Monday, 24 November 2014

The Parts Readers Tend to Skip

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One of Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writing was “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Excellent advice that makes very good sense, only exactly which parts are those?

On the surface it would seem obvious—the boring stuff, the longwinded explanations and unnecessary interludes, right? We all know what he meant. But when it comes to recognising the skip-worthy in our own stories it’s never quite so clear cut.

Scenes that are really going nowhere and have no purpose being in the story aren’t too hard to spot, but the bits that are just bland or that we’ve convinced ourselves have to be there for the story to make sense, they can slip through draft after draft.

So how do you spot the skippable parts and skip them before the reader gets a chance to?

Monday, 17 November 2014

The One Piece of Writing Advice

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There is a lot of advice out there for writers. Rules, guidelines, tips. Most of it has some merit, but if you were to follow every little suggestion it would be very constricting and frankly would rob you of a lot of the fun of writing.

But if you were only willing to follow one piece of advice, what would it be? Is there one piece of advice that trumps all others?

The sensible and reasonable answer is that it depends. It depends on what kind of writer you are, what your personal strength and weaknesses happen to be, what your goals are. Each writer is different, each writer may require a different blah, blah, blah. 

And that is all very true, but putting all sense and reason to one side, I say yes, there is one piece of advice which if you follow, ignoring all others, will still improve your writing immeasurably (or measurably if you happen to be particularly adept at measuring things).

Monday, 10 November 2014

Kids, Impress Your English Teacher!

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My 10 year old nephew asked me if I knew of a book that taught kids how to write a story. It would be nice if this was because he already wanted to be a writer, but my nephew has no love for writing. He enjoys reading and watching movies, but when it comes to writing something himself, he’d much rather stick his face in an iPad (for several hours).

However, his English teacher keeps giving him story-writing assignments, which he finds a chore. In addition to which, there are other kids in his class who can spit out a story rat-a-tat-tat

He would also like to be able to write a good story quickly and without having to spend ages staring at a wall. 

I’m not aware of any “how to write fiction” books specifically aimed at children. So, instead, I sat him down and attempted to walk him through the basics of what makes a story a story by having him come up with something on the spot.

Monday, 3 November 2014

What Is Your Story Missing?

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Let’s say you’re familiar with most of the basic guidelines when it comes to writing fiction. You know none of these suggestions guarantees a good story, but you try to apply them as much as possible. Can’t hurt right?

So you have a sympathetic main character with a clear goal, obstacles in the way, high stakes, an action-packed opening, a minimum of adverbs, active characters and you keep it all moving at a breakneck pace.

But when you show this tightly constructed thrill-ride to people whose judgement you trust, you don’t get the reaction you were hoping for. They don’t hate it, in fact they have lots of nice things to say about it, but it just doesn’t grab them.

They like the genre, have no problem understanding what happens and why, and certainly there are bestselling books out there with similar premises and characters so this sort of story definitely can work, and yet... it just doesn’t.

What is the missing ingredient? And what’s the best way to make sure it isn’t missing from your story?

Monday, 27 October 2014

Romancing the Reader

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If you write a book what you would like is for the reader to fallen hopelessly in love with your characters and their adventures. Ideally they should be smitten the moment they read the title or catch a glimpse of the book cover.

As a reader, this has probably happened to you at some point. The thing you’re looking for and the thing you find intersect in a wonderful manner and you feel like the universe is tilting in your direction. Hurray!

However, forcing someone to fall in love at first sight is as impossible with books as it is in real life. It happens when it happens and, unless you’re a master hypnotist with no scruples, beyond the control of mere mortals.

But a love affair doesn’t always require an aligning of the stars and planets. Sometimes people take a little time to come around, sometimes they rush in and regret it later. And our relationships with books are no different.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Do Spoilers Spoil Stories?

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No one likes the surprise to be ruined, whether it’s a book, a movie or a birthday present. Even if the reveal isn’t all that great it’s still annoying if someone blurts it out before you get to see for yourself.

But the truth is finding the solution to the puzzle isn’t what makes a story work. The identity of the murderer isn’t the reason you feel satisfied when you turn the last page. Discovering the fate of the lovers isn’t going to transform a terrible book into a worthwhile one.

We often reread books and rewatch movies and enjoy them knowing full well what’s going to happen. In fact we often know how a story is going to end even the first time round. When you read book four of a seventeen book series, exactly how much danger do you think the hero can get into, seeing as he has at least another 13 adventures to endure?

But isn’t “what happens next?’ the driving force behind getting the reader to turn pages? And if it isn’t, why do spoilers annoy us so much when we can happily revisit stories for the umpteenth time? 

Monday, 13 October 2014

The Problems of First Person Narrative

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There are many articles about which is better when writing fiction, 1st or 3rd person. And most of the time they end up making quite generic points and then put the decision back in the hands of the writer without any real reason to choose one over the other.

The two main points tend to be: 1) Both can be made to work if handled appropriately (which, frankly, could be said about anything) and 2) 1st is trickier to get right than 3rd

Which is true, yet most first time writers are drawn to 1st person, while the majority of published books are written in 3rd. So why is it trickier to writer in first person? And how can you overcome these difficulties?

Monday, 6 October 2014

Different Rules for Different Writers

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Readers do not treat all writers the same. This may seem obvious but a reader does not approach the latest best-seller from a well-known author with the same mind-set as they would a writer who has no track record. This means well-known authors tend not to be held to the same standards as someone trying to get people to read novel number one.

Not that those standards are necessarily better or worse, they’re just not the same.

However, much of what we think of as good writing and good storytelling comes from the books we read. And most of these books are from the established authors we all know and admire.

But if they can write in a way that less experienced writers might not be able to get away with, is it worth using these authors as role models? And exactly what, if anything, can we learn from them?

Monday, 29 September 2014

Story Structure: Pity, Fear, Catharsis

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More than 2000 years ago Aristotle deconstructed drama in his Poetics. I only just came across it (well, the abridged version), but better late than never.

His ideas on what makes a good story boil down to pity, fear and catharsis, which more or less constitutes beginning, middle and end.

Greek notions of theatre back in the day weren’t exactly varied (I believe they only had three television stations—primitive times) but I think his core ideas still hold true today.

Monday, 22 September 2014

How to Unstuck a Story

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At some point we have all reached some kind of impasse when writing a story. It might be a specific problem the character finds himself facing which you can’t figure out how to resolve, or it could be a more general structural issue and you’re not sure what should happen next.

Both of these types of problems can be sorted out with a little patience and a moment of inspiration. You think and think and think and then the answer comes to you. Usually. Sometimes, however, the answer does not come. Everything you come up with seems not quite right.

When this happens you should remember two things. First, no matter how unsolvable your problem may seem your brain has the capacity to solve it. You know this from experience, from all the times you’ve been in this position before (whether in writing or in real life) and you have that eureka moment and you know exactly what to do.

And secondly, just because your brain can give you the answer doesn’t mean it will. It’s one of those inexplicable evolutionary traits that don’t really makes sense. Sometimes your brain just doesn’t want to help you and needs to be poked with a stick. Well, here are some sticks to give it a little push in the right direction.
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