writing help

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!

Writing ‘rules’ and why we have them #amwriting

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When editing manuscripts for clients, I honestly don’t sit there with a big list of rules next to me, making sure that the author has stuck religiously to a set of pre-ordained laws that are non-negotiable and that are designed to crush spontaneity or creativity.

Why am I making this assertion?

Well, because some writers seem to think that this is what I do. They rail against these so–called rules that are preventing their genius from shining through. Why do I have to stick to conventions, they ask? Why can’t I do what I want?

Well, because the ‘rules’ aren’t there to suffocate creativity. They aren’t there to restrict or restrain.They bring clarity to a writer’s work. They aren’t a list of things a group of people out there somewhere have come up with out of thin air.

They fall into two groups.

One group aren’t up for discussion. Sorry, but grammar rules and the rules of punctuation are non-negotiable. You want your reader to be able to understand your book, don’t you? You are writing for a reader, aren’t you? In that case, you need to adhere to grammatical rules. These are not stylistic choices. And yes, there are certainly amazing writers out there who have written wonderful books that don’t follow these grammatical rules, writers like Hubert Selby Jr. But that is a whole different set of circumstances.

The other ‘rules’ don’t have to be obeyed. But they are there to help make your writing shine. For example, one thing I’m always saying to writers is that they need to avoid using complicated dialogue tags. You can pepper your manuscript with ‘interjected’ and ‘explained’ and ‘sighed’ if you really want. You can use every single alternative to ‘said’ and ‘asked’ if you want. But you’ll look like an amateur who doesn’t know what they’re doing, or people will think you’ve swallowed a thesaurus. That or you’re Joey from Friends.

joey

I’m really not being mean here, honestly. When I studied text after text after text after text for my degree and my masters, we analysed what worked and what didn’t. These ‘rules’ work. They’ve worked for successful writers over the years and if that’s what you want to be then you need to use them. They are conventions because they work.

So back to my original point. Despite all this, I don’t have a great big list of rules (OK, I do have Elmore Leonard’s ten rules in my desk drawer as guidance if I need it, but that’s usually for my own writing). But if the writing is flowing, if it is working, if it is concise and the meaning is clear, the characters have depth, the dialogue is realistic, then these rules are being followed, whether consciously or otherwise. If something brings me up short, or something jars, or is boring, or long-winded or dull or the dialogue is unauthentic, or if something happens that reminds me I’m reading a book, then one of the ‘rules’ has usually been broken.

So here are Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. He made them rules because they work.

Never open a book with weather.
Avoid prologues.
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

 


 

Writing and Editing Tips – Part 2: Beating Writer’s Block

writers block typewriter

Writer’s block – we’ve all heard of it, and lots of us have experienced it, whether it’s just that horrible half an hour of looking at a blank piece of paper or empty screen while our brains refuse to perform, or the more serious, crippling months or even years of inability to create that has afflicted some of the greatest writers. I know there have been times when I have tackled a huge pile of ironing, or walked the dog in the rain rather than face writing another chapter, or starting an article (or even a blog post), and the longer I’ve left it, the worse it has got.

Writer’s block can be caused by many things. For me personally, it often stems from a fear that my writing isn’t good enough, and that no one will want to read it anyway. Or I might be feeling guilty about devoting a day to working on my next novel rather than writing something I’m actually getting paid to produce. Then there are all the other little niggling responsibilities like the housework, the garden, shopping, the children (they should probably appear higher on the list!). But, as my husband keeps telling me, writing is important because it’s important to me. So next time I’m faced with a blank page, rather than go for the usual avoidance tactics of cleaning the skirting boards or reading random articles online in the name of research, I’m going to try one of these:

Write anything. Set a stopwatch for five minutes and make yourself write until the buzzer goes. It doesn’t matter what it is; just the physical action of writing something down can be enough to get your writing going again

Let yourself be terrible. Sometimes we can’t write because we feel our writing isn’t good enough. But when you are at the beginning of the writing process that doesn’t matter. Your first draft doesn’t have to be a prize-winner. Just write, whether or not it’s rubbish (chances are, some of it won’t be). You’ll be going back and re-drafting and editing over and over again. It doesn’t matter if what you write now actually is awful- it’s the finished manuscript that matters. As Margaret Attwood once said; ‘If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.’

writer's block girl

Move on If you’re stuck in a scene or you can’t quite resolve something, move on to another scene. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t witting chronologically. You can write the ending first if you want to, or the middle, or a scene two thirds through. It doesn’t matter – no one’s watching! You can come back and fill in the gaps later. And writing a different scene might help ‘unblock’ whatever problem it was that you had previously.

Exercise your brain. There are literally hundreds of writing exercises and prompts available online. Use one to kick start your writing. Try Mslexia for lots of helpful writing advice and exercises. And there are plenty of prompts on the Writer’s Digest site.

Exercise your body. Walk the dog or go for a run. Sometimes being away from the house doing something physical can be enough to unblock your brain. Leave your phone and your iPod behind and look and listen to what’s around you.

Plan your time. If you can, make sure you are writing when you are most creative and productive, whether it’s last thing at night or first thing in the morning. Try and keep an hour clear at those times to devote to your writing, even it if means getting up earlier or going to bed a bit later.

Set a target. Even if it’s only a couple of hundred words a day, or thirty minutes a day, make sure you write. Don’t worry how good or bad it is – just write for those minutes or write those many words. As Kingsley Amis once famously said: ‘The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s pants to the seat of one’s chair’

Give yourself a break. It may be that you are trying to do too much, that you are tired and stressed. It’s hard to be creative at times like these. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Take a week away from writing to catch up on all those other little nagging tasks that spring into your mind when you are trying to write. Guilt about spending time writing can cripple creativity, and its all very well telling yourself that writing is important too – we all have other things in our lives that can’t just be ignored. Get these done, and then you can sit down to write without worrying. And the time away may be enough to cure your writer’s block.

writer's block - cat

I’d love to hear your strategies for beating writer’s block.

I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out more about my editing services here. I am currently offering discounts to new clients – do get in touch to discuss how I can help you to make your book the best it can be. You can contact me here.

Find out about my historical novels ‘Blackwater’ and ‘The Black Hours’ here.