writing tips

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.

 


 

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Commonly Confused Words #wwwblogs #IAmWriting #WritingTips

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When I’m editing I often find that the same errors come up time after time. One of the big problems that lots of writers have is homophones – words that sound the same but that have different meanings and (for the most part) spellings.

There are of course the obvious ones – they’re, their and there, for example, and to, too and two. But some less commonly used words can also cause problems. Here are a few examples that I’ve come across recently.

***Please note these apply to British English spellings though most (but not all) are relevant in US English too ***

Phase and faze

Phase – any stage in a series of events or the process of development

They moved to phase two of the building schedule.

Faze – to disturb or disconcert (someone)

His attitude didn’t faze me.

Draft and draught

Draft – a preliminary version of a document

I’m never going to finish the first draft of this novel.

Draught – a current of cool air in a confined space, or a single act of drinking

The old wooden window frames let in a cold draught.

He took a deep draught of ale from the tankard.

Taught, taut, tort and torte!

Taught – past and past participle of teach

I taught him a lesson he won’t forget!

Taut – stretched or pulled tight

The dress was taut over her stomach.

Tort – a wrongful act or infringement of a right leading to lawful liability

The lawyers have opposed tort reform measures.

Torte – a sweet cake or tart

I’d like a very big slice of that chocolate torte.

Loath and loathe

Loath – reluctant or unwilling

I’m loath to lend him the money.

Loathe – feel intense dislike for something or someone

I absolutely loathe marzipan.

Peak and pique

Peak – the highest point of a mountain (noun), a projecting pointed shape (noun), reach a highest point (verb), at the highest level (adjective).

He surveyed the view from the peak of the mountain.

Whisk the eggs into peaks.

The noise peaked as the crowd grew.

The dog was in peak condition.

Pique – a feeling of irritation (noun), arouse interest (verb), feel irritated or resentful (verb).

I smashed the glass in a fit of pique.

My curiosity was piqued.

She was piqued by his bad manners and attitude.

Any examples of words you mix up?

 

 

 

Frustrated Writer – Help Needed! #wwwblogs #IAmWriting #WritingTips

 

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What I imagined…

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The reality…

So another week of solitude in Devon (read why here) and another attempt to get back into the writing.

This time though, I’ve hit a bit of a crisis.

When I began this second full-length novel (absolutely ages ago) I sort of knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted it to go. But, as often happens, when I came to write, it went off on a tangent and I’m not sure, at this point, how to get back on course. I’m not sure, anymore, exactly what this book is.

I do know that I’m not altogether happy with the direction it’s taken, or the way some of the characters have evolved. But 50,000 + words in, I’m a bit loath to start all over again.

So, do I give it all up as a bad job, or do I persevere and potentially waste more (precious) time?

The thought of ditching all that work, particularly as I find it so hard to fit in time for writing as it is, fills me with horror.

So where do I go from here?

Part of my issue is, I think, that I’m a great list-maker. I like to be organised and to have schedules and time tables and deadlines. And when, more often than not, I fail to reach those deadlines or stick to those schedules, it can feel like there’s no place left to go. And when a story, or an idea, or 50,000 words refuses to stick to my original idea, I find it hard to move on.

But 50,000 words is 50,000 words. I can’t and won’t ditch it all. I need instead to go back and read and read again, and evaluate every word, every twist, and every change in what I’ve written and try to get to the whys of it all. And perhaps too, I need to let go of that original idea of what the book was, and of what kind of writer I am.

I’m not starting again though.

So advice please, all you lovely writers out there – what would you do if you were me?

Using Contractions for Authentic Dialogue #amwriting #writingtip #wwwblogs

A very quick tip here for writers struggling with dialogue.

writing-dialogue

One of the issues that I find in a lot of the manuscripts I edit is that the dialogue can seem forced and contrived. Realistic, believable and authentic dialogue is a must for a good novel, and authors need to make sure they get it right. But many new writers think they have to write ‘properly’ and they think this means eschewing contractions.

Generally, if you want to make your dialogue flow and for readers to believe in it, then you need to use contractions (there are exceptions to this, in particular types of fiction). Think about it. How many people do you know (however posh they are and however ‘properly’ they speak) who say things like this:

‘Please do not walk on the grass.’

The answer is no one. No one ever (except perhaps the queen and probably not even her) speaks like that. It sounds horrible.

So remember:

  • ‘Don’t’ not ‘do not’
  • ‘They’ve’ not ‘they have’
  • ‘Should’ve’ not ‘should have’ (and definitely NOT should of)
  • ‘I’ll’ not ‘I will’
  • ‘Can’t’ not ‘cannot’

You get the point.

There are three things you can do to improve your dialogue:

  • Listen – actually listen to people talking. This has the advantage of also often being very entertaining.
  • Read – when you’re reading, make a note of dialogue that really works, and why it works
  • Speak – read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound right?

Contrived, formal, awkward dialogue is, I’m afraid, the sign of a writer still learning their craft. Get it right, and your writing will be smooth and professional and your dialogue a pleasure to read.

 

#writing a novel – Should you write for an audience? #wwwblogs #Iamwriting

It’s almost a year since I wrote this post – and I still don’t know the answer (and I’m still almost nowhere with the WIP!). So do you write with a specific reader in mind?

When I started researching and jotting down ideas for this post, I was pretty certain that the gist would be to help fellow writers to think about just who they were writing for – who their audience was. After all, what’s the point of writing if you don’t have an audience, people to read your book, to buy your book, to recommend your book to other people? That’s the whole reason we write, isn’t it? To share our stories with people who will enjoy them?

So I thought about the audience I’d had in mind when I began writing The Black Hours. And I realised that I hadn’t had anyone in mind at all. I’d simply had a story in my head that I wanted to write down. Yes, I wanted it published, yes, I wanted people to read it, but I certainly hadn’t thought to myself – this is a novel that will go down well with Mrs Smith at number 27, or the postman. Had I done the whole thing wrong? Should I have been thinking about my target audience before I began to write?

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As I so often do, I turned to Google to see if I had been doing things wrong again. And it turns out that apparently I have. There’s a raft of articles about thoroughly researching your audience. Some suggest visualising your book for sale and then analysing the people buying it. What do they look like? What are their hobbies? What do they do for a living?

Now, I do think it’s important to have your reader in mind when you write- at least to a certain degree – particularly if you are writing for children or young adults. But does anyone really work it out to this extent?

Yes, I have readers in mind when I’m writing, and yes I have my clients’ readers in mind when I’m editing – usually I’m thinking, will people understand that bit, will they follow that plot point etc. But when I write, and when I’m editing, the story comes first. Afterwards, I might think about who would enjoy it, what they would expect to see, etc. For example, with historical fiction, I know readers will expect the details to be accurate. And ‘The Black Hours’ is pretty dark, so my audience certainly won’t be readers of historical romance or chick lit fans. But the story comes first. Otherwise I’m writing to a formula, and surely that’s not great for me or my readers.

So, I’m left in a quandary really. And certainly no wiser than when I began to write this post. Internet experts say that I should have a target audience in mind, that it will focus my writing and increase my chances of success. After all, a publisher needs to know who to market to, and if I self-publish then I’ll need to sort my categories on Amazon. I can see the wisdom in that (although my WIP is set in three different times, has one real figure from history and one sort of mythological figure and a great deal of stuff about painting and Romanticism- not sure what genre I’m going to stick that one in). But should a story that’s going round my head change to fit a certain genre? Should I alter a character to suit some idea of a potential ‘customer’ in my head? Or should I be true to my story?

What do you think?

Small Publishers – A Checklist #wwwblogs #amwriting

checklist

I recently wrote a bit of a rant about the quality control of some small presses whose books I had read. You can read it here.

If you are thinking of signing with a small publisher, then do bear a few things in mind.

  • Do your homework – start off by Googling the publisher. You might find threads on writing sites that go into a great deal of detail about your chosen publisher. Read them – they can be incredibly enlightening.
  • Ask questions – if your publisher is honest and genuinely wants the best for you, they should accept that you have a right to want to know about them. After all, you are placing your book and all the blood, sweat and tears that went into writing it in their hands.

Ask:

  • Who are they?
  • How long have they been publishing?
  • What exactly is their background and experience? You want specifics about this. Who have they worked for? Where did they get their experience? How many years?
  • Who will your editor be? What experience do they have? Again, specifics here not vague assertions and statements.
  • How many editors will be involved?
  • Who else have they worked with? Once you know this you can see for yourself how well their books are doing.
  • What can they offer you? Editing? Book cover? Promotion? What sort of promotion?
  • What do they expect from you?

If you get through all this and still want to go ahead, then make sure you read the contract really closely. Look for things like cover design, for example – who has the final say? And how many editors will be involved? How does the editing process work? What about copyright? What happens if you aren’t happy further down the line?

Always get a lawyer to look at your contract. Always.

Some warning signs:

  • Companies that state they don’t deal with agents or lawyers. Why don’t they? What are they afraid of? Surely it’s up to you if you want to have an agent.
  • Companies that insist it’s like a family. Why do they think that’s a good thing? This is a business relationship and it should be treated as such.
  • Staff that are vague about their experience.
  • Companies that approach you. If they’re any good, they will be fending off submissions.
  • Dreadful covers on current books.
  • Glowing five star reviews on current books by other authors also published by the company.
  • An insistence that you read and review their other authors’ books.
  • Reviews of other authors’ books that mention typos, grammatical errors, poor editing and poor formatting.

Any one of these things should give you pause for thought. At the end of the day it is your choice, but do ask yourself what it is exactly these publishers are doing that you can’t do yourself. OK, so they might offer editing. You can hire a freelance editor. OK, so they format and do covers. Again, you can source that yourself. You can even learn how to format and do that bit for nothing. They promote? How much? And how much will you have to do?

Now be truly honest with yourself. If you can do, or can learn to do, what they are offering, if their books aren’t really selling that well, if they’re vague about their experience, then why are you even considering signing with them? Is it because you’re flattered? Is it because someone is actually interested in your book? I do understand, after all, we all want to be told that someone loves our work, that they value it, but unfortunately that’s what some of these companies are relying on. Don’t waste your time. And do do your research!

Small publishers – a bit of a rant! #WWWBlogs #writingtips

Buyer-Beware

As well as writing and editing, I also read and review a lot of books. I try to read a variety of genres and read indie authors, traditionally published authors, big names, small names, complete unknowns, new writers and established writers. So I read a lot of books published by small presses.

Now before I get a load of flak, I do appreciate that there are a lot of really excellent small presses out there who do a fantastic job and who look after their authors. I also know that there are big, traditional, well-known publishing houses that don’t look after their authors. However, as the problems I have come across have all been with these smaller presses, those are the ones I want to talk about here.

I have read several books recently, for the most part eBooks, where the author has been published by a small publisher. Being rather nosy, and being an author always looking for opportunities, I have looked into many of these organisations. They all have lovely websites, all have lots of authors they are working with, all say they have plenty of experience in the industry, all say they are offering authors more than other publishers. Most also provide editing, formatting, book covers etc.

So why then are the majority, and I mean at least 75%, of these books not of publishable standard? Why are they full of typos and formatting errors? Full of spelling mistakes? Why, when they have supposedly been edited, do many contain basic writing no-nos such as ridiculous dialogue tags, exposition, stereotypical characterisation, unnatural dialogue, and information dumping?

Why also do so many of these organisations insist that authors promote each other? Why do I often look at glowing five star reviews for a book I can’t bear to finish and find those reviews are written by authors publishing with the same company? I’m all for authors helping each other, but I smell a rat, particularly when a publisher’s website states that the organisation treats its writers like family. All very nice I’m sure, and I’m very fond of a lot of my clients, we talk about stuff other than writing, we even occasionally meet up for coffee, but when they’re paying me their hard-earned money for my hard work it’s a professional business relationship, not family, and that’s how it should be.

I’m not suggesting that these companies are deliberately misleading authors, or that they aren’t trying their best. What I am suggesting though is that they aren’t up to the job. And OK, they might not be charging their authors up front – they’re not vanity presses – but they are taking a cut of the writers’ earnings (if there are any) and for that an author deserves professionalism, deserves an editor who knows how to edit, a marketing manager who has experience in marketing.

I think a lot of this has to do with people thinking they can publish books just because they can. And on closer inspection, a lot of them, despite vague statements to the contrary, don’t have any RELEVANT experience.

So please, please, please lovely authors – beware. Don’t let the fact that a publisher wants to publish your book go to your head. You deserve more than what some of these people are offering. You can probably do what they do better yourself. I shall be posting soon on what you should be careful of and what you should look for if you are considering a small publisher. In the meantime, do be cautious, and do your homework.

#WritingTips Active Vs. Passive #WWWBlogs #Writinganovel

This is a post I wrote a while ago that deals with an issue many writers struggle with.

active passive

When developing your writing craft, one of the ‘rules’ you will often hear is that you should avoid the passive voice. Using the active voice makes your writing simple, clear, concise and immediate, drawing your reader into the action of the piece and giving your writing energy. Using passive voice, on the other hand, can make your writing seem too formal, dull and wordy and can create a distance between the reader and the words. But many writers don’t really understand the difference between active and passive, and so are unsure how to write actively and how to avoid passive voice.

Passive

In passive sentences, the thing acted upon is the subject of the sentence, and the thing doing the action is usually included at the end of the sentence, for example:

The book was read by Sam.

boy reading book

The book is the subject receiving the action, ‘was read’ is the passive verb and Sam is doing the action.

Active

In active sentences, the thing or person doing the action is the subject of the sentence, and the thing or person receiving the action is the object. So:

Sam read the book.

Sam is the subject doing the action,’ read’ is the verb and the book is the object receiving the action.

What’s the problem?

The problem with passive is that the thing or person receiving the action becomes the subject of the sentence, but he, she or it isn’t actually doing anything. They are having something done to them. The first sentence isn’t grammatically wrong – it makes complete sense, but it sounds unnatural and forced. Another issue with passive voice is that it can be wordy. For example:

Passive

It was thought by most people that I killed my husband because he cheated on me.

husband passive

Contrast the active:

Most people thought I killed my husband because he cheated on me.

Or:

Passive

That evening, a delicious meal was eaten by Sarah and James.

Contrast the active:

That evening, Sarah and James ate a delicious meal.

Making sure you’re getting it right

One of the simplest things we can do to improve our writing is to get rid of unnecessary words, keeping our sentences clear, concise and to the point, getting rid of unnecessary words. Changing passive sentences to active sentences can be a good starting point.

If you’re not sure whether you’ve written a sentence in the active or passive voice, look out for the use of ‘was’ or ‘by’. Although not all sentences that include these words are necessarily passive, they can be a good clue. For example;

The dog was walked by Sam. (Passive)

When you spot a passive sentence, try rewriting it as an active sentence. You might be surprised at the difference it makes to your writing.

And although it pains me, as a vegetarian, to use this example, it does sum it up!

mac passive

 

 

#WritingTips – Using Adjectives and Adverbs #wwwblogs #writinganovel

This has  proved to be one of my most popular posts with many people kindly commenting on how useful it is – so I thought it was worth sharing again.

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The use of adverbs and adjectives is an issue for many writers. Many overuse them in the hope of making their writing seem more interesting, more descriptive. And while I’m not at all advocating that you cut all adverbs and adjectives out of your writing, what I have seen over and over again in the work that I edit, is that both are often added for no discernible reason. This is often, it seems to me, because a writer is trying really hard to set a scene, to draw a reader in. They can see the scene, the characters in their head and they want to convey everything that’s there. And they want to show that they can write, that they have a wide vocabulary. But unfortunately, these adverbs and adjectives often add nothing to the scenes in which they appear.

So how do you know what adjectives and adverbs to cut?

Let’s look at adverbs first.

Adverbs modify verbs. If you’re using an adverb to modify a verb, ask yourself why you need to. Is the verb not doing its job? If the verb alone can’t tell your reader how someone or something is doing something, then is it the right one to use?

For example:

John walked quickly down the street.

man walking quickly

You want your reader to know how John walked, so if he’s walking quickly, then say so – right? Well, no.

John hurried down the street.

One word instead of two – tells us exactly how John is moving.

How about:

She totally, completely accepted that her work needed editing.

Neither of those two adverbs is needed. Just say:

She accepted that her work needed editing.

(Actually get rid of ‘that’ too!)

There are also adverbs that are totally redundant – like ‘totally’ in this sentence!

The fire alarm rang loudly.

How else would it ring? It wouldn’t be much use as a fire alarm if it rang quietly.

 

fire alarm

A well-placed, strong and evocative adjective can add great detail to a word, phrase or scene. However, too often they come across as contrived and unnecessary.

The beautiful, bubbling river sparkled in the golden sunlight, its silvery ripples reflecting the brilliant, blazing rays that played on the shivering surface.

Too much, far too much. What’s wrong with:

The river sparkled in the sunlight, silvery rays playing on the shivering surface.

(Though, to be honest, that’s still too much).

And be very careful of ‘broad’ adjectives like ‘beautiful’ in the first sentence. ‘Beautiful’, ‘nice’, ‘wonderful’, etc.are broad terms – these words are subjective and mean different things to different people. They add nothing and are best avoided, except in dialogue.

Also be wary of the thesaurus. It is useful and can help you describe things in a fresh, new way. But be careful. Very careful.

joey

The use of adjectives and adverbs is a contentious issue – I’d love to know your thoughts.

Writing a Synopsis #wwwblogs #writinganovel

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jenspenden.com

I’ve worked with lots of writers who can compose the most beautiful prose, bring scenes to vivid life, make me care about their characters, keep me turning the page, but these same writers find one thing almost impossible to do – they can’t write a synopsis.

What is it about a synopsis that has so many writers struggling? It doesn’t seem to matter how great a writer you are, there’s just something about condensing your masterpiece down into one or two sides of A4 that strikes fear into a writer’s heart.

And I think that’s the issue. As authors, we spend so long on our books, every last detail is important to us. A synopsis asks us to get to the heart of the story, to strip away to the bare bones – and that can be really hard when you are so close to the world you’ve created and the characters that live there.

So what should, and what shouldn’t, you include?

  • First of all, 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 is 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.

Remember:

  • Don’t get caught up in too much detail. Think about what’s really important.
  • Don’t include lots of backstory – you don’t have the space.
  • Be short, concise, clear. This isn’t the time for showing off your beautiful prose. That’s what the sample chapters are for.

Agents/publishers are looking for something new, something exciting – if your novel has that (and it should) then make sure your synopsis makes that clear.

And please, please, please remember that this is not a blurb. You MUST include the ending.

Good luck!