Writing 101 (tips)
At 5am on Wednesday 24th October 2012, I woke up to a message from my Facebook friend Scott Goodman (he’s a night-shifter) saying, “Hello again Morgen. Been listening to some of your podcasts on tips for new writers, really interesting about the common mistakes that are made. Just to throw an idea at you have you thought about a section on your blog for, so to speak “writing 101″, how to teach the complete idiot to put pen to paper (yes me lol)”. I’ve met Scott (at the booQfest 2012) and know he is far from an “idiot”. I replied what a good idea it was and that “idiots” were only beginners who hadn’t learned yet… so, hence this page. Thank you, Scott!
I’ll build it up with lots of hints and tips but if there’s anything in particular you’d like to know then leave a comment at the bottom (and I have an Ask Me facility). There’s also a (Roald Dahl) shed load of hints and tips on the Podcast – mixed episodes page.
I shall start you with my writing essentials below, but as they build I shall probably create sub-pages under topics…
American science-fiction novelist Jerry Pournell is reported to have said “I think it takes about a million words to make a writer. I mean that you’re going to throw away.” I started writing for fun seven years ago and more seriously four years ago and with three NaNoWriMo novels, one-and-a-half novels in between, three NaNoWriMo story collections (a cheat on doing a novel November 2011 but I still made the 50,000-word minimum), part of a script, some poetry and loads of short stories under my belt, including one and a bit 31-story collections for Story A Day May, I’m pretty sure I’ve reached that target. How much of them I’ve thrown away I couldn’t tell you but it’s only a fraction, and if like me, you’ve dabbled before really knuckling down, you’ll feel better for it. It’s all about practice. If someone sat you in front of a piano, would they expect you to play a concerto? Would you expect that of yourself?
In my experience too many novice writers worry about finding their ‘voice’ and understanding their ‘craft’ early on. It can be a long journey, perhaps not as long as a million words, but providing you write regularly (daily is the ideal but when does life afford that luxury, although 300 words equates to 100,000 words a year so a great incentive) you’ll get there… and here are a few basics to put in your suitcase:
- Accents – less is more; indicate where someone’s from but don’t have their entire speech in that accent as you’ll alienate readers who don’t know that part of the country / world. I talk more about accents on http://morgenbailey.freeforums.org/putting-journal-entries-in-a-book-t81.html.
- Adverbs – Stephen King’s writing guide / autobiography ‘On writing’ (link on Writing-related) has been the most suggested book in the interviews I’ve conducted. Amongst other things he’s notoriously against adverbs (‘ly’) and fair enough – in ‘completely dead’ you wouldn’t need the ‘completely’ because dead says it all, and a character doesn’t need to be ‘sighing wearily’ because the sighing tells us enough, but adverbs are necessary in the right context. Again it’s all about clarification and fine-tuning.
- Beginnings – this was discussed on my forum (thread: Problems with Introductions), where I say, “Beginnings should invariably start with the action. Avoid info. dumps where you giving so much to the reader that their brain hurts especially where it’s irrelevant – do they need to know where the main character (protagonist) went to school? Sure, if it’s relevant and if they’re still there, or they’re reflecting back on it for a reason. That said, when you’re writing a first draft it doesn’t really matter how you start. It’s often said that an author can either delete (or better still cut / paste into another document) the first two chapters because the action starts in the third. If the first two chapters are important they can be slotted in later. Sure, we need to know who our protagonist is, the dilemma they’re facing, an indication of setting and another character fairly soon as they’re bound to have an interaction with someone else at some stage and it’s often another character (the antagonist) that causes our protagonist the problem”.
- Colons – there’s often confusion between a colon and semi-colon. Generally if you’re going to list something use a colon, if you’re going to enhance or explain something you use a semi-colon.
- Commas – I think we generally all know when to use full stops and commas. If you pause for breath you’ll probably need a comma. If you come to the end of a sentence use a full stop. They should be used before a ‘but’. If you read your work out loud, it’ll be more obvious where they’re needed. There’s a discussion about grammar and punctuation on my forum.
- Direct vs indirect action – Try and make your writing as direct as you can. What do I mean by that? Have the character (Ted) throw the ball rather than say “The ball was thrown by Ted”. Also instead of saying “Ted saw the train speeding towards the car”, having the train speeding towards the car means you’re closer to the action.
- Dialogue tags – it’s recommended that you can only go up to six pieces of dialogue (between no more than two people) without attributing it to someone. And there’s nothing wrong with ‘said’. Don’t be tempted to look at your thesaurus and say ‘Andy postulated’. You could also avoid tags by another character saying “Oh Andy, that’s…” or in the description; ‘Andy laughed. “That’s…”. Another practice for dialogue (especially if you need to distinguish between your characters) is to write a section, or even a whole piece of flash fiction, of just dialogue; no ‘he said’ / ‘she said’ but purely what they are saying. If you can write it, leave it for at least two weeks and then read the whole piece and know who’s saying what then that may help the rest of your writing.
- Elipses – these are the … dots which always come in threes. If you use a computer package such as Word you’ll probably find it automatically changes the three individual dots to a set of three dots (so your cursor would only move one space instead of three when you go over them).
- Endings – endings are just as important, if not more so than beginnings. They have to tie up all the loose ends – unless you’re writing a series where questions will be answered in later books, you need to make sure that any queries the reader may have had about the plot through the book are answered by the end. They also need to leave the reader with some emotion; relief, pleasure, at the very least satisfaction. How many times have you thrown down a book (a paper one rather than electronic, hopefully) because you’d been disappointed by the ending. Not only have you invested money in what you’ve just read but also several hours of your time. Of course if the beginning and middle weren’t good enough to keep you motivated you may not have reached the end but if they were then it’s even more important to reward the reader for making it thus far. It wasn’t all a dream (thank you, Bobby Ewing) or the antagonist a figment of the protagonist’s imagination (aka Stephen King’s Secret Window). Everything has to make sense, to the point where the reader says, “Oh yes, of course!” or they go back looking for the clues and find them.
- Exclamation marks and capitals – try to avoid these wherever you can because the reader will think that you’re shouting at them. Obviously if your characters shouts ‘stop’ then you’d likely use an exclamation mark (and you wouldn’t need to say ‘he shouted’ because we know he did from what he said).
- Metaphors and similes – these are very similar and it’s not surprising that people get confused. Similes most common and are ‘as slow as’ or ‘like a’ so something’s being compared as something else (that it’s similar too). A metaphor is more direct; for example, ‘he was a mountain of a man’, so although the man is being compared to a mountain, the narrator is saying he is one.
- Names – Character names are important as we often get a sense of their personality by what they’re called. A Mavis is likely to be older than a Britney and would, usually, act differently. Avoid having names starting with the same letter; if you have a Todd talking to a Ted, the reader can easily get confused. Bill and Ted would be fine and as we know, they had a wonderful time back in the late 1980s.
- Numbers – there’s a difference of opinion as to using numbers in a word or number form; some say 1-9 should be in full (i.e. one, two… nine) but others say up to / including 99 should be in number form. I think it looks better (unless a date, bus number etc) as a word regardless of the number.
- Points of view – most people think of there just being two points of view: first (I/we) and third (he/she/they) but there’s also second person (you). Also see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narrative_mode. There’s a discussion about point of view on http://morgenbailey.freeforums.org/post295.html#p295.
- Repetition – I’m a big fan of repetition… of not doing it. Unless it’s ‘the’, ‘and’ etc, a word should only be repeated if the second instance is to emphasise or clarify the first. For example, ‘Andy sat in the car. He beeped the horn of the car.’ You don’t need ‘of the car’ because we already know he’s in the car. If you said ‘Andy sat in the car. He beeped the horn and the car shook’ that would be fine because you’re clarifying that it’s the car and not the horn (because it’s the last object you mentioned) that’s shaking.
- Show & tell – Probably the most used phrase when teaching writing is ‘show don’t tell’. If you have a character who is angry for some reason, saying ‘Andy was angry’ is a classic example of ‘tell’. Simply put, you’re not showing us how. If you wrote ‘Andy slammed his fist onto the table’ you are.
- Speech marks vs inverted commas – I’m either old school or just plain English but to me, speech marks (” “) are for speech and inverted commas (‘ ‘) for names, speech within speech marks etc. Either way, you would use one for dialogue and the other for pretty much everything else. As long as you’re consistent you can use either. Remember though that the punctuation in dialogue is different, e.g. “It wasn’t the only one,” he said, scratching his head. The comma there goes inside the speech marks whereas if you use them as a name: My latest book, ‘The Serial Dater’s Shopping List’, is a chick lit. the comma would go outside because it’s not dialogue. I often get mixed up with dialogue punctuation as it doesn’t follow ‘normal’ rules so have a look in any book and you should be able to see an example of what you’re looking for.
- Split infinitives – wherever possible try not to split your infinitives. In other words where you have a verb like ‘to dig out’ try and have ‘He dug out the address book’ rather than ‘He dug the address book out’. It’s only a little thing but it usually sounds cleaner. Of course there are instances where it’s not possible to do that, e.g. He threw the glove down on to the table. The verb is to throw down but you wouldn’t say ‘He threw down the glove on to the table’. You could but it doesn’t sound quite right.
- Tenses – in theory this is easy, with ‘he went’ as past, ‘he goes’ as present and ‘he will go’ as future but you may have a section where you’re looking back. Generally if you’re writing in the past tense anyway and are reflecting just use the past perfect, ‘had been’ (or equivalent) for a couple of sentences so the reader knows it’s previous to the story then slip back into simple past tense or it’ll become heavy reading. You can then start a new paragraph / section break to return to the original timing.
- Was vs were – I recently reviewed a short story by James Eddy and he had a sentence of ‘The room was fairly small and the walls were painted terracotta…’ (it goes on to give some lovely description). Although you have ‘was’ and ‘were’, you can lose the ‘were’. You may not think it makes sense but if you read the whole piece it does, in my honest opinion, make the writing tighter.
- Writer’s block – If you’re having trouble with a passage move on or leave it and return later with ‘fresh eyes’.
- Every word has to count – does it move the story along or tell us about your characters? If not, the chances are it can be chopped. Cate Artios has a great editing checklist.
- Spelling – do check your spelling. A spell-checker (the red squiggly lines in Word) and grammar check (green lines) will only go so far. Reading aloud (I mention that again below) will help with the grammar. Most common mistakes include there (a place), their (belonging to them) and they’re (they are) – easily done but something that point you out to a judge or editor for the wrong reason.
- Take out the detail – although every scene needs some detail, you don’t have to have someone taking every step from the bathroom or kitchen to the bedroom. This is where you can leave a paragraph space and start the next scene, like you would in a script (although the format of that is more complex, I wrote one for now defunct Script Frenzy 2010). And don’t ‘pad’. If your book is too short don’t add in content that you’ve already said elsewhere (and certainly if you’re tempted to add a ‘tell’ when you’ve already ‘shown’ us what’s happening). These days with eBooks, the length of the book doesn’t matter as long as it’s good and you’ve not left anything important out (e.g. tying up all the loose ends by the final page). The best way to add content is by adding another character and / or dilemma. Rita Kuehn gives some great advice on adding here.
- UK vs US – to colour or color? when is a bonnet a hood? In theory it depends on who you are aiming your piece at. If it’s going to be published in a US magazine then you’d generally go with US (ditto UK for UK) but if you’re character is American they’re going to call a bonnet a hood. My chick lit novel is set in Northampton, England and Izzy is from the UK so everything is British English. As long as the reader can understand and everything is realistic (accents, phrases etc) then go with whatever works (but do check your facts if you’re outside your postal or comfort zone!).
- Re-writing is also mentioned in http://morgenbailey.freeforums.org/hitting-a-wall-total-rewrite-or-editing-t82.html.
- Justification – pick up a book of fiction (especially a recent one) and you’ll see that the first paragraph of any chapter is not indented but the rest are. This is fairly standard across the board.
- Paragraph spacing – some writers are tempted to leave a gap when they’re changing character speech or a different topic but you would just use a new line (no blank spaces). Generally you’d only use a new paragraph (with a blank line in between) when there has been a passage of time.
- Space bar – another kind of spacing: spaces between words. One. Old school (when I first started my secretarial training) was for two spaces but text these days is just separated by one space, even sentences.
- Italics – if you have a character thinking, you’d usually use italics. You can also use it for names such as a restaurant or book title.
BEFORE, DURING AND AFTER
- Read. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your genre or not (one of my Monday nighters writes amazing sci-fi but has never read a word of it) but reading will help you see how a story is structured and balanced between dialogue and description; short sentences speed the pace, long passages slow it down.
- Join a writing group, get your work critiqued. Read your work out loud. It’s amazing what you’ll pick up when you hear it outside your head.
- Subscribe to writing magazines, go to workshops, literary festivals. If you really want to write immerse yourself in all things literary.
- A bit of a wild card but do you ever want to include phone numbers in your fiction and put random numbers in the hope they’re not real? If so, Ofcom.org.uk states that in the UK 01632 (then usually six digits) isn’t used and in the U.S. the equivalent is 555 and http://home.earthlink.net/~mthyen lists a load used in the movies / on TV. Now you know.
- Perhaps most obviously is write. Even if you haven’t got much (or anything) to say, if you start putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, something will come out. Even if it’s appalling (a lot of my early writing was), you can’t edit a blank page.
There are many more examples I could give you (and I will put more on this page), but all you need to remember is that it’s not about clever words (because that ends up becoming ‘purple prose’) but just getting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard and having fun. When your characters take over (and they will) you’ll have the time of your life!
I also have a tip of the week (so that’s 52 tips!) in my 365-day Writer’s Block Workbook (Volume 1), just $0.99 (or it should be, the most it would be is $1.49).
Let me know if you have any specific queries. You can Ask Me or my email address is below.