writing advice

Saturday Writing Tips: Using your senses #WritingTips

prairie-dog

The world is three-dimensional, full of colour, sounds, smells, tastes, textures. Your characters live in a three-dimensional world too; a world that you need to bring to life for your readers.

May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.’

Arundhati Roy – The God of Small Things

When I read this, I can feel the intensity of the heat, smell the rotting fruit, hear the insects. It’s a beautiful description, every word carefully chosen, brilliantly put together.

If you want to bring your reader into a scene, if you want them to be immersed, to experience what your character is experiencing, then you need to consider all five senses.

Vision – what’s ahead, behind, just out of sight? If your character is looking down, what’s underfoot?

Sound – this can really help to build a scene; the snap of a twig, breathing, a snatch of a song that brings a memory to mind.

Smell – a fragrance, an aroma, a stench – the things we smell can be so evocative, reminding us of something or someone, or placing a character firmly in a certain place.

Touch – how does something feel? The texture, the weight, the temperature.

Taste – this can be a tricky one. But taste, like smell, can be so evocative. A certain flavour can take us back to childhood, for example. And it doesn’t have to be food – use your imagination!

A word of caution though – remember less is more. You don’t need to bring all five senses into every scene. What you need to do is to create a world with your words that your reader can imagine, a world where your characters can live.

Saturday Writing Tips: Writing Sex Scenes #WritingTips

The Kiss 1901-4 by Auguste Rodin 1840-1917

I edit a lot of erotica and romance, some of it fairly mild, some of it less so. Sometimes I’ll be sitting at my desk on a Tuesday afternoon with a cup of tea and a digestive, deleting unnecessary adjectives from a raunchy scene and I’ll think to myself how strange my job sometimes is!

But it’s not just erotica and romance that calls for X-rated scenes.  If you’re a writer, the chances are that one day you’re going to have to tackle a scene of this type. This is something that worries a lot of authors. So here are some tips on how to write a sex scene that won’t make you or your readers cringe.

  • Skip the euphemisms. Show your reader some respect. If you need some awful examples to avoid read 50 Shades (Down there? Really? What are we, eleven?)
  • Make it consensual. Obviously consensual. Non-consensual sex is not erotic or sexy. At all. It is just wrong.
  • Your characters are not porn stars. Unless they are porn stars. It needs to be hot, but not unbelievable. Don’t use clichés from terrible porn movies.
  • Stay true to your characters. As with all action scenes and as with all dialogue, your characters need to behave and speak in a way your reader can believe they would behave and speak.
  • Make sure the scene has a purpose. Like any scene or event in your book it needs to drive the story forward.
  • As with all your writing, but especially when writing about sex, use all five senses. ALL of them.
  • Often the idea of sex is more erotic than the act itself. Build up the tension.
  • Act it out! Seriously – one of my best teachers on my Masters course had written both excellent fight scenes and excellent sex scenes and she insisted that the best way to make both realistic and readable was to act them out. (That way you don’t end up having your characters do things that would take three hands each and I don’t have to sit there on a Tuesday afternoon wondering what’s supposed to be going where when I’d rather be eating a biscuit).

Once again, my top tip is to read. Shirley Conran and Jilly Cooper write better sex scenes than a certain other author mentioned above, as does Sylvia Day (sometimes). And of course you can’t beat a bit of DH Lawrence. Though in my humble opinion Flaubert did it best with poor old Madame Bovary.

And if you want some examples of how not to write sex scenes, then do follow Men Write Women on Twitter. Sorry, men.

Saturday Writing Tips: Keeping it Interesting #WritingTips

bored

Your job as a writer is to entertain, inform and engage your reader. If this isn’t your goal, then you may be in the wrong job. You don’t want to bore your reader or they’ll simply close your book and go and find another one on Amazon (there are millions to choose from after all). So how do you avoid sending your reader to sleep?

  • Increase the pace. You can do this by using a variety of sentence and paragraph lengths. Short sentences will add drama, suspense and pace, moving your reader forward with your character.
  • Get rid of passive voice. Passive voice can be too wordy and can put a distance between your reader and your words.
  • Include drama, conflict and events. You’re writing fiction. Things need to happen. Your characters need to have experiences and develop, change and be affected by what is happening.
  • Ditch the clichés. Clichés are boring, lazy and add nothing to your writing. If your work is riddled with clichés you are showing no respect at all to the readers who will invest time and money in your book. Give them something fresh, something new.
  • Be honest with yourself. Do you need all that description? All those lovely adverbs and adjectives? All those clever, clever metaphors? Who are they for?
  • Read, read, read. And when you’re reading make a note of what bores you as well as what excites you. Learn from other writers – from their mistakes as well as their successes.

How do you keep your writing exciting? Share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below.

Saturday Writing Tips: Writing Effective Action Scenes #WritingTips

ACTION

Action scenes don’t necessarily mean huge battles, violence, gunfights or crime. While this might be the case in Hollywood blockbusters, action scenes are important in your fiction – they create drama, interest, allow characters to develop and move your plot forward.

An action scene can involve something as seemingly simple as an unexpected phone call or a surprise visitor. What’s important is to carry your reader along with the action, and to write scenes that move your characters forward, building tension and giving your characters opportunities to develop and grow.

Here are a few tips for writing effective action scenes:

  • Have events happen in real time. This helps your reader feel involved in the scene and brings them closer to a character.
  • Use physical movements but don’t describe every single action in great detail.
  • Have your character make quick decisions and react quickly to the situation/event.
  • Minimise dialogue, especially if it creates a pause in the action.
  • Choose the verbs you use carefully for maximum effect.
  • If you’re having trouble visualising the actions involved in the scene, act it out! (It helps if you can get someone else to join in!)
  • Read other writers and see how they write successful or unsuccessful action scenes. What didn’t work can be as important as what did work.
  • Keep it real. Unless you’re writing fantasy, where anything is physically possibly, keep the scenes within the bounds of reality (see acting it out above!)

Got any tips for writing action scenes? Do let me know by posting a comment below.

Saturday Writing Tips: Commas #WritingTips

commas-and-clauses

Commas have lots of uses and are essential in helping writing to flow and make sense. However, knowing when to use them, and when not to, can be confusing. Lots of authors that I work with either pepper their writing with far too many commas, or write long, complicated sentences that leave the reader struggling to make sense of what is going on. It isn’t enough to use commas where you would naturally pause in a sentence, although this technique can help. Sometimes a comma HAS to be used, and sometimes the use of a comma can be a case of convention or choice.

Without commas, your meaning can be easily changed or confused. Take this obvious example; it speaks for itself:

comma grandma

If you find commas a pain, then these rules and suggestions may help.

1) Use a comma to separate items on a list. This always reminds me of a memory game I used to play with my kids on long car journeys:

I went to the shops and I bought an apple, a banana, a cherry and six bars of chocolate.

Be careful to avoid confusion here though:

I went to the shops and bought my favourite sandwiches – hummus, sardine and cheese and tomato.

Now, are we suggesting here that I eat sandwiches with all these fillings? Or that I like hummus sandwiches, and sandwiches that contain sardines AND cheese AND tomato. Or sardine and cheese. Or just cheese and tomato? Commas can clear this up:

I went to the shops and bought my favourite sandwiches – hummus, sardine, and cheese and tomato.

sandwich

2) Use a comma to separate a series of actions, events or elements in a sentence:

She opened the door, peeped inside, and screamed her head off.

3) Use a comma before a conjunction to connect two independent clauses:

She opened the door quietly, but he still heard her.

The comma could be left out, but using it here helps the pace of the sentence, and adds to the suspense.

4) Use a comma after the introductory elements of a sentence:

Opening the door, she felt a scream rise in her throat.

5) Use a comma to set off parenthetical information:

She opened the door, her heart banging in her chest, and peeped inside.

The bit between the commas can be removed without changing the essential meaning of the sentence.

paretical comma

6) Use a comma to separate adjectives:

She was a scared, pale little thing.

If you can put an ‘and’ between the adjectives, then it’s probably better to use a comma there instead – you might write ‘She was a scared and pale little thing’, but not ‘She was a scared and pale and little thing’.

6) Use commas when you are writing speech:

‘This door’s hinges,’ she said, ‘are in need of some oil.’

and

‘I think we should oil the hinges,’ she said.

7) Use a comma before a phrase that expresses a contrast:

The door was solid, but not very heavy.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but if I was to write about every single use of a comma then not only would this blog post be very boring, it would also be confusing. The advice given here is a starting point and will help you on your way to improving your craft and your knowledge of those little rules and conventions that will help your writing make sense.

commas

Saturday Writing Tips – Verisimilitude #writing tips

verisimilitude

Verisimilitude – the appearance of being true or real  (Oxford Dictionaries)

Writing is always a balancing act. You want to transport your reader, to take them on a journey, possibly have them experience things that they wouldn’t normally experience through your characters. So why the need for realism, for truth? After all, this is fiction right?

Well, yes it is, and in a way, writing fiction is lying. We writers of fiction spend our days lying. But as anyone who has ever successfully lied to their parents about where they were the night before, or to their teacher about where their homework is, or to their boss about how they were really sick the day before and just couldn’t possibly have made it to work, the secret of a good lie is that it rings true.

Fiction is just like that. You are methodically, carefully and imaginatively building a world for your characters. A world that doesn’t exist. The appearance of truth is essential to help build that world, that lie. One wrong move, one wrong word and the illusion collapses.

So how do you ensure that you keep the ‘reality’ of your fictional world intact? Here are the pitfalls to avoid:

  • Something unusual happening in your fictional world that you haven’t prepared your reader for
  • A character that notices something they wouldn’t notice in real life, says something they wouldn’t say, or does something they wouldn’t do
  • In fantasy, a character not using a skill that you have given them when they should do so
  • Unrealistic dialogue that is used to convey information
  • In historical fiction particularly, an object, custom, behaviour that didn’t exist or wouldn’t have happened in the time in which your novel is set
  • This is as important in fiction as it is in films. For example, if your character has his hands handcuffed behind his back, don’t have them in front of him two minutes later (as happened in Reservoir Dogs).

Much of writing is about building believable and compelling worlds, but those worlds must follow a logic that the reader can relate to, understand, and around which you can create interesting and dynamic stories.

Saturday writing tips: the blurb and the synopsis #writing #writingtips

what-to-include-in-synopsis

I’ve worked with lots of writers who can compose the most beautiful prose, bring scenes to life, make me care about their characters, keep me turning the page, but these same writers find it almost impossible to write a synopsis or a blurb.

So first of all – what’s the difference?

A synopsis is a short summary of your book that makes up part of a submission to agents or publishers. A blurb appears on the back cover of a physical copy of your book, or next to the book’s cover in listings on retail sites. It’s a short description of your book and its purpose is to attract the reader’s attention and make them interested.

When writing a synopsis, the first thing to do is to check what the agent/publisher is looking for. They may well specify a length and may want you to write a chapter by chapter synopsis. If there are no specifications, then I would advise sticking to one page, single-spaced, six hundred words maximum.

Remember to write in third person (even if your novel is written in first person). Use active voice and present tense.

Now to the actual writing of the synopsis itself.

When I was studying literature, we learnt a lot about narrative structure, and although it might not initially seem like it, most novels do fit into this basic structure:

Set up – main characters introduced. Introduction of the problem.

Conflict – the main body of the story. There is a catalyst that sets the conflict in motion. Characters go through changes because of this conflict and develop – the character arc.

Resolution – the problem is confronted and solved – or not – and loose ends are tied up.

To write your synopsis, it’s really helpful to look at your novel in these terms and break it down into this structure. Start with the set up – who is the protagonist? The other main characters? What is the problem?

Then move on to the conflict – there may be more than one. Decide what conflicts, plot twists and turns are really important; what do you need to include for the ending, the resolution, to make sense? How does this conflict change the main characters?

Finish with the resolution. Remember – this isn’t a blurb. The agent/publisher needs to know how your novel ends.

Be short, concise, clear. This isn’t the time for showing off your beautiful prose. That’s what the sample chapters are for.

Write-a-Successful-Synopsis

When you’re tackling a blurb, remember that it’s important to keep it short. This is NOT a synopsis. You want a couple of two to three line paragraphs. Too much and you risk giving too much away and turning off your reader. Too little and you might miss the mark.

Mention your main character(s). It’s important for your reader to know who the book is about.

Be precise. There is no place or space for vagueness, long-windedness or clever clever vocabulary in your blurb. Short, sharp, to the point.

Make it interesting. Obviously. What’s intriguing about the story? Why would I want to read it?

Don’t give away the ending. It might sound silly to even point that out – but it does happen.

Don’t compare yourself to other writers or compare the book to other books. Tell your potential reader that you’re the next Hilary Mantel or Stephen King and you’re more likely to come across and arrogant and annoy them more than anything.

Watch out for clichés or overused words and phrases. Try and be refreshing and new. And interesting.

Here are some excellent examples:

‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernardine Evaristo

This is Britain as you’ve never seen it.
This is Britain as it has never been told.

From Newcastle to Cornwall, from the birth of the twentieth century to the teens of the twenty-first, Girl Woman Other follows a cast of twelve characters on their personal journeys through this country and the last hundred years. They’re each looking for something – a shared past, an unexpected future, a place to call home, somewhere to fit in, a lover, a missed mother, a lost father, even just a touch of hope . . .

‘The Book Thief’ by Marcus Zusak

It is 1939. In Nazi Germany, the country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier – and will become busier still.
By her brother’s graveside, Liesel’s life is changed forever when she picks up a single object, abandoned in the snow. It is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, and this is her first act of book thievery. So begins Liesel’s love affair with books and words, and soon she is stealing from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library . . . wherever there are books to be found.
But these are dangerous times, and when Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, nothing will ever be the same again.

‘Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive – but not how to live. 
Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.
Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.
One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life.
Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely any change is better than…. fine?

‘Queenie’ by Candice Carty-Williams

Meet Queenie.
She just can’t cut a break. Well, apart from one from her long term boyfriend, Tom. That’s just a break though. Definitely not a break up. Stuck between a boss who doesn’t seem to see her, a family who don’t seem to listen (if it’s not Jesus or water rates, they’re not interested), and trying to fit in two worlds that don’t really understand her, it’s no wonder she’s struggling
She was named to be queen of everything. So why is she finding it so hard to rule her own life?

Hopefully these examples will inspire you – happy writing!

Writers – Respect Your Readers #writingcommunity #selfpublishing

angry 1

I’ve seen a few tweets recently about the need for writers to hire professionals, be it editors, proofreaders, formatters or book cover designers. The reactions to these tweets seem to be split 50/50.

As an editor, obviously I believe that authors benefit from having their work professionally edited. I appreciate that the cost of this can be prohibitive. I’m not suggesting that authors shouldn’t write because they can’t afford to hire professionals. But that doesn’t mean you should publish.

I know this is going to be controversial, but I’m going to say it anyway. Unless you are 100% capable of editing, proofreading, formatting or design, then you should hire someone to do those things for you, because if you are expecting someone to pay for your books, then your books should be worth paying for.

Authors – the people who buy your books are not your critique group. They are not your beta readers. They are not your editors or proofreaders. They do not owe you anything. Your readers work to earn the money that they spend on your books. They deserve for those books to be worth what they’ve paid. I hear of far too many authors who say they can’t afford to pay professionals but they’ll publish anyway. I hear of far too many authors who think they don’t need advice. They think they can turn out a perfectly-formed book, without any feedback, any advice, any help.

You don’t have some god-given right to publish a book and expect people to pay for it. And anyone in the creative fields has to expect to spend a little money. Artists have to buy their paints and canvases. They may have to hire a venue if they want to exhibit. Musicians have to buy recording equipment, instruments, maybe hire a recording studio. They all have to work at their craft. Confectioners and bakers and dressmakers and potters and wood carvers and sculptors, they all have to invest and practise and learn. Why do some authors think they don’t?

Just because you can type a manuscript, put together a basic cover and upload it onto Amazon doesn’t mean you should or that you should expect other people to pay for the privilege of reading it.

Now this might come across as if I have something against self-publishing. I absolutely don’t. I’ve self-published. I work every day with authors that self-publish. Some of them are brilliant. Most of them write gripping, entertaining, fabulous books that I would choose to spend money on – but none of them would publish a first draft. And they’re always the ones who take advice, are willing to learn, who respect their readers.

I am heartily fed up of authors on Twitter saying that they can write what they want, how they want, and if people don’t like it, so what? OK, that’s fine, until you expect people to pay for it.

Getting a traditional publishing deal is hard, and often not the best way for a writer to publish anyway. There is absolutely nothing wrong with self-publishing. There are thousands of hard-working, talented, wonderful independent authors out there. They deserve to be successful, to have thousands of readers. They work at their craft. And they’re being let down by those other self-publishers who throw out sub-standard work.

One indie author told me that she can’t afford to hire an editor, or a proofreader. So she’s publishing as many books as she can, and using the reviews as free feedback. I find such disregard for your reader and their hard-earned cash hard to fathom.

Bad indie authors tarnish the reputation of all indie authors. Have some pride in your work, some pride in your industry. And above all, have some respect for your readers.

Fabulous Opening Lines #amwriting #CharlesDickens

dl-portrait-charles-dickens

Charles Dickens was born on this day in 1812. One of my favourite writers, he has a lot to teach us today (and some of his compassion and philanthropy wouldn’t go amiss either).

I wrote this post about opening lines a few years ago, but Dickens was the master of them, so in celebration of his birthday, here it is again.

The opening line for your novel must draw your reader in. They should read that first line and think: I need to read this book. I want to know what happens.

So how do you create a great first line? That’s a difficult thing to try and explain. The best thing to do, as with most things, is to read. And when you read, think about your reaction to that opening line. Do you want to read on? If so, why? And if not, why not? I can do no better, though, than to share these wonderful first lines:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

Charles Dickens: A Tale Of Two Cities (1859)

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

“You better not never tell nobody but God.”

Alice Walker: The Color Purple (1982)

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar (1963)

“It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”

Joseph Heller: Catch-22 (1961)

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”

Christopher Isherwood: Goodbye To Berlin (1939)

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle (1948)

“Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.”

Albert Camus: The Stranger (1946)

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

J.D Salinger: The Catcher In The Rye (1951)

Got a favourite opening line? Share it by leaving a comment below.

 

Writing About Mental Health #mentalhealth #amwriting

 

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medium.com

I’ve read, and edited, a lot of books that address the many issues associated with mental health. Whether fiction or non-fiction, it is so important that the writer gets the details right, and, unfortunately, many do get things wrong, sometimes very wrong.

According to the mental health charity Mind, approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. So fiction writers are absolutely right to include characters with these issues in their work. And self-publishing has meant that the self-help market has exploded, with many writing about their experiences and offering advice.

As someone with direct experience of these issues, I can’t stress enough how damaging it can be for authors and writers to get these things wrong. The wrong choice of word, the wrong representation, and you add to the enormous amount of stereotypes and misinformation out there, adding to the already difficult barriers and misconceptions that people have to struggle with every day. So how can you get it right? What should you do and what shouldn’t you do?

250px-Mental_Disorder_Silhouette

Wikipedia.com

Fiction

Interesting characters, characters that your reader can identify with, are so important when writing fiction. And as mental health issues are so common, it is right that these things should be included in fiction. So how do you do this successfully?

  1. Avoid the stereotypes

Remember that mental health is complex. It comes in many forms. People with OCD don’t all spend hours a day washing their hands, and if they do it isn’t always because they have a fear of germs. And you don’t have OCD if you like to keep your books in alphabetical order and you’re very tidy. People with depression aren’t just sad. You have a responsibility, as a writer, to explode those myths and to make your characters realistic.

  1. People with mental health issues are more than their issues

They have jobs. They have families. They have hobbies. They might be horrible people. They might be heroes. Their mental health might be a big part of them – but it isn’t everything they are. They still eat breakfast. They still fall in love. They still like music and going out and films and everything else that ‘normal’ people do. Make your character the centre of your story – and that means their whole character.

  1. Do your research

As with everything you write, get your facts straight. Research, read, ask. There’s a wealth of information out there and in this day and age there’s no excuse for getting it wrong.  This goes for finding out how a character with a certain issue might behave all the way through to making sure the drugs/therapy/attitudes towards that person are consistent with the time in which your book is set.

Non-fiction

As someone who has experience of dealing with mental health issues, I can attest to the benefits that can be gained from reading self-help books. It’s wonderful to know that others have the same issues and it can be inspirational and motivational to learn about the strategies they have used that have worked. That said, I have also read a lot of rubbish – opinions and misinformation bandied about as if it’s the gospel truth. This is not only patronising, it can also be downright dangerous.

  1. Be honest

Why are you writing this book? Do you have experience? Qualifications? Or do you just have an agenda, or a theory you think is relevant that you want to share? If the former, then go right ahead, but if it’s the latter then please find something else to write about. I read a book recently that explained that the best way to get over depression was to have a positive mindset. Wow. I’m sure all those people who battle depression daily really wish they’d thought of that. To write so flippantly about something as complex as depression is not only patronising, it is irresponsible in the extreme. To write about depression, or anxiety, or OCD, or anything else, you need to understand the issue thoroughly.

  1. Again, do your research

It’s absolutely vital that you know and understand your subject. You wouldn’t write a book on coping with any other type of illness unless you had been through it yourself, had helped someone through, or if you actually had qualifications and experience in the field. Writing about mental health for the non-fiction market is no different.

  1. Be aware of your responsibilities

Imagine you are struggling with depression. You buy a self-help book. And you’re told it’s just down to you – you just need to be positive. Imagine the effect that can have on someone. Your words matter. Be careful how you use them.

There are some amazing books about mental health out there, both fiction and non-fiction. If you want to research mental health, or if you have mental health issues yourself, then I wholeheartedly recommend the following to begin with:

Jenny Lawson:

Furiously Happy

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

You Are Here

David Adam:

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop

Joanne Limburg:

The Woman Who Thought Too Much

And there’s plenty of help and advice here too:

Mind

OCD UK

Young Minds

Beat

Bipolar UK