Wednesday, 12 August 2015

NOT another 'how to write' article - but it may help new writers...

I've read or started to read many, many self- or indie press published books over the past three years, more since I began to review for Rosie Amber's Book Review Team (my review blog is HERE).

I don't like articles that tell you how to write, generally, because writing isn't a 'by numbers' skill, at which you can succeed if you follow the 'rules'.  However, I have noticed some areas which let down so many debut novels, and I am sure I was guilty of some of them, too, so I thought I'd write this in the hope that it will help a few new writers.

 
Head Hopping
This is when you're reading a scene from Howard's point of view, talking about his thoughts and feelings as he walked into the room, etc, and then the narrative suddenly changes to how Jemima is feeling, instead.  

Part of the skill of structuring your story is in choosing whose POV (point of view) to write from.  Once you've made your decision, hopping into another head half way through a scene, because you want the reader to know that Jemima was no more happy about the situation than Howard, doesn't work; sorry, it's not that easy!  It's confusing for the reader.  A solution would be to write how Jemima appears to feel, from Howard's POV, or, better still, make her mood apparent by her actions and dialogue.  If you want to change POV, it's best to at least some indication of POV change; a gap between paragraphs, asterisks, etc.

New writers who have been on creative writing courses will sometimes insist that they are using the 'omniscient narrator', but you need to know what you're doing, not dot from one to the other at random, otherwise it just seems messy.  It takes a skilled writer to pull it off, and I see complaints from other reviewers about it all the time.

The Difference in 'Voice'
Many of my books are written from multiple first person POVs.  This was not a popular structure when I first started to write, but now it's becoming fashionable, I notice, in traditionally published books, with the result that more debut authors are giving it a go.  Alas, I've found that some writers don't understand the necessity to make a change in each character's 'voice', with Rosemary's section using the same language, rhythm and mood as Jemima's.  I've read male characters to whom the female writer has attributed typically feminine thought processes, women written by male writers who are men in all but name, and books in which all characters share the same attitudes and even the same dialogue 'tics'.

Thus, the writer is actually writing as him/herself, not the character(s). 

When you begin to write as Jemima after being Rosemary for the last chapter, you have to become her, so you know what she would say, what she would think. In my WIP, for instance, Gabriel is derogatory about others and makes jokes; Phoebe is unhappy and finds communication difficult; she 'talks' in short, flat sentences.  Lisa is a working class girl who became a wife and mother at seventeen, Megan comes from an affluent background and is well read; they do not assess situations in the same way and use different descriptive words, etc, etc, etc.   Think character, character, all the time; it can't just be used as an easy way to provide more information for the reader.  If it doesn't come naturally to you, you might be better writing from all one POV; it's not always an easy structure master.  


Historical Research
I can't emphasise this enough: do your research before you start writing historical fiction, and that doesn't mean reading a few internet articles.  I love histfic but there are few things more likely to make me abandon a book than a character wearing an item of clothing that wasn't in fashion until 100 years later, drinking a cup of coffee before it was introduced into the country, or using a figure of speech that a person of that particular era and social class wouldn't have used.  Obviously you get a bit of leeway when writing from, for instance, the 12th century, because we wouldn't be able to understand a word if the dialogue was written as they really spoke, but it still needs to be believable.  Writing historical fiction is a minefield (my planned 14th century novel is 3rd on my 'to-write' list - nail biting stuff), but it has to be right.

Checking facts
The spelling of an actor's name, the location of a hotel, the date a film came out - it's what Google is for!  If you're having your characters relax at home with a DVD in 1993, make sure DVD players were available in 1993.  Check your own facts, don't rely on an editor to do it or hope that nobody will notice.  If you don't, you can guarantee that someone will point out your error in a review, and the same goes for historical research, above.

There's always some smart-arse who will let you know that Sophie couldn't have been watching Sex and the City in 1998, because it wasn't on British television until 1999.  Yes, I corrected that error just in time! 

Cut the cliches
'getting up at the crack of dawn', 'dancing the night away', 'beat a hasty retreat' ~ etc, etc, etc.  Hackneyed phrases, all of them.  You're a writer.  Find your own way of phrasing it.

Contemporary should really mean contemporary
....today's twenty year olds do not live their lives in the way you did thirty years ago.  Even if you don't use the internet much, know nothing about modern music, or hate all this stupid 'Lol' and 'OMG' stuff, your 2015 eighteen year old character will not agree with you.   Most people under 40 use the internet constantly, as a normal part of their daily life.  I've read contemporary crime novels in which the plots would have fallen apart if they were written realistically.

On the other hand, if you're writing a teenager, don't go overboard with teen slang. Most of them talk fairly normally, much of the time, and use 'in' terminology on social media sites far more than they do in everyday speech.  Going mad with phrases you've looked up on some website can look as though you're trying too hard ~ and it's very easy to get it hopelessly wrong.

Publishing too soon
Some writers simply don't redraft enough.  It's not enough just to think of a great plot, plan it out and write it down, then do a couple of read-throughs, altering a few bits here and there.  Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, then leave it alone for a couple of weeks and rewrite some more.  Make every sentence as tight, as well phrased as you possibly can.  Accept that some parts you've written may need taking out, no matter how good they are, if, for instance, they are superfluous to the plot.  One of the main things that often makes me knock off a star when reviewing is simply that a book needs a couple more drafts to tidy up.  I know it's the done thing to moan about editing, but you should learn to love making your book as good as it possibly can be.  And don't forget the proofreading, by someone who knows what they're doing, not one of these cowboys who do it on the cheap - it's a false economy.  There's a good article about this HERE

Feasibility
Even if you're writing fantasy, the actions of your characters still have to be feasible within that fiction ~ a common mistake is to make them act out of character in order to push the plot along to where you want it to be.  This screams 'amateur'; I've read whole books based around an unfeasible premise.  And don't try too hard;  it's not necessary to add in an army of Columbian drug lords, a conspiracy that could bring down the government, and an erotic scene if you're not comfortable writing them.  You don't have to do a Dan Brown or E L James to write a good book that people will want to read.

Too much domestic/mundane detail
The reader doesn't need to know that Jemima got up, put on her dressing gown, cleaned her teeth, went downstairs, put the kettle on, made a cup of coffee, sat down, drank it, made some toast, ate it, then heard the phone ring.  Neither do they need to hear Howard say "Hi, how are you this morning?", or Jemima answering, "Not so bad, how are Marjorie and the kids?"  Or, indeed, Howard answering that Marjorie is feeling a bit under the weather, before he finally gets to tell Jemima the point of that part of the story, ie, that he's just discovered his brother is having a sex change.  I bet you were as bored reading that as I have been reading similar in some novels.

A sentence to summarise the scene would be enough, or even cut the whole passage and have it start with Howard's speech.  "Jem.  You're not going to believe this.  Ron's decided he wants to become Rhonda."

Information-heavy dialogue
Oh, we've all done this one: giving background information by way of dialogue.  It's dreadful if done badly, and so, so hard to do it subtly enough.  Here's a ludicrously bad example:
"How are you, Jemima?" asked Howard
"Oh, not so bad.  Life's been much calmer since Reginald started his new job at a Bridges & Houseman, Architects, and we moved out to Sussex."
"I'm so pleased for you," said Howard.  "Marjorie still can't believe her mother left us the farm in her will, and I told you that her brother, Leopold, used his connections to get Marjorie an exhibition at a new gallery in Sloane Square, didn't I?"
"Oh yes, that's the one where Gilbert, used to work, isn't it?  You remember Gilbert, our next door neighbour?"
You get the picture.  Dialogue is for realism, character illustration, plot development, suspense, humour - just about everything except supplying the reader with chunks of information.  Find another way of doing it!

Not sorting out common errors
.... and, sadly, some proofreaders don't sort them out, either.  Here my three (un)favourite offenders:
  • Using 'I' when it should be 'me' - this is so common.  I've written an article about how to make sure you get it right, HERE.
  • WAS SAT: "Claire was sat at the table eating her breakfast".  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Should be "Claire sat at the table" or  "Claire was sitting at the table", depending on the rest of the passage.  Ditto 'was stood'.
  • Apostrophes ~ you'd think everyone would get them right all the time by now, wouldn't you?  But these are errors I see over and over again: 1970's.  CD's.  DVD's.  Yo-yo's.  Mini's.  These are just plurals and, thus, do not need apostrophes.

I hope this has been of help to some people!




39 comments:

  1. This is really useful - and it's good to know a reviewer who is as pedantic as writers should be about the details!

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    1. Oh yes, Jo - when I give 5* I really mean it :)

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  2. This is a really helpful post, thanks for sharing. I loved how you changed from one voice to the next in Kings And Queens. I'll need to keep reading the how-to articles for a while longer before I give that a go ha ha.

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    1. ha ha - yes' how to write a bestselling novel' - well there are enough of those tomes to choose from!!! As for the voice changing thing, to be honest I wonder if it's something you can either do or you can't. I don't know how I do it, I just do; it never occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to, but I think that even if it doesn't come naturally you can probably learn how to do it a little bit.

      Re the 'you can either do it or you can't', I fear I might be soon to discover this is also true about convincing historical dialogue - I've got a feeling I might be a 'can't'!!!

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  3. Excellent post Terry, so many points covered. Great stuff!! Jx

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    1. Thank you! That means a lot coming from your creative writing tutoring self :)

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  4. Fantastic! Sharing this very useful piece now.

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    1. Thank you! Ah, RBRT has more uses than just getting your book reviewed - it teaches us to spot these things so we can write blog articles about them, too!!!

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  5. Great points raised, Terry. I’ve actually just finished a debut novel and in my draft of the review I‘ve made that observation - 'mundane and unnecessary to the storyline'. It took me out of the story a little and it’s a shame because it’s a good novel.

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    1. Ah yes.... alas, we make a variety of foolish decisions when we first self-pub, and it takes the reviews to make us see what we're doing wrong. My first 3 novels could do with a re-write, I am sure they are nowhere near as concise as my later ones!

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  6. Great post Terry and so many good tips/reminders/important information packed into it. :-)

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  7. I do so agree about having a variety of voices for characters. It is a real skill but if not done can completely flatten an otherwise good book. Very helpful reminder. Now I'm off to hack at my latest bit of word jungle...

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  8. A wonderful post and also written with a lot of humour. I think these tips will be helpful for a lot of people.

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    1. Thanks you, Suze - as a book reviewer yourself I imagine you found it interesting!

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  9. Great post. I hope it reaches lots of debut novelists.

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    1. Thank you, Lizzie - I shall be Monday Blogging it with the best of them! x

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  10. Good stuff. I have a real beef about Histfic writers (seem to be mainly men) who have done their research, and REALLY like you to know it ..thus every tiny detail is crammed into every description, as if the character whose viewpoint they are writing from WOULD know that Euston station had a Doric Arch. They'd prob notice more the rude graffiti... from 1712, novels were being published, so it's easy to read how contemporary writers wrote, and imitate their style ( I do this --only a couple of reviewers have cottoned on). Pre 1712, there are books, documents, poems etc to fall back on. Good luck with your historical novel, TT - my tip: discard most of the research and write AS the characters. But you knew this anyway .....

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    1. Your're right, I did! I've got my story in my head and will be notes from a brilliant book about real life in 14th century England, for the detail. I've read it once and am going to read it again for note taking, once I've got clearer in my head exactly what I need to know.

      Oh yeah, that 'cramming all the research in' - I mentioned that in my article about research, in point 5 above. Re the Doric arch thing - yes, yes, that links to my 'voice' thing, when people want to give information rather than writing the character.

      Rosie reviewed a book a while back that was supposed to be a fictional account of Agatha Christie's last days. It was written by an American. The characters spoke of 'sidewalks' and 'boardwalks' and all manner of other US phraseology. I also beta read a book by in which an upper class 18th century man called his wife a 'bleeding cow', and male servants walked casually into the bedrooms of the young women of the house ~ it's a good thing I beta read honestly and don't just say 'it was great'!

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  11. Brilliant advice! It took me years of re-reading and re-writing to work all this out when I could have waited and read your article instead! And I agree that a good proofreader is invaluable. Without one, all your effort will probably be in vain.

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    1. Thanks so much, GG. I know - I learned the proofreading thing the hard way! I think it can all be summed up by saying 'publish something that you'd want to read' - alas, some people treat Amazon as if it's a creative writing workshop, and don't realise that book buyers expect something of a reasonable standard.

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    1. You're welcome - glad it was helpful!

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  13. I just loved this! It's a really pragmatic approach to the process. It reminded me that it's okay to take my time, sift through my writing carefully, and get it right.

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    1. Kristin, it's always worth taking your time, in fact I think it's essential! Once the book is out there, it's out there, and how well you've presented it will make all the difference to readers choosing to read you again. I've published too soon in the past - you can learn from the mistakes of old hands! Good luck :)

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  14. What excellent advice! This sort of article is exactly why yours is one of a singke-figure number of blogs I read! Just one problem with it....makes me feel I need to re-draft everything I've ever written!

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    1. Ha ha! I know what you mean - I'm on the 5/6th draft of the current novel and am still tearing sentences to bits and rewriting them! Thanks, Jacy x

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  15. It's great to read an article that 'does what it says on the tin'! How many times have I read a 'how to' that is too long, too repetitive and simply not very well-written ('Don't abbreviate' is my favourite!) Thanks Terry, perfect post for my creative writing students.

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    1. Thanks very much, that means a lot. :D

      Oh yes, we all have out pet 'grrrrs'! I tend to collect them in the back of my mind, and write an article when I have enough..!

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  16. Seems I missed this one at the time. What a great post! I do agree with you about the POV thing so much. I find it very distracting as a reader when it keeps changing midstream. And information heavy dialogue just feels so unnatural, as do long monologues. The thing about apostrophes is a perpetual nightmare for me though. I've never had a problem with it in normal possessives, plurals and abbreviations, but I (and it seems many others of my age) was taught to use them in the plurals of dates and acronyms at school and college. There are still current grammar books and style guides that say they're ok to use too, but I know now that it isn't done as a rule these days. I've had to unlearn it as practice since coming back from SA, which is still old-fashioned in many ways, so it's been difficult. it seems it's fine for single letters and numbers, though! I find myself checking best practice for all these things now because I'm more uncertain than I've ever been, but the main guideline on the grammar sites I've got permanently bookmarked seems to be 'be consistent' whatever you choose to do.

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  17. Apostrophes - I am appalled that you were taught to use them in plurals!!!! Julia will go round to your old teachers and fire bomb their houses - I've never heard of anyone actually being taught that before.

    I'd say to be on the safe side, remember this basic rule:
    Apostrophes have two purposes: 1) to indicate a missing letter, or 2) to signify ownership. it, 1) didn't, lads 'n' lasses, I did it 'cause he said so, can't, it's been a long time since,.. etc. And 2) Val's book, the children's ball.

    I've always been taught and have believed that things like 1970's etc is a mistake, end of. Try asking yourself this - what is the apostrophe actually for, in that circumstance? Nothing! All punctuation has a purpose, which is what a lot of writers and even cowboy proofreaders don't understand; you don't just bung a bit in at random here and there!

    I am confident that I was taught properly - if ever you want a brief email lesson. It's all much easier than people make out, and Julia says there is never any punctuation error when she proofreads my books (just 500 missing words!)

    Better still, just leave it to your proofrea

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    1. ps, I've actually read this over again because I'm so amazed that you were taught to put them in plurals, and that some style guides say it's okay to do so... makes me wonder if I'm going mad, and have been wrong for laughing at signs for 'Ripe strawberry's £1 a lb' all these years!!!

      I do realise that you're better educated than I am, so you might be thinking, um, Terry - is it you who's wrong??!! But I am 100% sure that this is right.... the main point being that an apostrophe in a plural doesn't perform any function, and a plural is a plural, whether it's a word, numbers, or a set of initials.

      As for the 'dangle in thin air' at the end of the comment above - someone came round when I was writing the comment, and I left off in a hurry!
      xx

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  18. Great article, as always, Terry. I have read a few self-pub books too and been disappointed with insufficient editing,inconsistent pov and poor characterisation, all things that spoil the reader experience and could have been avoided with just a little more effort. Not all self pub books suffer these problems. Some are wonderful!

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    1. Indeed, some are. Some of the best ones are, I find, by those who don't push themselves forward much, alas. Things like poor characterisation are just down to not having much basic talent, I think, but things like inconsistent pov IS a practical element that can be learned. Even if you do have the talent (the most important thing!), knowing how to actually structure a novel is so important. One problem is that all the stuff that used to sit on the slush pile of agents' desks awaiting rejection letters now appears on Amazon, along with 5* reviews from the author's mates, so it's often hard to filter out the good stuff. Thanks for reading and commenting! x

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  19. Excellent article, Terry.
    Thanks for sharing.

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