to use a semi-colon, a dash and a colon. You may think that this advice is obvious, but ask any agent or editor and they will tell you that there are those who believe they are unnecessary.

A spell checker is not a cure-all. The word form instead of from, and loose instead of lose, would not be picked up by a spell check. They are valid words, they’re just not the right words in that context.  Is it realizing or realising?

Is it single quotes around speech or double? Do you put one space after a full stop or two?  Is full-on hyphenated? These are things that may be adjusted by a copy editor to conform with house style, but if you don’t use them correctly in the first place then it makes the job of preserving your meaning that much harder.

Readers like to be drawn into a story. You know you’re winning when people can’t remember reading the words, they just remember what happened. Good writing is invisible, but spelling mistakes, poor grammar and bad sentence construction will have your readers puzzling out what you mean, and at that point they’ve left the story and are focused on the text – exactly what you don’t want.

In the next post in this series I’ll talk about meaning and how you select the words you need. Have your thesaurus at the ready.

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Write What You Know – Part 2

Continuing my series of posts on my tongue-in-cheek article, the Twelve Rules of Writing and in support of those people participating in this year’s NaNoWriMo, this is the second on the subject of Rule 1 – Write What You Know.

In my previous post, I discussed the need for research and why using what you know can help you establish a vivid and believable setting for your story, together with the dangers of too much detail and data dumping. This is an important aspect of writing, especially in Fantasy, but it is not enough on its own. Having a believable world is only the first step in bringing a story to life.

Writing fiction is an art – it is about creating something, not reporting something. While you can include a beautifully described world with a developed ecology, an eon-spanning history, a viable economy and a vibrant culture, that does not provide a story. We’ve painted the scenery, but the play has yet to begin.

It is tempting to make a special case for Fantasy and SF. After all, these genres are specifically about creating situations that are inherently unreal, but actually this is true of most fiction. The fact that one genre explores alternate worlds and another trawls the depths of the criminal mind is looking at the same thing inside-out – we’re in another country in both cases. That one is set in the past and another in the future is simply a matter of perspective. Even in a historical novel, the writer is making things up. The one exception is perhaps Literature, where it can be more about stye and technique than about story-telling, though the best Literature is all that and more.

So what is the purpose of fiction? For me, it is encapsulated in the following quotation:

Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures – Jessamyn West (1902-84)

If you want to discover facts you should read non-fiction. History, biography, travel, science – all will increase your knowledge and perhaps your understanding of the world. If you want truth, though, you need to read fiction.  And if you want to write fiction, you need to be able to write the truth.

“Write the Truth” was what Robert McKee wrote inside my copy of Story, his seminal work on the art of screenwriting. If you don’t have a copy then buy or borrow one.  Better still, pay to go and listen to him at one of his occasional lectures. He’s irascible and cantankerous, but you learn a hell of a lot in three days.  It’s simple enough, then.  If you want to write fiction, simply tell the truth.

That’s not an easy burden, though. If you want to discover how easy it is, simply resolve to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (as they say in court) for a single day. Careful, though – if you’re wise you’ll lock yourself in a room and neither see nor speak to anyone. The truth isn’t kind or considerate, it doesn’t take prisoners and it will trash your friendships, ruin your relationships and wreck your career.  You’re going to have to tell the butcher that she has dirty fingernails, your boss that he’s greedy and selfish, your husband/wife that they’re overweight (while you’re no sylph), and your children that they’ve disappointed you. If you make it to the end of the day with your life intact, you will be very lucky indeed.

There’s a paradox here, then. I’m saying you should write the truth, but at the same time I’m telling you that if you do, it will ruin your life – the writer destroys himself. The saving grace is that while you write the truth, you make the characters up. Your characters become your proxies for the purpose of telling the story.  But if you want your characters to be full and rounded then you need to have them react in the way that real people do and for that to reveal some truth about them, or about the situation they are in, and in doing so reveal some truth about yourself.

That can mean taking yourself and your characters into some dark places, and being honest with yourself about how you feel and how you would react in that situation in order that you can transfer those feelings to your characters and say, “That’s me, how about you?”

This is what you know. This is your truth.  You know how you feel and you can imagine how you would feel if you were in that situation. How you feel makes you unique and individual, but it also connects you to everyone else.

Maybe your characters feel the same as you and react accordingly, or maybe they sneer at your reaction and go their own way. Perhaps their reaction is prompted by yours through empathy or revulsion, either is valid, or perhaps you are greeted with incomprehension. Whatever their reaction, it must be true to you and to the story you are telling.  You don’t have to explain why they react the way they do, that should come from the story and be revealed as part of that character’s development, but the reaction should be true to that character in that situation.

As an example, take the funeral scene from The Road to Bedlam. Niall is drawn into participating in a joint memorial ceremony after the tragic death of his daughter. His initial reaction is to revert to his default behaviour and throw himself into work, organising the event. This allows him to distance himself from the shock and the grief, but it doesn’t allow him to escape. It’s only when he comes to stand before the assembly and speak about his daughter that his grief hits him, suddenly and profoundly.

As a piece of writing, that scene meant visiting the idea that I might lose my own child, and how that would feel.  It was an extremely difficult piece to write and it meant treading a very fine line between sentimentality and honesty.  It was challenging both technically and emotionally.  Personally I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written, but not everyone reacts the same way to it.  For some people, the scene leaves them bemused and untouched, while others have told me that it made them cry in public. Unsurprisingly, it’s the parents who found it the most difficult to read.

So in order to write the truth successfully, you have to be able to imagine the best and the worst, then transfer that to your characters in such a way that it becomes true for your readers, connecting back to your readers through their own empathic response and delivering a direct emotional reaction in a way that feels right and true.

Or to put it more simply, write as if it were the truth, no matter how hard that might be.

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Write What You Know – Part 1

A few weeks ago I posted a rather tongue-in-cheek article entitle The Twelve Rules of Writing, which some of you may have read and which it was nice to see a number of people commenting upon.  For me, one of the surprising comments was that people didn’t realise it was humorously intended until they got some way through it, perhaps because there are any number of articles out there where people say this sort of thing in all seriousness.

I’m also conscious that we are in the middle of NaNoWriMo and there are lots of people focused on upping their word-count with the intention of delivering a first draft by end of month.  It seemed a good time to offer some advice and encouragement, and I thought I might try and follow the themes in the original article but address them in a more serious manner.

This is the first of those articles, which I have split into two parts, the first part covering factual accuracy and the second to cover authenticity of experience, but to remind you of the original post – here it is: ~

1. Write what you know

In order for readers to engage in what you are writing and be drawn into the story, your writing must be authentic and genuine. You must therefore write about what you already know. There’s no point in researching stuff that you don’t know about, since that will immediately appear false to your readers. Stick to safe ground and it will save you a lot of effort.
As a side-effect of this, obviously science fiction and fantasy are not proper writing as you cannot possibly know about things you only imagined in the first place.

The reason I chose this as the first rule is that it seemed to me to be one of the most common pieces of advice, frequently offered without any explanation of how to follow it.  It’s trite, but it’s also true.  The key to this particular gem is authenticity.  It’s about getting inside the experience and making it immediate and personal, but it’s also about the suspension of disbelief.

Take the following example: ~

Sherlock Holmes went to the window of 221b Baker Street and glanced at the distant face of Big Ben.  It was almost midnight.  The game was afoot! (with apologies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

There’s nothing wrong with this as a piece of writing.  It is spelled and punctuated correctly and, though it is brief, it encapsulates a moment.  However, twenty seconds with Google Maps will show you that from any window in a flat on Baker Street it is not possible to see the face of Big Ben – it’s in the wrong direction.  Using the iconic landmark gives us a sense of place, but it’s the wrong place, and it jars the reader out of the flow of the story.

This is an obvious example, but small things can be just as damaging. I am reminded of the character living in England who opened a tin of beetroot (which is almost always sold in jars in Britain) or Robin Hood arriving at Hastings and then riding to Nottingham in a day (not possible at the time, given the roads and the available modes of transport).  These are failures of fact and highlight the importance of research. If you are going to set a story in a location then you need to know not just the geographical layout, but also the culture, the smell, the clothing, the road-markings – everything that would bring that place alive for someone who actually lived there.

The danger then is that you include this in your story. Having done your research in painful detail, you then walk your reader through it, item by item. We’ve all done it.  At the beginning of Sixty-One Nails, I describe Niall mentally mapping his tube journey in detail after a line closure. It’s a small thing, and I needed to know he could make the journey for the story to be realistic, but it was a mistake to include it. It is enough for the reader to know that it could be done. Now I know better.

A little later in Sixty-One Nails, there is a scene where the police take Niall back to his flat where he believes there is something waiting to get him.  The scene has been described as “creepy” and “chilling” and is one of my favourite scenes from the book. In the initial draft the police broke into the flat, trying to catch the intruder.  They worked quietly and moved quickly to surprise the suspect.

Later, though, I talked to serving police officers and walked them through the scene (thank you Steve and Rachel) and discovered that this is far from what would happen in reality. The police do not want to surprise intruders or catch them unawares. Surprised people are unpredictable and irrational, they can be violent to others or hurt themselves. When entering a premises where an intruder is suspected to be, the officers shout, “Police! We’re coming in!” to warn the intruder and let them prepare themselves psychologically for arrest. Of course, they also have someone at the back to prevent escape, but they do not surprise intruders if they can avoid it.

This changed the entire scene for me and resulted in a complete re-write of that section of the book.  The result is grittier, more realistic (despite the other-worldly aspects) and rings true for the reader. It also changed my impressions of the police and the work they do, the way they are trained and the professionalism with which they approach their job. That added to the richness of the narrative and the portrayal of their role in the story.

In general, the people I talk to when researching a book are pleased to be consulted and interested in the writing process. Often they seem gratified that someone in interested enough in what they do to get the detail right. My experience is that this is true of most professionals, so all you really need to do is ask. Generally people want to help.

So when you reach the end of your NaNo novel, don’t be afraid to go back and revisit the material with a critical eye.  Think who might have a perspective on what you’ve written.  Talk it through with people you know – you might be surprised by the response and enlightened as to the experiences of your friends and acquaintances. Be prepared to rewrite where you find inaccuracy, but treat the factual content with a light touch. Like salt, research makes a fine seasoning, but a poor main course.

In the next article I’m going to discuss the other aspect of Write What You Know – emotional authenticity and realistic experience – and how you write about something you’ve never seen, not done and haven’t known.

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The Twelve Rules of Writing

The Internet is a superb resource for writers.  With a little effort you can find hundreds of sites with advice on what to write and how to go about it.  You can end up being overwhelmed, though, by the plethora of different views and approaches.

Helpfully, I have condensed the entire Internet into these handy Twelve Rules for Successful Writing:

1. Write what you know

In order for readers to engage in what you are writing and be drawn into the story, your writing must be authentic and genuine. You must therefore write about what you already know. There’s no point in researching stuff that you don’t know about, since that will immediately appear false to your readers. Stick to safe ground and it will save you a lot of effort.

As a side-effect of this, obviously science fiction and fantasy are not proper writing as you cannot possibly know about things you only imagined in the first place.

2. Spelling and grammer are what copy editors are for.

Clearly, as a creative person, you do not want to be burdened with the task of spelling things correctly or constructing sentences that are grammatically correct.  This is, after all, what copy editors are for and you will be depriving them of their livelihood if you do their job for them.

3. Words are interchangeable, it’s what you mean that’s important.

The English language was created to mislead you.  Take the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  Clearly, the word ‘right’ is misspelled, since ‘write’ goes with ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ should be paired with ‘left’.

Also, ‘their’, ‘they’re’ and ‘there’ should be synonymous and interchangeable.  Feel free to impose your own logic on the language as many people have before you.

4. Characters must be three dimensional

Creating characters is difficult enough, but you must also make them three dimensional by describing them in excruciating detail. In order for your readers to be able to picture your character in 3D, they must know what underwear they have chosen and whether they floss their teeth.  It may help if you can get your readers to wear those cardboard spectacles with red and green filters.

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.

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.

7. Start with short stories before graduating to novel-length pieces

There is no point in trying to write a novel before mastering the short story.  As John Steinbeck said: ~

“I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances..”

If Mr Steinbeck isn’t ready to write a novel then you certainly aren’t.

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.

9. How should I deal with exposition?

Here the old ways are best, I’m afraid.  First tell them what you’re going to tell them.  Then tell them.  Then tell them what you’ve told them.  If they haven’t got it by then they should be reading something simpler.

But isn’t the rule: Show, Don’t Tell, I hear you ask? A simple question: do you tell a story or show it? Showing is for dogs and horses.

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.

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.

12. When’s the best time to submit my work to an agent or publisher?

Straight away! Agents and publishers are notoriously slow in responding and generally spend their time having lunch or reading books that are already published.  By submitting your work before it’s finished you get ahead of the queue and don’t waste time waiting for a response.

Make sure you include critique from your Mum – no-one knows you better – and don’t worry about those pesky submission guidelines. They’re only there for the clueless and you don’t want to be one of those, do you?

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