The eleventh episode of my Bailey’s Writing Tips audio podcast was released on 1st November 2010 and the content has never been released other than website links (on my website www.morgenbailey.com) so I hope you find this information useful. In the first ten episodes (see earlier blog posts), I covered ‘show not tell’, the five senses, repetition, points of view, tenses, dialogue, characters, crime, poetry, short stories, novels, writing for children and scriptwriting. This episode talked about allsorts, starting with the following hints and tips:
- A strong location is pivotal to the story. A reader has got to be able to imagine the scene, although a strong location with weak characters doesn’t work. A balance of location, plot and character makes a balanced story, especially for a longer story, novella or novel. If you get a chance to have a holiday, whether it be a mini-break in the UK or overseas, make some notes of the area you’re staying in. You never know when you’ll get the opportunity to set your scene or book there and unless you’re able to go back again, you can use your experiences well. A lot of authors write about where they live. For instance, English author Lee Child moved to New York where his Jack Reacher books are based, Kate Atkinson’s first book was based in York (where she grew up) and Edinburgh (where she lives now). Ian Rankin also writes about Edinburgh, as he lives there…as do Alexander McCall Smith and JK Rowling!
- Do be negative! Every now and then it’s refreshing to read some negatives. For example, an excerpt from Lee Child’s novel ‘Nothing to lose’ reads: “and there was nothing in his pockets except paper money, an expired passport, an ATM card, a folding foot brush…there was nothing waiting for him anywhere else, no storage unit in a distant city, nothing stashed with friends, he owned the things in his pockets, the clothes on his back and the shoes on his feet…”. It gives a great idea of the simple life that this character leads who literally has…nothing to lose! I took an art class some years ago and one task was to draw a chair but the difference was that the shape of the chair had to remain undrawn, i.e. the area around and between the edges of the chair had to be shaded, leaving the figure of the chair the original colour of the paper. It was an interesting exercise.
- Lists are good – a short, sharp summary of what someone sees, is or has, can work but take care not to make it sound like a shopping list. In the same vein as short sentences, a paragraph such as “Three days and three ounces of cut Old Holborn later, there were thirty empty case files and one splitting at the seams. Two hundred pages of what was known about the crimes and, in Smith’s thick, deliberate writing, one page of what was not known.” Works. Though they’re long sentences the numbering of items and commas makes it read quicker. Taking an excerpt from Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, a wonderful description of Scrooge, “he was a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, covetous, clutching old sinner”. OK so probably overkill, but it emphasises his character.
- Short sharp sentences also keep the reader’s attention. ‘The dagger felt warm as Jack pulled it from the body’ works better than ‘Jack entered the room and looked around, noticing the two empty coffee cups on the sideboard, one with bright red lipstick. The room was quiet other than a clock ticking in the corner. Jack looked at it, reading the time as quarter to two. He felt cold and saw the curtain lifting slightly in the late summer breeze. As his gaze dropped, he noticed the body’. It’s good to set a scene so the reader can imagine where Jack is but with the original sentence you immediately know that there’s a body, that it’s recently been stabbed (as the dagger is still warm) and that our character is called Jack. A story should make the reader ask questions. Who stabbed the victim and why is Jack removing the knife. Is he allowed to? Is there anyone else in the room etc. There’s no harm in then setting the scene but there does need to be action first thing, to allow the reader to keep this at the back of his/her mind while the scene is being set.
- If your story doesn’t seem to be working in past tense then change it. Present tense gives a sense of urgency. Alternatively change the point of view (pov) – if a story isn’t working from one person’s point of view, try it from another character’s or from first person pov to third person.
- Apart from the ending, the beginning hook is the most important part of a story. As mentioned before, if the reader isn’t drawn in they get easily bored and if bored for too long, they may give up completely. So, having an initial hook is vital. If your beginning is too descriptive and takes the reader gently into the story (OK if you’re writing for People’s Friend!), try taking half or all of it out and starting with the action. You can then drip-feed scenery back in or find somewhere where your paragraph is better suited. Chekov advised to throw out the first three pages (or first three paragraphs for a short story). “Often we spend so much time (and word count) on setting the scene that the real action doesn’t start until page 3, paragraph 3 (or a good way in!) so start where the action starts”.
- Endings can be closure or an open ending leaves the reader to imagine the ending (or make their own), but all questions must be answered or the reader will be left wanting…a fine line that a good story satisfies! Don’t worry about killing off a hero. The film STRANGER THAN FICTION (one of my favourites) tries to.
- Back in podcast episode 3 (see earlier post), I mentioned about a 1965 encyclopaedia listing 350 alternatives to ‘said’. Dennis from Lings, England, has said he’s had trouble finding alternatives to ‘was’ and ‘were’. While alternatives exist in any thesaurus, try turning the sentence around. For instance, instead of saying ‘there were thousands of crows in the field’ try ‘thousands of crows flooded the field’. ‘Was’ and ‘were’ stem from the verb ‘to be’ and Microsoft Word’s thesaurus gives alternatives as exist, live, be alive, subsist, survive, be there, be present, be real, be situated, be located, remain, stay, take place, happen, occur, transpire, come about, befall, ensue, and come to pass…so if using any of those work better than rearranging the sentence, then give that a go.
www.writecompetition.co.uk/story.htm lists the following motivational hints:
- A story can be anything your imagination decides: mystery, comedy, love, escape, thrills, portray, betray, shock, farce, real life, fantasy, adventure, simplicity…and a hundred more.
- A story is a point of view.
- A story can span a thousand years, a lifetime, a day, or just a moment.
- Start in the future and end in the past?
- Live in others’ shoes for a while. Describe what cannot be seen.
- A story can take you on a journey of the emotions.
- A story can be ‘what if?’ (I’ve mentioned this before).
- Look around, there’s a story in everything you see.
- In your story you can be any creature under the sun.
- Nothing is improbable, given the right circumstances.
- Let your imagination go, and just be true to yourself.
Failing all the above…unless you are working to a deadline, put your story in a drawer for a week, a fortnight or a month. Move on to something else (new or ongoing) so you are completely distracted and see how you feel about it when you go back to it. Leaving it there for long enough to forget the problem then re-reading it, will hopefully let you read it with fresh eyes and see what the problem was. Stephen King says it then appears as if someone else wrote it. Unless you’re really not enjoying writing (and hopefully that’s not the case or you wouldn’t be reading this), don’t give up! Take a break if you need to but not for too long, a week at most, then try again!
- Get a second opinion. By having someone else read your story they will, hopefully catch any bad grammar or punctuation or notice if the story flows or not and more importantly, whether it makes sense or not! You know what you’re trying to portray but will they? Ideally ask people with writing or perhaps editing experience as they are more likely to be honest than friends or family who would be inclined to say it’s perfect as it is. Best to be cruel-to-be kind, editors/agents will be!
- Another good test is to read your work, or have your work read, out loud. Gustav Flaubert used to invite acquaintances to marathon sessions, which would reveal problems and see if the audience is bored. If work sounds flat, it will show. Simply moving sentences around may help.
- Be careful of your spell-checker. While it’s a wonderful tool, be aware that if you write ‘dare’ instead of ‘dear’ your spell-checker (errors are usually underlined in red) won’t pick up on it, although your grammar checker should (usually green underlining).
- A great way of proof-reading is to read the piece backwards. Of course it won’t make sense but it’s very easy to miss something because you know what you meant to put but perhaps didn’t!
- Try and write something each day. Even if it’s just a few notes, a title, some character’s characteristics or (as an interviewee on a podcast once said) even a shopping list…at least you’re writing! If you don’t feel inspired, then read for half an hour a day. Hopefully just by reading someone else’s work, an idea for something of your own will come out of it. Set yourself a realistic target: 300 words a day is 3,000 words in 10 days, 9,000 in a month – which is a very healthy novel over a year!
- One of the best (and hardest) pieces of advice is to switch your TV off. Most people find it difficult to read or write with the TV on so once Eastenders or CSI have finished, switch off (or record the programme for later) and read or write something. If you have a set time to read then it’s easier to be disciplined. If you don’t have time to read but have a tape or CD player in the kitchen, listen to an audiobook. And/or if you have a radio, listen to plays, stories or reviews on Radio 4 is probably the best well-known in the UK. You could listen to them while you do the washing up or the ironing!
- Finally, a ‘Story Plan’ is a very useful tool for checking you’ve got everything (see below). However much you plan though, you may well find that as you write the story changes as you go along but it’s certainly a useful starting point – especially if you’re like me and I can’t keep everything in my head.